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Better Meetings Are Possible. Here's How

Chelsea Conrad

Meetings are probably the biggest punching bag and punchline in the world of office jobs. Scads of articles have been written about their overpreponderance and ineffectiveness. But what happens when offices across the world shut down and millions of employees disperse to work from home? For many people in 2020, the answer was even more meetings and worse ones, riddled with new distractions and technical hurdles.

Let's resolve to meet better in 2021.

These tips were compiled by NPR staffers in an effort to make our lives better while working from home. Now we're sharing them with you.

Meeting is never the goal.

Chelsea Conrad / NPR

Try to identify a clear objective for bringing people together. If you can't, there shouldn't be a meeting.

Ask yourself the following questions:

  • What problem am I trying to solve?
  • What outcome do I hope to achieve by bringing this topic in front of a group?
  • Who needs to be there to accomplish this objective? (Even for recurring meetings, this may not be the same people every time!)
  • Remember, the purpose of your meeting is to achieve a goal. The meeting itself is not the goal.

    Consider the alternatives.

    Meetings are just one of the tools in your toolbox. Even when your objective is clear, you should consider whether a live gathering is going to be your most effective option. There are many other ways to get things done.

    Asynchronous collaboration offers more flexibility with everyone's time and schedules. A little more flexibility and time can mean more runway for people to shape and articulate their best ideas.

    Converse, collaborate and post updates in a shared Slack channel. You can still put a deadline on the period for feedback and collaboration, but you don't have to limit work to the narrower time frames that live meetings require.

    Brainstorm and edit in a shared doc. Anyone who has attempted wordsmithing during a live meeting knows it's generally not the best. Circulate a shared doc, and communicate expectations and deadlines to the people you want to join in on editing or commenting on the work.

    Send an email. Must-see information should be communicated in writing. If collaboration or live Q&A and discussion aren't crucial, what you have is an update, not a meeting. Just email people with what you need them to know.

    Ask for quick individual check-ins. If all you need is a progress update, it doesn't have to be a big production. A DM or a phone call might be all that's required.

    If you gotta meet, you gotta plan.

    Chelsea Conrad / NPR

    Meetings aren't inherently bad. Poorly planned and executed meetings are bad. Even when it feels like there's no time, advance planning is essential.

    Know why you're meeting. Identify specific aims, and give participants a concrete reason for devoting time out of their day. Use goal-oriented language (e.g., determine, decide, approve, define). Avoid softer, squishier words like "discuss." Note for attendees: If you're unsure what the purpose of a meeting is or why you've been asked to join, don't be afraid to ask! You'll be doing a service to yourself and everyone else who is invited.

    Outline what you plan to accomplish. Hosts should distribute an agenda and any helpful reading materials in advance. Attendees should arrive having read them.

    Value everyone's time. Try imagining a dollar sign next to the name of each person on your invite list. Think of it as a real cost (because it is!), and then consider whether you're investing people's time wisely. Harvard Business Review built a meeting cost calculatorif you want to get literal with this.

    Create role clarity. Once you've determined who needs to meet and why, communicating those roles and responsibilities will help things run smoothly.

    The agenda is your friend.

    If you organize meetings and aren't already in the habit of creating agendas, let this be your most important takeaway. Circulating the agenda a day ahead of time is ideal, but even taking the time to write one out an hour in advance greatly increases your odds of having an effective meeting.

  • Create a summary list of agenda items. 
  • For each item on the agenda, indicate a length of time and who will be leading the discussion (make sure to notify presenters in advance so they can prepare).
  • Allocate time in the agenda to clarify action items and assign them to people — every problem raised or next step needs an owner and a deadline!
  • If the meeting is recurring, develop a template. You can edit the format as needed, but you shouldn't need to start from scratch each time.
  • Be a good host.

    Chelsea Conrad / NPR

    Advance planning goes a long way, but you need hosting skills to carry it all across the finish line.

    Remember, the host sets the tone. Speak calmly, and pause between topics so others feel comfortable asking questions or commenting. Guide people through the conversation, be mindful of the clock and don't forget to capture those next steps and action items!

    Be inclusive. The constraints of videoconferencing can make equal, open participation even more difficult. Pay attention when others are trying to speak and call on them. Be intentional about including diverse perspectives and help amplify them. Record meetings and/or share notes for those who are unable to attend. And don't default to women and people in more junior roles for note-taking. For your recurring meetings, consider rotating responsibilities.

    Honor the "passing period." Try to keep meetings to either 25 or 50 minutes. Even when we're not rushing from one conference room to the next, we still need a moment to pause.

    Be in the meeting.

    Here's some basic etiquette for remote meeting attendees:

  • Use your camera when possible. 
  • Turn your camera and microphone off if you are disrupted and need to turn your attention to something happening at your home.
  • Keep yourself muted except when speaking, and unmute your microphone to signal when you want to speak.
  • Use headphones with a microphone to improve audio quality if you can.
  • Avoid multitasking and be present.
  • The work you put in ahead of a meeting is every bit as important as anything that happens once it begins. A little thoughtfulness and planning will make meetings easier on yourself, and your colleagues.

    We'd love to hear from you. Leave us a voicemail at 202-216-9823, or email us at [email protected].

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    Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

    Angie Hamilton-Lowe
    Erin Register
    Justin Lucas
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