Well Met — How to make meetings work.

June 9, 2022
6 min read
Photo by Pawel Chu on Unsplash
“When shall we three meet again?”
— William Shakespeare

To meet or not to meet, that is the question.

A less Shakespearean way of putting it: “I can’t believe I ****ing sat in traffic for this.” We have flipped the switch to remote work and flip it back and forth, muttering “hybrid.” With both moves, meetings are on the rise.

A quick scan of the internet reveals a litany of complaints.

I have: “too many meetings”; “meetings that could have been emails”; “more meetings about work instead of doing work.”  All that gives me “zoom fatigue.”

We “spend time commuting to the office for a meeting and find half the team is on zoom.”  And there’s a “lack of creativity and engagement in meetings.”

Each complaint contains a grain of truth.

But, as usual, it’s more about the “how” than the “what.” Whether you’re a “remote-first,” “hybrid,” or “stuck in the past, office-first” organization, fixing meetings — or even just improving them slightly — can make our work a little better.

Is there a collective noun for meetings?

Perhaps a flock, a muddle, or a murder (of meetings)?

Your move Merriam-Webster, because meetings aren’t solitary creatures. They flock and muddle together. There are too many, and it’s time to start weeding a few out. 

The meeting that could have been an email. 

Take a little more time, improve your writing skills, and put it in an email. If you can say it better than you can write it, use Loom or a Loom alternative.

Now let’s begin to prune the others.

It’s not Zoom fatigue; it’s too many meetings.

Grabbed from the headlines: “80% of US workers experiencing ‘Zoom fatigue:’ survey.”  Case in point, Pew Research, which found that “Among employed adults with a job that can be done from home and use video calling or online conferencing often, 26% are ‘worn out’ by the amount of time spent on video calls.”

Not so fast with the Zoom-shaming.

Not seen in headlines? “Employee comes home from work; reports being ‘really tired.’”

Zoom fatigue is real, but it’s not the same as meeting fatigue.

The chatter about Zoom fatigue misses something. It doesn’t separate the underlying problem — too many meetings; and too many back-to-back meetings.

Does everyone need to be there?

A meeting isn't a parade. If you're measuring your status by how many show up to your meetings, you have deeper problems.

Be kind to your attendees.

First, what is the meeting for? Are we there to make a decision? To brainstorm or create? Is it for tracking and status? To inform? Just answering the question is a start. It helps you understand if there should be a meeting. You realize who needs to be there. And there’s an added advantage.

You can then let people know why you’re having the meeting.

Invite required attendees as well as optional attendees. Plan the meeting time around the required attendees. If you’re optional, don’t be offended, be honored. This is a meeting planned by someone that respects your time.

Is it a meeting to do work or a meeting about work?

Most meetings are to coordinate work, not to do work. Bizarre.

According to Asana, we spend 58% of our day coordinating work, not doing it. Pick out the standing meetings on your calendar, and mark them in red. These are meetings that can give you precious time back.

Decide who needs to be there. Make sure the meeting has a tight focus. Does it need to be weekly, or can you meet every two weeks? Tighten up the agenda. Put anything that doesn’t warrant discussion in an email or dashboard. 

Your meetings (might still) suck.

David Shim, Co-Founder, and CEO of Read AI, assesses the state of virtual meetings. “1 in 5 suck.” Meaning those meetings aren’t engaging, useful, or informative

How do you remove the suck?

Make your meetings shorter. According to Read data, meetings get worse when they are over 50 minutes, with rapidly dropping engagement scores.

Standing meetings need a standard end to the agenda.

At fassforward, we have two lines, "🤔 anything else?" (The emoji is included). And "⏱️ In a world where you can be anything, be the person that ends the meeting early." (And yes, that's in bold at the bottom of the agenda).

It’s time to change the meeting mix.

Should we not do more work and less coordination?

Book a meeting with yourself. This is focus time for you to get work done. If you think better with others, and collaborate, add one, maybe two people to the meeting. Four, in this case, is a crowd.

Decrease the number of meetings to organize the work.

Use meetings to increase social connection.  I am not advocating for more Zoom “happy hours.” Thankfully, that fad has been and gone, like Troll Dolls and Tamagotchis. But, if you are leading a meeting, be aware of the value of small talk — the idle, non-work-related banter that establishes social connection and builds trust in the team.

But what if it really is Zoom fatigue?

In a peer-reviewed study, Stanford researchers examined actual Zoom fatigue. They found four underlying causes: excessive close-up eye contact, mirror fatigue, long periods of immobility, and the strain of trying to interpret nonverbal cues.

For each cause, there is a cure.

Excessive close-up eye contact; imagine standing in a crowded elevator, your eyes gazing down. Looking directly at someone you don’t know that well is too intense. We wouldn't get that close.  With Zoom, it can feel like we are staring a little too intensely into someone’s eyes.

The cure: change Zoom's settings and window size so that others' faces seem sufficiently 'far enough’ away to you.

Some of us could stare in a mirror all day. Some of us, not so much. If you don’t like how your face looks, you’re more prone to ‘mirror fatigue.’ Staring at your face all day long on Zoom is psychologically exhausting.

There is a cure: Once you are happy that your camera is working and others can see you, use the "hide self-view" button to avoid looking in the mirror.

Immobility — not: "I have no bandwidth, my video is frozen," but "I am sat, immobile, frozen in place for hours."

The cure for this one is easy. Repeat after me, people. “Schedule shorter meetings!” and “move around between meetings!” If your oppressive schedulers won't do that, feel free to switch the video off for five minutes and walk around.

The last cause of zoom fatigue comes from the strain of interpreting non-verbal cues. It’s simply easier, in person, to pick up the non-verbal “my turn” to talk signal. 

There are a few simple tricks for figuring out “my turn” to talk on zoom.

If you are running the meeting, help people figure out when to speak — especially if some on your team have trouble with the non-verbal cues or are under-participating.

"Pass the baton." 

In a report out or check-in, the current speaker picks the next speaker when finished. This way, everyone knows they have their 'turn' and waits for the baton. In a small group meeting, the added advantage is that you have to pay attention, as you could be up next, and have to remember who has spoken.

“Chat the order.”

You have discussed a topic; now you want to poll people’s opinions. Type in the chat window the names of who goes first, next, etc., in the chat window of the meeting.

“Use the raise hand function.”

See the little hand icon somewhere in your video menu? Its location varies depending on which brand of video conferencing software you use. Using it can feel awkward at first. But if you demonstrate raising the hand and working to that order, the team will catch on.

What doesn't work: Saying that we will go along the grid. The way pretty much all video conferencing software works, the grid of faces you are looking at is not the same grid anyone else sees. Meaning, that the faces are the same, but the order is different, so you can't use the order of the grid as an organizing function to show who is up next.

Shall we have a meeting about this to go through it?

Gavin McMahon is a founder and Chief Content Officer for fassforward consulting group. He leads Learning Design and Product development across fassforward’s range of services. This crosses diverse topics, including Leadership, Culture, Decision-making, Information design, Storytelling, and Customer Experience. He is also a contributor to Forbes Business Council.

Eugene Yoon is a graphic designer and illustrator at fassforward. She is a crafter of Visual Logic. Eugene is multifaceted and works on various types of projects, including but not limited to product design, UX and web design, data visualization, print design, advertising, and presentation design.

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