Be More Podcast: Making Meetings Work in a Remote World

Patrick Cournoyer
Be More Podcast: Making Meetings Work in a Remote World

Be More is a weekly one-on-one podcast about how everyone can thrive in the new world of work. Hosted by Peakon’s Chief Evangelist, Patrick Cournoyer. This week: Steven Rogelberg on not accepting the inefficiencies of meeting culture.

More than 100 million meetings occur each workday globally – many of them over Zoom while we scramble to care for children, avoid an obstacle course of distractions, and tend to our stretched-thin wellbeing. 

Workplace meetings were already riddled with inequalities and inefficiencies before the pandemic. But the reality of remote working has added a new layer of frustration. Before COVID-19, half of all meetings were considered a waste of time. And now? According to Steven Rogelberg, Professor of Management at the University of North Carolina, that number has jumped another 25%. 

Meetings can be painful. A million jokes and Slack message grousing can attest to that (you may even be reading this during a meeting). But that pain can have real consequences with time wasted – estimated to be more than $30billion a year in the United States alone. Not to mention how meetings impede employees from working on more important, inspiring, or revenue-generating tasks.

But it doesn’t have to be that way.

Organisations have accepted bad meetings as a way of life, that they’re just the cost of doing business. That is absolutely not true.

Steven Rogelberg

In this episode of Peakon’s Be More Podcast, Patrick is joined by Steven Rogelberg, professor, organisational psychologist, and best-selling author. While much has been written about meetings, Steven has studied what makes them succeed or fail perhaps more than anyone else. 

Steven shares insights from his book: The Surprising Science of Meetings: How You Can Lead Your Team To Peak Performance. And he and Patrick discuss how meetings have changed over the past fifty years, the problem with meetings before COVID-19, and how to deal with „meeting overwhelm.“ 

Key takeaways:

The number of ineffective meetings has increased by 25%

According to statistics shared by Steven, there are 100 million meetings happening every day globally (55 million in the US alone). Almost half of those can be considered ineffective and disengaging. 

These numbers are up by 25% ever since Covid-19 took the world by surprise. That’s partly because people are struggling to run meetings. It’s much harder to engage in virtual meetings as they lack the same level of communication as meetings in real life. Additionally, virtual meetings have a sense of anonymity that can lead people to multitask.

Leaders play a significant role in making meetings meaningful

In this conversation and in his book, The Surprising Science of Meetings, Steven provides a set of evidence-based practices for elevating meetings. A key element: leaders must be intentional and design compelling meetings that keep people engaged. This helps participants make a conscious choice to avoid multitasking. 

It is equally important to keep meetings to a manageable size by only inviting essential team members and to set meeting times properly. Leaders should always think about the meeting in terms of what questions need to be answered. This creates focus. 

Don’t just accept bad meetings

Steven points out that bad meetings have been a generally accepted norm, something that just goes along with doing business. It shouldn’t be that way. 

Successful organisations have the ability to elevate the topic of meetings by training people. According to estimates, only 20-25% of leaders experience any training when it comes to running a meeting. Meeting leaders are stewards of other people’s time and they need to elevate the collective time together. 

If you meet with people as part of your work, tune in now to hear the episode, check out the key takeaways, or read the transcript below. 

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Transcript:

Patrick: I’m super excited about the conversation today. Joining me is Steven Rogelberg, who is a professor, and also the director of organizational science at University of North Carolina at Charlotte. Also, the author of a great book called The Surprising Science of Meetings. Steven, thank you very much for joining me today.

Steven: It’s my pleasure. Good to be here.

Patrick: Great. Let’s kick it off. The world of work has significantly changed over the past couple of months and with that meetings have significantly changed. You have quite a bit of research and opinion around meetings. In a recent publication that you put out in May; you really struck my interest with some of the statistics that you shared. The fact that there’s 55 million meetings a day happening and almost half of those are ineffective and disengaging. Also, the fact that virtual meetings increase those numbers.

I was looking at my diary a bit today and looking at my meetings over the past couple of weeks. Probably 70% of my time and I would assume most people’s time is spent in meetings. Obviously, a significant challenge and it’s something that we really need to overcome as we transition into this new world of work. Maybe you could start out with telling us about, from your perspective, how have meetings evolved over the past couple of months, specifically around virtual meetings?

Steven: You cited the 55 million meetings data, that’s just in the US alone. When you think globally, that number obviously balloons with estimates of 100 million meetings a day around the globe. Anecdotally and we’re collecting data right now, I think those numbers are all up, actually. With people not present in the workplace, they’re scheduling more and more virtual meetings to check-in, to monitor the performance of their employees. My estimate would be that the meetings are good up 25% or so.

These meetings obviously are being conducted virtually and typically using Zoom, it seems to be dominating the market. My sense is that people are struggling, running meetings in and of itself is extremely challenging to do it well. Then when you put in technology in place and the fact that you don’t have the same kind of communication richness, the fact that when people are having these more virtual meetings are prone to something called social loafing.

Which is this idea that we reduce our effort and presence of others in particular, when we see ourselves as being anonymous, which is the case with these virtual meetings. When we feel more anonymous, we tend to multitask, which is another challenge in running virtual meetings because people aren’t as present. To sum up, I think we’re having more meetings. I think we’re having more struggle running these meetings and then that manifests itself and more frustration and attendees.

Patrick: I completely agree with you. That really resonates. Those numbers are staggering when you think about the amount of meetings that are happening around the world. Now, with organizations moving to a fragmented workspace and many companies with seeing virtual work and working remotely as the future of work. Also, having this hybrid, where some organizations are bringing part of their companies back to work in offices.

The majority of companies are having the option of flexible work and not coming back into the office. Now, we also have this mix of virtual and people in an office and this concept of multitasking during meetings. That’s an interesting one because that’s a challenge. You can see it. I see it meetings externally and also internally. I think people are inundated with the amount of meetings that they have in a day. We’re all feeling this back to back meetings situation or jumping off of one virtual meeting to the other.

We’re trying to catch up on emails or Slack or internal communications. The intent is not to be disengaged in a meeting, but almost this need to be able to keep up with everything else that’s going on, but the fact that we have back to back meetings. That’s a significant problem, but also perception. You see people that are clearly typing on video or reading something and on mute, so their typing is not distracting.

How do you encourage or suggest the person that owns the meeting and the person that’s leading the meeting, what are some ways that you would suggest the leader to make the meeting more effective to set ground rules too? You talk a lot about agendas and I personally really like to have agendas with meeting, but what are some of the key tips that you have for people to have these virtual meetings, at least people attending meetings, more virtually be successful with these meetings?

Steven: It’s a great question. The book, The Surprising Science of Meetings, provides a really thorough answer to that question. It’s a bunch of evidence-based practices designed to elevate meetings, to give meeting leaders’ choices. It doesn’t prescribe a set medicine to make meetings better, instead, it really argues that meeting leaders need to be intentional and recognize that they have a lot of decision points. There are a host of options that you should consider when designing a meeting.

Let me share a few low hanging fruit. I think the overall theme is, by designing a really powerful lean meeting, then people will choose not to multitask because they’re fully engaged. Why are you and I not multitasking now? Because we have a lot to do in this meeting and we have accountability and focus. That’s what we’re trying to replicate in virtual meetings, make them so compelling that people wouldn’t consider a multitasking because they don’t want to miss anything.

First and foremost, we don’t want to over invite to meetings. Remote meetings plummet in quality as size increase. There’s really no reason to over invite because we can so readily record these things. When we have non-essential members, let them off the hook. Just let them share the recording, but give them the option to attend future meetings if they do think it’s relevant to them. Leaning down meetings is just so important, especially with virtual meetings. Then here we want to set meeting times properly.

There’s shorter attention spans right now. We want to avoid just defaulting to this one-hour meeting, especially given Parkinson’s Law. Parkinson’s Law is this idea that work expands to fill whatever time is allotted to it. If you schedule a meeting for an hour, it magically takes an hour. We can use this to our advantage. We can start scheduling meetings for 20 minutes, 25 minutes, and we’re going to get it done. We’re going to give people the greatest gift in the world, which is more time.

Now we’ve talked about decreasing meeting size. We talked about decreasing meeting time and they’re all going back to something you mentioned, agendas. We want to sharpen the agenda. We want to really make the agenda highly compelling. What I want to suggest as opposed to structuring your agenda as a set of topics to be discussed, I’d like to challenge you to organize your agenda as a set of questions to be answered.

Framing it as a set of questions to be answered, this creates focus, which is often lacking in remote meetings. By framing agenda items as questions, you really have a better sense of who has to be involved in the meeting because they’re relevant to the questions. By framing as questions, you know when to end the meeting because the questions have been answered successfully. The final thing that I’ll say that is really about active facilitation.

We want meeting leaders to always recognize that they need to facilitate a meeting for it to be successful. This is so key in remote meeting, meeting leaders must embrace that role of facilitators. Draw virtual attendees in, create that presence, keep them engaged. You might even consider keeping a tally just to be sure all are contributing and all voices are heard. Avoid generically asking any comments, instead, call on people.

Don’t let someone ramble or go off-topic, kindly interrupt if necessary because that’s your job as a meeting leader. Managing the dynamics of the meeting is that fourth leg on the chair to success.

Patrick: Steven, I can hear your passion behind this and I love it. These are really tangible examples and suggestions that we can all use. I definitely will incorporate

Patrick: a couple of those into the meetings that I lead. You bring up also a good point around training people on how to effectively facilitate in a meeting because that’s a skill and almost an art in some ways. I know that one of the statistics that you share, and I just want to pause here and say, „I love the fact that you’re data-driven in your approach to this because that very much resonates because you the data behind it, it is a science.“ I think that’s really fascinating and incredibly impactful.

One of the data points that you share is the lack of training that organizations have with meetings. Seeing that probably meetings take up, maybe 70%, 80% of our time, that may even be a low estimate for many employees around the world, especially as we transition into this new world of work. How do you suggest to organizations and maybe what have you seen organizations succeed or where have you seen organizations succeed with training people on how to effectively lead a meeting?

Steven: Organizations have basically accepted bad meetings as a way of life, it’s just the cost of doing business. That is absolutely not true. Organizations who are successful, elevate the topic of meetings. Why wouldn’t they, right? If you have employees spend so much time in an activity and they’re frustrated, how do we not elevate that activity? When we elevate that activity, it takes a couple of forms. First of all, we start to recognize that we have to provide training to people.

Estimates suggest that only around 20% to 25% of leaders ever experience any training on how to run a meeting. That’s an insane blindspot. How does that possibly happen? I would argue that the training they receive is often not highly appropriate. It tends to be formula-based. For example, have an agenda. Have an agenda and you’ll have a good meeting, but that’s not true. The research on agendas does not suggest that having an agenda, in of itself, leads to a good meeting.

If you step back and reflect, this shouldn’t surprise you. What matters more is, „Is the agenda relevant to the people? Is the agenda composed of compelling topics? Is the agenda being facilitated effectively?“ Well, those are the top things. In my book, I have the chapter is called Agendas are a Hollow Crutch. The training that we want to have, it needs to be much more high fidelity and richer than the typical training which is this idea of a set of formula, „Here’s the things you have to do to have a good meeting.“

That just doesn’t align with the science. We want to get the training out. We want it to be rich and then, what we want to do is want organizations to try to create some accountability around the meetings. One of our best tools for doing that is through our typical engagement surveys. There should be some content on the engagement survey around the topic of meetings.

Then that enables you to create a dashboard because now we could say, „Well, what’s the meeting effectiveness indicator for all these various departments or all these various leaders?“ Then we can start monitoring it. We can start providing feedback to individuals. When you have feedback and training, then you’re really able to move the dial.

The thing that’s been really surprising to me, I think as you noted on the onset, I did this book, it’s been really successful, which is so exciting because it’s about science of meetings. I’ve been doing a whole bunch of speeches and talks. I spoke to 100 chief human resource officers, pretty much all Fortune 500 companies. I asked them during the presentation, how many of you have content on your engagement survey around meetings? What do you think? How many people raised their hands?

Patrick: I would say 10%.

Steven: That’s generous. Two people.

Patrick: [chuckles] wow.

Steven: Two organizations. Really, this is another great example of this blindspot. How is that possible that we are not using our engagement surveys to assess a highly engaged-in activity that people are finding frustrating?

Patrick: Yes, that’s quite interesting because, as you say, there’s so much time that is spent. The fact that there’s so much business that happens in meetings, for us, to truly understand the value of them and the impact of them is quite important. Along those lines, we’re talking about training people in general and organizations. Do you think there’s also an element of training for employees, individual contributors, people that are attending meetings?

I think there is a lot of onus put on the person leading the meeting. Do you think there’s some benefit in doing general training around, „If you’re going to attend a meeting, this is what’s expected of you in attendance, as well, on top of the people that are leading the meetings?“

Steven: For sure. It’s a great idea. I personally think that everyone benefits from training on how to lead a meeting. I think that everyone probably can find on their calendars, no matter what level they are in the organization, some meetings during a month that they’re leading or co-leading. I think it’s beneficial for everyone to develop those skills. Then certainly as part of that, this idea of what do individuals do to help promote meeting success? I think it could be really powerful.

I do all this training for organizations and my favorite type of training is when I can bring in the entire unit, the entire department, the entire division. Talking about meetings with the collective, it fundamentally creates a different outcome in that people then have shared understandings of what meetings should and shouldn’t be. That collective understanding makes it much more likely that people will change behavior.

I definitely, am a big fan of trying to train the collectives and recognize that everyone has a role in making meetings great.

Patrick: Steven, we’re going to wrap up the conversation. I would love to hear in 30 seconds, what is one suggestion that you would have that would be the most impact on how we should think about meetings for the future or one thing we should consider changing. I know there’s a lot and there’s many different aspects, but what do you think is, right now, maybe the most impactful?

Steven: I could easily talk about different tactics, things specifically to do. Let me take a different tact, let me really focus on the mindset. The best meeting leaders seem to have something in common and that these meeting leaders seem to recognize inherently that they are a steward of other’s time. This mindset is really important because when you recognize that you’re a steward of other’s time, then you want to design a meeting experience that truly honors people’s time.

That mindset, I think, is so important and I think that mindset also leads you to be more agile and more resilient. Obviously, meetings are changing. When you have that mindset, you approach a Zoom meeting differently. You might be saying, „Wow, how could I leverage this technology to actually have better meetings?“ It’s absolutely possible. That chat function can be another channel of communication to enrich your meetings. Zoom has built-in voting functions.

There’s a host of things, tactics that you can do, but it all starts with that mindset. That would be my hope that people have. Recognize as a meeting leader that you are a steward. If you embrace that mindset of being a steward, then I think you’ll approach meetings as an opportunity to engage and include your employees. You’ll be flexible and nimble and you’ll keep looking for ways to elevate the collective time together.

Patrick: Steven, that’s excellent. Really interesting perspective. I love your passion around it. Thank you for spending time with me and sharing some really meaningful and useful suggestions for all of us as we figure out what this new world is going to look like. As a reminder, the title of is The Surprising Science of Meetings, highly suggest to reading it.

Patrick: Once again Steven, thank you for spending time with me.

Steven: It’s my pleasure. Thank you for having me.

Autor - Patrick Cournoyer