We need to talk about meetings, says Louise Rodgers – but not for long

Louise Rodgers crop 2

Last week I got into an online dialogue with an ex-colleague. He is currently development director for a major regeneration project in Birmingham, one which will require the collaborative effort of many people who need to share the same vision and sense of purpose.

He was just returning from an important on-site tour and meeting aimed at convincing a range of stakeholders, from central and local government to funding organisations, of the project’s excitement and potential. My interest was piqued because in a short social media post he managed to communicate what a buzz it was to be there, in person, with all the people on whom the success of this project depends.

We got into an exchange, and he said how exciting it was to be having a face-to-face meeting. “It felt great. Invigorating,” he said. “The ability to see people’s reactions and watch the ‘tone’ of the room, noticing who was and who wasn’t paying attention.” And then, importantly: “It felt 10 times more productive than doing it on Teams. On Teams, the gravity of the ‘ask’ would not have been perceived in the same way. It was both exhilarating and exhausting.”

It got me thinking about something I am hearing a lot of in my coaching work. It has been a long old year and if we thought we had Zoom/Teams fatigue this time last year, we absolutely know we have now. Although most workplaces have, quite rightly, congratulated themselves on the smoothness of the transition to online working, what I am hearing is that to a large extent we have just attempted to replicate what would happen in the office and, rather than adapt the technology to suit how we work, we have allowed the technology to dominate and, quite literally, set the agenda.

Virtual diaries and meetings have taken over our lives and, even as we return to a hybrid or blended way of working, I think it is time to take action.

We can start by asking ‘why?’ more often. Why does it matter that you are there? Is there someone else from your team attending and, if so, do you both need to be present? Could what you are seeking to achieve by attending be achieved in another way? For example, by picking up the phone. If you have solid answers to these questions, then ‘green light’ the meeting. If not, spend your time on something more productive.

Secondly, scan the attendee list. You don’t need observers or extras. Everyone attending should have a good reason to be there, either because they are contributing or because they have something that needs to be communicated to everyone else in the room, virtual or otherwise. And do they need to be there all the time, or can they be there for ‘their’ agenda item?

I have coached several people who have told me that it is customary, nay expected, that some people in an online meeting will be ‘camera off’, while they deal with emails on another device. My mind just boggles at this. In a ‘real life’ meeting this would signify inattention, boredom, or just plain rudeness. Why do we tolerate it in the virtual working world where it just amplifies the disconnection

Thirdly, if there is no agenda, ask for one. A charity board I am on always has a closely timetabled agenda for trustee meetings. We know more or less exactly how long we will be discussing each item. Papers are circulated in advance and people are expected to have read them. This doesn’t seem to be happening much in our sector. Instead, online meetings are scheduled in place of a phone call or a quick chat with a colleague, and people often spend their day in back-to-back meetings with no time for focused work, yet alone a proper lunch break.

Which brings me to the big one. With people relinquishing control of their time to a virtual calendar, a 15-minute break between meetings should become mandatory. This needs to be agreed across teams, or workplaces, and adhered to. In my experience it is the back-to-back meeting culture during the pandemic that has caused the most frustration and stress. It leaves no time for breathing, thinking, eating, or even a comfort break.

I know we are in a transition stage (when are we not?) but it is not too late to protect ourselves and the people we work with by laying some ground rules for how we work going forward. The technology that has enabled so many businesses to run successfully over the last 18 months has gained the upper hand and needs to be checked.

It may not be possible to get the same thrill from an online meeting as my friend experienced as a result of his IRL (In Real Life) one in Birmingham, but we can strive towards it by making sure that every meeting we either call or attend, counts.