Make your virtual meetings shorter

2012

If I were to suggest – just suggest—that maybe what teams need to be successful are more meetings, I can only imagine the eye-rolling and harrumphing. Everyone hates meetings, they take up too much time out of our lives as it is, and they're viewed as, at best, a necessary evil. Some would dispute necessary.

I am going to suggest (calm down, I'm only suggesting!) that the problem may not be with the meetings themselves, but in how we have traditionally planned, run and use them.

Most online meetings are pretty much modeled after traditional, doughnuts-in-the-conference-room type meetings. On one hand, that's a pretty good thing. People get to meet each other, bounce ideas around the room, brainstorm, problem solve, ask questions and generally get information at the same time and in the same way as the rest of the team. There's nothing wrong with that.

On the other hand, typical meetings are too long, they barely manage to stuff everything on to the agenda in the time allotted, and often don't accomplish their goals before we're headed out the door to the next one.

I am going to respectfully submit (hear me out) that one reason most traditional meetings fail is the way they're scheduled. We tend to overstuff them and blow out the agenda because by the time you schedule a conference room, arrange people's calendars to accommodate the meeting, bring them in and have them rearrange their schedules the universal feeling is, "let's do it once, get it all out of the way and get back to our real work".

When people started to do online meetings, they followed the same model, for the same reasons, but there are several fundamental differences between thoughtfully run webmeetings and a traditional meeting:

People's attention spans are naturally shorter online. Asking someone to sit for a long time in a static environment is going to impact their ability to engage, contribute and add value. You'll get better work and attention from people who still have some energy and will to live left.

The logistics of setting up a webmeeting (once you master the software, which takes about three practices) are infinitely easier than trying to get everyone physically in the same place at the same time, book an available conference room, and all the other administrivia. It's also much easier to get 45 minutes out of someone's day than a couple of hours.

When people don't have to leave their desks to attend, there's a lot less wasted time. People can get more work done up to the moment the meeting starts, and pick up where they left off right away.

If the meeting is short and targeted, people will pay attention more. One of the big concerns about online meetings is that people don't participate, they are answering email. You know why they do that? Because they can. You don't think people sitting in your conference room are obsessing about the email they have waiting for them? The only reason they don't multi-task is fear of being socially embarrassed. And really, are your meetings so fascinating they need every person's attention for every second of them? Really?

People's behavior in meetings (online or off) are largely moderated by their expectations and history. If your meetings have a reputation for being long, boring and unproductive, and no one is ever held accountable for them, people won't take them seriously.

If, on the other hand, your meetings are short, productive, the leaders hold people accountable for input and results and they can get on with their lives, you'll be surprised at the change in attitude. Add that to not pushing the physical limits of their endurance and you might actually find some of that energy you've been missing.

So put down the torches and pitchforks and let's examine the notion that more frequent, but shorter and targeted online meetings, might be an option. It's not like what we're doing now works so well for most of us.

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About The Author

Wayne Turmel
Wayne Turmel

Wayne Turmel is a speaker, writer and co-founder of The Remote Leadership Institute. He’s passionate about helping people present, sell and lead people and projects using today’s virtual communication technology. His books include Meet Like You Mean It - a Leader’s Guide to Painless and Productive Virtual Meetings. Wayne is based in Chicago, IL.

Older Comments

Great point Wayne. I've also found that most folks feel virtual meetings are more optional to attend. People are afraid to miss long in-person meetings since you never know what might come up that's not on the agenda. More frequent, shorter, more focused-agenda meetings might decrease the average number of participants, allowing for more active participation by the people who can actually impact the agenda.

Lisa

Thanks for the article, I like where you are going that with the technology we have today, we should be re-thinking how we have meetings. I'd be interested to know what you think of email meetings.

Bob Lorriman Canada

Thanks for writing this article Wayne - I'd like to see more people start thinking this way. I think meetings are a classic example of getting a bad reputation b/c of a few bad apples. Bad meetings (virtual or not) are toxic & need to stop; good meetings, however, are a great asset to an organization.

Like you say, so much of it comes down to how meetings are prepared (if they even are at all!). If folks would take the time to schedule them correctly I think they'd find they wouldn't be so anti-meeting.

Jeff Steinke www.lessmeeting.com