Should meetings be fun?

Jun 04 2014 by Wayne Turmel Print This Article

Can (or should) webmeetings be fun? This isn't an idle question, and the answer seems to be a lot more controversial than I thought it was. I'm throwing the virtual doors open for your input here.

When you write a book, you never know what people are going to like, and what they're going to react negatively to. That's the case with Meet Like You Mean It. I have gotten a lot of positive reviews, but one person took me to task for the notion that one of the reasons for having a meeting - not even a main one, just one of many - was so that a team can have fun together.

His attitude is (to paraphrase): Fun isn't the point. Meetings take too much time as it is. Our job is to do what needs to be done and get back to work. I hate meaningless chatter and fluff¯.

I get this a lot, although not everyone feels obliged to offer feedback (which, presumably and ironically, takes time) and I do appreciate it. Because this gives me a chance to make an important distinction between fun (making something enjoyable) and fluff¯ (activities designed to make people feel better but don't add any value to the process).

Project teams or other groups build trust and their collaboration culture based on their interactions. Can someone be counted on? Would I feel comfortable relying on their wisdom or knowledge? Do I enjoy working with these people?

Wait. What?

Yes, enjoying your working environment includes not being completely miserable, especially with the other human beings on your team. At work, there are plenty of non-work opportunities to indulge that human desire for interaction: coffee breaks, face-to-face meetings over the cubicle wall, even a pint after work. These activities build up what psychiatrists call social capital¯ and what most of us just call getting to know that Sherry is actually a pretty good person¯.

Ignoring this fact is why many project teams suffer over time. Agile scrum¯ meetings are known for being focused and time-sensitive. That's great. But when the need to limit all conversation in the interest of time outweighs the ability to get to know and work better with each other, then form is suffocating function. You need relaxed, informal communication as well for people to feel comfortable delivering feedback and offer assistance voluntarily.

We instinctively know that we work more productively and with less stress if we know, like and trust the people we're interacting with on a regular basis. The problem is that in a virtual world, there are few such unstructured opportunities. The only time you interact as a group is on a meeting or conference call.

A good leader knows that setting an environment where team members can get to know each other, and create human connections that ease the flow of critical work information, is critical to long-term team success.

So what's the difference between fun and fluff?

Fun is taking a moment to ask people as they join the meeting what they did on the weekend. A minute or two is all it takes to learn that Rajesh is sleep-deprived because of a new baby (a universal problem and might explain why he's slow answering your email) or that Marianne's running a 10K next week, or Wayne's Chicago Blackhawks lost in overtime to Dan's LA Kings (followed by good-natured teasing and bonding).

Fluff is mandating that every person contribute every meeting something funny that happened on the weekend or do an ice-breaker exercise¯ that has no bearing on the work at all.

Fun is allowing people to make jokes or digress for short (!) periods of time in the interest of helping people feel relaxed and comfortable with each other. Communication flows better when you know how to approach people, and nothing reveals more about someone than what they find funny or amusing. You only learn that over time and through exposure to each other.

Fluff is letting those discussions drag on and eat up precious time, or not prioritizing those discussions so that truly critical work gets done in the time allotted.

It's important to remember that meetings have two important functions: to communicate what needs to be communicated right now, and to create a long-term environment where people are willing and able to work together comfortably.

Yes, work can be serious, and there's a time and a place. If someone is really seeking help, and the conversation is all about the latest cat video, it can be frustrating. On the other hand, if killing all social interaction in service to the latest spreadsheet is the alternative, your team will suffer over time.

Fluff is distracting. Fun is.... Well, a lot more fun.

What's your take?

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About The Author

Wayne Turmel
Wayne Turmel

For almost 30 years, Wayne Turmel has been obsessed with how people communicate - or don't - at work. He has spent the last 20 years focused on remote and virtual work, recognized as one of the top 40 Remote Work Experts in the world. Besides writing for Management Issues, he has authored or co-authored 15 books, including The Long-Distance Leader and The Long-Distance Teammate. He is the lead Remote and Hybrid Work subject matter expert for the The Kevin Eikenberry Group. Originally from Canada, he now makes his home in Las Vegas, US.