Wait! Is it just me or are meetings as bad as before?

 In Presence
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Before this all started, I observed that meetings were not all that great. They were ineffective, too frequent, and poorly run. Then there was the bad behavior exhibited by participants who talked too long, constantly interrupted others, and answered their email when they weren’t talking. And, if we look at the main complaints people have about meetings now, many of them are the same.

Of course, we also have some new challenges in virtual meetings. Turning on your camera used to be an option that few chose on conference calls, but as we crave the connection lost in isolation, we seem to want more face time in meetings. This brings up the fear of being compared to Jon Stewart or Kim Kardashian, or the possibility of others seeing spinach on your teeth after that quick salad you had between meetings. We suddenly feel a need to learn about lighting, cameras, and microphones. Another issue with virtual meetings is the technology itself; it takes time to learn how to use it, and if it works, it’s obsolete. Plus, webcams have all but disappeared. Finally, a big difference between virtual and in-person communication is that poor video and audio quality obscure emotional cues, the cues we need to confirm comprehension and degrees of consensus. It’s especially tricky to get the signals we need when all we see of our meeting companions is their ceiling fans spinning around.

There is no doubt we have things to learn about how to conduct meetings remotely and possibly influence the development of new technology.

(On my wish list is a modification of the break-out room making it a time-out room for those who can’t seem to be quiet and let others speak.) But more importantly, we might start with the basics and ask, “What makes a meeting good in the first place?” If we can answer that question, we may be able to improve future collaboration, whether in-person or remote.

Below are five components that I consider essential parts of a good meeting. There are probably more, but this seems like an excellent place to start.

  • Preparation: Thinking ahead will help set the stage for a better meeting experience for everyone. Consider who will be there, plan to involve them all and create a structure to accomplish the intention of the meeting. And this isn’t just for the leader. Participants can plan as well by thinking through ideas and planning to bring them to the group.
  • Intention: A good meeting has a clear purpose and a plan to get there. We are all too busy to waste our time with meeting just to have a meeting. A clear intention helps the planning as well as the progress of a meeting and is best when it is made known to all ahead of time. Intention is also a terrific tool to keep participants from wandering off track in discussions.
  • Connection: Meetings are always better when people feel connected. Business is about people not just processes and taking time to share common experience brings people closer together. As we share our home spaces in virtual meetings, people are noticing each other’s environments, commenting on them and learning about each other. We should always find room for a little small talk and storytelling when we convene.
  • Inquiry: A good meeting has the spirit of people wanting to learn from each other and creativity in solutions. In most meetings, encouraging questions rather than answers is more productive than coming in with a set of solutions. Inquiry encourages listening and creates an environment of openness, one where everyone has a voice, not just the few.
  • Opportunity to have an impact: Good meetings create meaningful output and a necessary call to action. They inspire people to do something that’s necessary, feel charged up to finish the report or otherwise meet the intention.

Everyone seems to be settling into a “new normal.” That new normal is making us more aware of the limitations of technology to solve the difficulties of isolation. As this happens, more and more people are offering online training to have great meetings using platforms like Zoom, WebEx, and Teams. These informational webinars are welcome now that we are over the shock of seeing ourselves on camera and realize that when we roll out of bed in our pj’s for that early morning call, we are going to be compared with the TV weatherman whether it’s fair or not. Those platforms have made it possible to continue our lives in ways unimaginable if this had happened even 20 years ago. But as we learn more about how to use the technology, let’s remember that technology is merely a tool that enables us to connect. It is not the connection itself.

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