Sunday, 25 November 2018

Happy Season's Meetings

This is my penultimate blog of 2018; throughout the year I have attempted to offer blogs on work as well as workplace, in particular how to improve your performance. With the Christmas holidays looming, and my clients trying to tidy up loose ends, I have noticed a rapid increase in the number of meetings I have been invited to. Meetings can be great, a productive way to move things forward, but we have also all attended those that we thought a complete and utter waste of time. So here are my thoughts on how you can master meetings.

Firstly, recognise that meetings are held for a number of reasons, namely:
  • Sharing information – New information needs to be passed on to colleagues, the information may be new and complex or an update of previous information. 
  • Making decisions – The key aim of some meetings is to draw a conclusion and sign-off an agreed set of actions or outcome. 
  • Generating ideas – Groups may meet to brainstorm solutions to existing problems or generate ideas for new products and services. 
  • Resolving problems – This generally relates to resolving personnel issues and grievances. 
  • Socialising – It is acknowledged that meetings, albeit informal, are held for celebration or simply to catch up on non-work matters.
Depending on the type and nature of the meeting, different people will be required to attend. Understand who those key people are and make it clear who is required to attend versus colleagues just being invited out of courtesy, or just copied in so they are informed a meeting is taking place. Check the diaries of key people in advance – don’t just assume they are available then have to rearrange. The onus is also on those attending to check that they are required and can contribute to the meeting. The best way to do this is to check the agendas and any minutes of previous meetings. Sitting in on a meeting in which you have no interest or can’t contribute is frankly a waste of time, effort and resources – maybe you can just join the meeting for a specific agenda item. 

A key success factor for meetings is having a clear agenda with timings and nominated speakers. During my years in the corporate world I took the simple but stringent approach of not attending meetings that did not issue an agenda – after all how else could I know if I needed to attend. There is not usually a need to create detailed minutes of all meetings, but actions should certainly be captured and assigned. The meeting minutes need to be issued within say 48 hours so those with actions can follow up whilst the meeting is still fresh in their mind. How many times have you been to a meeting where the actions were issued a day or so before and, as a consequence, many actions have not been completed? If chairing, you may wish to remind people of their actions a few days before the meeting, perhaps attached to the agenda. 

The agenda should clearly state the time and place of the meeting. Not all meetings need to take place in a formal (enclosed) meeting room. Consider the reasons for meetings, shown above, and then select the appropriate place for it. The table below is from an earlier paper (Oseland et al, 2011) and shows the spaces best suited for different types of meeting. For example, more informal, stimulating spaces or those away from the office may be better for creativity. In contrast, consider cosy spaces with a domestic feel for personnel and personal 1:1 meetings. The size of the space, furniture within it, equipment and the time the space is required for will also vary. With the proven benefits of standing at work, encourage standing (or walking) meetings – they will probably be to the point and shorter, and possibly more creative and productive.

Not all meetings need to be an hour or more to be effective. In terms of focus and concentration, it may be better to have several short meetings. In his research on energy, Schwartz and colleagues (2007) proposed we have ultradian rhythms in which we need a break every 90 minutes to perform to our maximum. So, for longer meetings schedule breaks or split the meeting. Perhaps arrange an initial face-to-face meeting followed by short virtual meetings tackling bite-sized agenda items. 

Whatever the duration of the meeting, arriving on time and starting promptly is important. In many organisations that I have worked with, it seems it is the cultural norm to start meetings late, usually due to waiting for a “busy” senior colleague. I have attended a meeting where the 10 staff gathered waited 15 minutes for the meeting chair person. I estimated that to be equivalent to 2.5 hours downtime and a cost the company of £375. Okay that’s not much unless it’s happening regularly – let’s say twice per week totalling £38K per annum, but I suspect its higher. I appreciate, the downtime can be used to socialise and catch-up, but that is not the purpose of the meeting or necessarily the best space for it. 

Consider leaving time to allow colleagues to travel between back-to-back meetings and to set-up the room. Another regular cause of downtime is waiting around for the technology to work, especially it seems for those requiring video-conference links to other locations. Plug and play is becoming better but even nowadays I still attend meetings were AV cables or remote controls are missing, or the participants do not know how to connect a visitor’s laptop or even how to switch on the system. Sometimes there are not enough seats for those attending so participants go off in search of chairs, adding more delay.

In my research on collaboration, which I conducted with Herman Miller (Oseland, 2012), I found that different personality types prefer different spaces for interaction. For example, those more Agreeable (open to new ideas) on the OCEAN scale prefer more inclusive larger meetings, whereas those more Extroverted prefer small group meetings in informal settings like the cafĂ© or breakout space. In contrast, those more Conscientious or Neurotic (less emotionally stable) prefer formal meetings with minutes etc in private spaces that start promptly and finish in time! On the other hand, the Introverts prefer to interact via emails than through meetings. So, if possible, consider the personality profile of those attending and select spaces where they are more comfortable and perform better. 

Finally, think about the meeting etiquette during the actual meeting. As well as starting on time and good time-keeping, consider the basics like focussing on the meeting and the speakers – so put away your mobile device if you are tempted to dip into emails (but of course you may wish to take notes). Even worse, which I have seen often, do not take a call or leave the room to take a call, unless you have clearly explained the reasons at the start of the meeting. Allow other people to speak and voice their opinions before making a response and then speak up and clearly, especially if people are dialling in. Start the meeting by making introductions, including any those dialling in, and outlining the agenda. Finish by summarising the actions and encouraging participants to complete them. And, of course, tidy up and leave the room as you wish to find it. 

I'm keen to hear about how you ensure meetings are productive and not a waste of valuable time and energy.

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