Even before the pandemic, most meetings were a waste of time and money. All too often, what could’ve been an email was teased out across a valuable chunk of time, disrupting people’s days and leaving them with no new information, insight, or next steps. In fact, in a survey by Korn Ferry, 67% of workers said that excessive meetings kept them from doing their jobs.
Then, of course, the pandemic hit, and most non-essential employees began working from home. It was at this point that meetings became not only a nuisance but for many (especially those with young children) an almost-impossible expectation. So as we enter a new chapter of hybrid work and hopefully a culture centered around empathy, what can be done to make meetings better?
Here’s what several experts, as well as companies who are reimagining what an office job looks like, think we can do to be more mindful, inclusive, and productive with our remote or hybrid meetings.
Why Do We Have Meetings in the First Place?
For Gen Z and Millennial workers, hashing out plans, strategies, and even breakups over text or email is totally normal. Unlike older generations, they’re less likely to want to speak on the phone or even meet up in person, citing how time-consuming and anxiety-inducing those methods of communication can be. However, something is definitely lost when you aren’t able to see someone’s reaction to an idea, a presentation, or even a problem, and that something is part of why meetings are still so valuable for many employees.
“Think about all the times in your early career when you sat in a meeting room and watched your bosses do their work and you learned things,” Michael Ventura, founder of Sub Rosa, an award-winning strategy and design firm, and the author of Applied Empathy: The New Language of Leadership tells Daybase. “If you're not getting invited onto that call because it's a Zoom and it's not as necessary or it feels inconvenient or you've got something else you've been assigned to do, you're missing all of that osmotic learning.”
In addition to osmotic learning, meetings do have the potential to offer employees a chance for their work to be recognized, which can be essential for promotions. As the writer and social commentator Caity Weaver quipped in a New York Times article with the headline, “Meetings, Why?”:
“Meetings provide opportunities for employees to be consulted in front of others, to have their presence expressly requested, and to be invited to meetings.”
To really understand the nature and purpose of meetings, we need to start with a different set of questions. “Asking employees if they want to ‘return to the office’ is asking the wrong question,” Priya Parker, author of The Art of Gathering, recently wrote in the New York Times. “Instead, managers should ask: What did you long for when we couldn’t physically meet? What did you not miss and are ready to discard? What forms of meeting did you invent during the pandemic out of necessity that, surprisingly, worked? What might we experiment with now?” By pressing reset on meeting culture, and being deliberate and minimalistic when it comes to scheduling meetings in the first place, leaders are able to give employees more time to think, create, and breathe, which is essential to their mental health, nevermind the quality of their work.
In his research and consulting, Ventura is happy to see companies who are finding ways to recreate meeting osmosis through 360 mentorship, more one-on-ones, or more inclusion in decision-making meetings up and down the ranks of an organization. “It's not going to go back to the way it was, so you have to try to do things differently.” This is what's called "the beginner's mind," a mindset of openness and curiosity to approaching meetings differently.
How to Make Hybrid Meetings Better
The first step in making hybrid meetings better is establishing why you’re having the meeting in the first place, and this is especially important when people aren’t in the same place. If it is essential (as all meetings should be), the meeting needs to have a set agenda that includes concrete next steps and deliverables. As one user on LinkedIn commented recently, "No agenda; no attenda." The meeting also needs to be inclusive and respectful of every participant's current work setup, whether remote or in the office.
“We need to crack open the black box of what we define as "meetings" and ask ourselves what are we trying to get out of being together,” says Corinne Murray, Co-Founder and Chief Strategist at Purposeful Intent, an event series dedicated to exploring the future of work from a corporate real estate and workplace lens. Murray has dedicated her career to building out culture and workplace strategies for companies including American Express, WeWork and Impec Group, and meetings, she says, need an overhaul.
When done correctly, hybrid work is asking each of us to be more mindful about how we use our own time and that of our colleagues. One-on-one meetings are very straightforward and useful if done with a mentor or direct report, but a one-on-one meeting with a client is a different category, Murray says. With a client, do you have information that needs to be presented? That’s a meeting. But if you’re fielding questions? While that might have been a meeting pre-pandemic, in a hybrid setting this could likely be done over email or Slack.
Murray's take on the all-hands meeting that happens every week? In a hybrid setting, so few people pay attention in these meetings, she says. So, can it be a memo instead? Probably. Consider Microsoft Japan which has a policy that no more than five employees should be in a meeting. The logic? If there are more than five employees across teams then it's an announcement, not a meeting, as reported in Out of Office: The Big Problem and Bigger Promise of Working from Home by Anne Helen Petersen and Charlie Warzel.
When Harry’s, the men’s shaving and hygiene company, began establishing their post-pandemic “return to work” plan, they consulted with the marketing firm SYPartners to put together a very detailed “How to Hybrid Guide” to distribute among their 1,100 employees (70% of whom they predict will work in a hybrid model forever). The guide breaks down everything from team culture to time management, including how to successfully run hybrid meetings.
According to Harry’s, the point of the guide is to establish the how employees return to the office, as opposed to the when. “We care a lot about culture and we had seen some erosion in connection and connectivity. But we also realized the future was going to involve more flexibility,” Chief People Officer Katie Childers told Daybase. For Harry’s, creating best practices for meetings took a lot of experimentation, as well as bucking long-held norms.
Ultimately, Harry’s landed on these four “principles for hybrid meetings”:
1. One Person, One Screen
Whether you’re sitting in a conference room or at your kitchen table, Harry’s requires all employees participating in a meeting to have their own computer open and their camera on, so everyone can see that person clearly.
2. Digital First
Harry’s is doing away with material objects that don’t serve a purpose unless everyone is present (like whiteboards), and is instead adopting technology that allows people to collaborate from anywhere. They’re also getting rid of meetings that are just presentations of documents, as those are often a waste of resources. As Childers told TIME: “We set this norm to be clear that materials should not be presented in the Zoom. Instead, you email the link to everyone so they can look at the materials themselves.”
3. A Moderator Mindset
“Depending on what the meeting is, either everyone has that moderator mindset or we designate someone as the moderator,” Childers told TIME. “It’s much easier for someone who’s in the meeting room to say, ‘Hey, let’s pause for a second. Does anyone who’s remote want to contribute to that?’”
4. Ending the Meeting When The Meeting Ends
On Ventura’s earlier point about osmosis, so much is decided outside of the meeting, or right afterward, when the group has run out of time but everyone is still buzzing with ideas. To really honor and respect remote workers, Harry’s is trying to eliminate that tendency by replacing it with a hard stop. “[We use] a set of rituals to get people to not have that small talk that ends up happening at the end of the meeting, which can make remote people feel like they missed out on something,” Childers told TIME.
Now while these principles won’t work for every company, they’re easily adaptable and, at the very least, offer a bit of guidance on making meetings more inclusive and productive.
If you’re thinking about a convenient way to offer your team more flexibility and autonomy when they gather, consider a Daybase membership. And let us know your hybrid meeting hacks on Instagram, LinkedIn, and Twitter.