Meetings. Can’t get enough of ‘em. Like you can’t get enough of acid reflux and toothaches.
Sarcasm aside, you know that meetings are part of your workplace reality.
They just are.
And many studies show that, on average, employees spend nearly 60% of their day on work coordination instead of focusing on their skilled, strategic jobs. And a quarter of those say they have too many meetings and that they place a drain on productivity.
But let’s get real. Even if your organization is working on the issue, meetings aren’t going to disappear completely.
The question is—and always should have been, really—how can we improve the quality of our meetings while reducing their frequency? And that question seems even more urgent today. An increasing number of our meetings are now “hybrid”—a combination of face-to-face interaction and remote presence.
For tips on how to navigate this new collaboration landscape, we turn to Karin Reed and Joseph Allen, authors of Suddenly Hybrid: Managing the Modern Meeting. They offer ideas you can put to immediate use.
Rodger Dean Duncan: Some people claim that, with hybrid meetings, participants in the same room have an advantage over team members who participate remotely. What does your research say about that?
Karin Reed: What they are referring to is in-room bias, where those who share the same physical space have a participation advantage without policies in place to empower those who are attending a meeting remotely.
In a hybrid meeting, it’s all about ensuring “presence for all” where everyone can be seen and heard, regardless of their location. In the physical meeting room, “presence” is a given. When someone is joining virtually, they are limited by the technology that allows for them to present. For example, every conference room that hosts hybrid meetings needs to be equipped with large monitors so everyone can easily see the faces of those attending remotely. (A laptop screen perched at the end of a conference room is not adequate.)
Duncan: What can leaders do to help “level the playing field” for all participants in hybrid meetings?
Joseph Allen: First, let remotes speak first. That means, instead of introducing a topic and then turning to someone in the room, you turn to the screen and invite folks there to chime in.
Second, establish a turn-taking policy so everyone knows how to get into the conversation queue. Otherwise, those in the physical meeting room will dominate the dialogue and virtual attendees will find it hard to get a word in edgewise. Set a ground rule that everyone gets to participate before moving on with the agenda and normalize the “I don’t have anything to add” response.
Third, as the leader, rotate between being in-person and being remote. Not only does leading from the remote side of the table remind you of what it feels like to participate in a meeting remotely, but it also sends a strong signal to the team as a whole: the value of your participation is not predicated on your location.
Duncan: In terms of workable ground rules for hybrid meetings, what are some of the best practices you’ve seen?
Reed: One strategy that we’ve seen work well is assigning in-room allies for those who are attending remotely. People in the room can be charged with ensuring their remote counterparts are brought into the conversation regularly and have an opportunity to weigh in.
Another best practice is to encourage every remote attendee to have their camera on, especially when the meeting is designed for collaboration or decision-making. Virtual attendees need to use as rich a medium as possible to participate in full. If they are just using audio alone, they are diminishing their presence and their ability to influence what is going on the meeting as a whole.
Duncan: What are some good strategies for combatting video fatigue and multitasking?
Allen: These are the two biggest issues of hybrid meetings. For video fatigue, there are two things to consider. First, there are a number of meetings we have on our schedules that are probably unnecessary. Get rid of the meeting bloat by eliminating meetings that don’t have a defined purpose and/or don’t require collaboration. For internal meetings among people who know each other well, it may be okay to leave the camera off if the topic being discussed isn’t too complex or emotionally charged. Give each other a break. However, for high stakes internal meetings, meetings with external stakeholders, or meetings with new (or unfamiliar) people, turn those cameras on!
As for multitasking, we have to remind everyone that multitasking is a myth. There’s just tasking. You are either tasking in the meeting or you are engaged in other tasks. You cannot really do both without allowing one or the other to suffer. With that said, good meetings have less multitasking. What makes them good? They have a purpose, and they require you to contribute and collaborate. If you don’t have these two things going for you, the meeting is likely prone to multitasking and you’ll have to repeat yourself every time you ask a question because they’ve probably been checking their email.
Duncan: What tips can you offer for appropriately including meeting participants who are in the room, on video, on the phone, etc.?
Allen: Honestly, the key is recognition of just how important participation is to the success of meetings. For hybrid meetings, it’s the most important predictor of meeting success. People want and need to be seen and heard. It’s how we feel appreciated. It’s how we feel like we are part of the team. The advice we’ve already mentioned is what is key here. Make sure the meeting leader invites every person to participate. Sometimes that might mean adding another role to the meeting—a meeting moderator whose job is to pull out participation from everyone in the room. When the meeting leader is the decision-maker, it can hard to keep track of participation and process the information being presented.
Reed: The other thing we want to remind folks of is the fact that hybrid meetings are the most inclusive form of meeting. It allows people to connect from wherever they are, in whatever fashion that they can. Given the priority being placed on flexible work, hybrid meetings are an essential tool to support that. However, both the leader and attendees in the meeting must make a conscious effort to bring everyone into the conversation, so no one feels marginalized. Team cohesion will suffer otherwise.
Duncan: Some in the corporate world are adopting a “flipped classroom” model for their meetings. Tell us how—and why—that approach can improve the quality of meeting participation and outcomes.
Allen: The flipped classroom approach is not a new approach. It’s a pedagogical approach that teachers have been aware of for more than 30 years. It’s used when there’s a bunch of information that people need to understand before a meaningful conversation can be had. For example, students need to read the chapter before coming to class or the class activity makes no sense. It’s called preparation! In other words, the flipped classroom model of meetings is nothing more than requiring some preparation before the meeting. That’s something we and most meeting scientists have always recommended.
This also highlights another issue with meetings. Too many of them are what we call “information sharing meetings.” These are the meetings where we listen to someone talk about something for an hour without any opportunity for discussion. We go back to our offices and often wonder why we went to the meeting at all. These situations are not meetings … or shouldn’t be. This is where a flipped classroom concept would have made a world of difference. That hour-long presentation could have been recorded and sent out to be consumed by the team ahead of time. Then a meeting could be scheduled to discuss it and determine actions to be taken as a result. That fits the definition of a meeting because it includes both purpose and collaboration.
Duncan: What is meeting “cold calling,” and how does it affect the quality of participation?
Reed: What we are talking about is “cold calling with good intention.” That’s when you call on someone by name so they can offer their input, not as a way of putting them on the spot. As a meeting leader, it’s not as easy to read the room when some are in person and others are virtual. So, you may not pick up on the nonverbal signs that someone has something to add. Calling on people by name does two things. First, it helps you ensure no one is missing an opportunity to have their voices be heard. Second, it helps you better guide the dialogue.
Often the stunted and stilted conversation that can happen in both virtual and hybrid meetings is a result of people not knowing when it’s their turn to talk. If you address someone by name, you are proactively giving them the floor. It’s important to establish psychological safety around this technique though. Make it clear that it’s perfectly fine to say “pass” if the person who you called on doesn’t have anything to add.
Duncan: What are some of the most common—and avoidable—pitfalls in leading hybrid meetings?
Allen: The most common pitfall is forgetting about the people who are joining remotely, whether they are on video or on the phone. We’ve all done it. But it’s even more embarrassing when you wrote the book on hybrid meetings and you do it. That’s why a policy that allows remote attendees to speak first can help to raise the collective awareness of everyone about who is in the actual meeting. It’s not just the people sitting around the conference room table.
The other major pitfall is assuming meeting leaders know how to navigate this complex communication environment. It’s a lot to manage and they need to be provided with the proper hardware, software, and skillware to run them effectively. We are doing better with the first two (thank you webcams and software firms). We are falling short on the third. People need a different set of skills to “read the room” when the room includes people who are not physically present. You must constantly make efforts to include everyone by doing things like asking direct questions of virtual attendees and observing the body language of those on the screen. There needs to be a mindset shift that is tough to navigate on your own. Plus, most meeting leaders are still lagging in adhering to long-standing best meeting practices. Starting late, missing an agenda, letting people monologue, and so on destroy the meeting flow more easily in hybrid meetings. People need to know how to deal with these challenges, and training is a critical part of heading off frustration.
Duncan: What can remote meeting participants do to ensure that their views are appropriately acknowledged and considered?
Allen: Don’t multitask. Don’t wait to be called on. Insert yourself into the conversation. It might feel a bit blunt, but it’s the right thing to do. Too often we wait for our turn. But if you’re a remote attendee, unless there are ground rules that ensure you get a turn, you probably won’t unless you chime in directly. If you don’t actively participate as a remote attendee, you will disappear. Assert yourself to have impact during the meeting and on the meeting outcome.
Duncan: If hybrid meetings are so hard, doesn’t it make more sense to just send everyone back to their laptops to do a purely virtual meeting?
Reed: For years, that was the recommendation given by most meeting consultants. But it is overlooking a key fact. Humans are social beings and we like being with others. Sending everyone back to their own Zoom boxes promotes the isolation that so many people felt during our fully virtual lives.
Allen: Plus, the data we gathered reveal early promise. For those who had started conducted hybrid meetings, they found them to be as satisfying as any other kind of meeting format. Not only that, they actually were more participatory, included less bad meeting behavior (like monologuing) and required less recovery time between meetings (time needed to decompress from one meeting before starting another.)
Hybrid meetings do call for an intentional approach, but it’s well worth the effort. The data and meeting science support that.
This column was first published by Forbes, where Dr. Duncan is a regular contributor.