5 ways to make your virtual meetings more engaging
The pandemic has led to a substantial increase in the digital intensity of our working day – a study by Microsoft shows that over the past year, meeting frequency has more than doubled, with the average meeting being 10 minutes longer.
2019 research indicates, however, that half of all meetings are deemed unproductive.
I’m not that surprised – most meetings fall short of enabling the rich levels of collaboration that make them time well spent.
Many people will blame this on lack of time or on the topic of the meeting, but the reality is that meetings often fail because most people just don’t have the skills to run (or attend) meetings effectively, whether in person or virtually.
There is a tendency to blame the meeting organiser, but every attendee has a role to play in ensuring the meeting is a good use of their time.
Lawyers tend to adopt a hierarchical approach in which the most senior attendee chairs, and as a result most lawyers do not develop their meeting skills until relatively late on in their careers.
Some years ago, I was managing a team that had members in London, Frankfurt and Manila. Our meetings were hybrid – London folks attending in person, and our international team members dialling in.
Time zone challenges aside, I never gave much thought to what was missing or could be improved until I found myself working for a team where the hybrid mode was reversed, and I was now the virtual participant, joining a group based in Sydney.
I felt like a spectator rather than a participant. I realised how running virtual meetings requires a set of abilities that go beyond ensuring the meeting goes well.
After much research, trial and error, here are five things I’ve identified that create engaging virtual meetings and help to adopt a ‘virtual-first’ approach.
1. Get exposure as early as possible
Every participant should have a chance to take on different meeting roles (chairing, minute-taking, timekeeping, attendee).
This exposure to a variety of responsibilities not only improves your skills, confidence, and abilities, but it also improves empathy that enables more meaningful collaborations.
If you have been a meeting chair and experienced the challenges that involves, you are more likely to contribute to discussions in future meetings.
Create a rota that allows everyone to take part in coordinating and running meetings. This creates autonomy and ownership that empowers individuals to take a more active role in ensuring meetings are more dynamic, regardless of seniority.
Diversity of styles and thought also changes the pace of meetings, making them more engaging, creative and less predictable.
2. Adopt a value-based approach
Instead of focusing on the frequency and duration of meetings, concentrate on what value the meeting has over an email.
I learned to focus on the value in bringing individuals together and the role of the individual’s contribution to the discussion.
Reorder your agenda to emphasise the items that require the most clarity of thought or energy. Prioritising value makes what we do more concise and focused.
3. Cut down the length
In an essay from 1955, Cyril Northcote Parkinson observed that “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion” (also referred to as Parkinson’s Law – not a real law, mind you).
For some reason, working patterns have evolved to create meetings that run in 30-minute slots, rather than 20 to 25 minutes.
If you cut this down to 25 minutes, you will still discuss the same points, only more purposefully.
Research has shown the detrimental effect screen time has on our ability to concentrate and how important it is to take meaningful breaks.
Shortening meetings, even by five minutes, allows participants to reset before jumping on the next call, making every meeting more engaging in the long run.
4. Invite only key people
When it comes to maximising meeting efficiency, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos made headlines when he explained his meeting rule was that “no meeting should be so large that two pizzas can’t feed the whole group”.
Only include people who will benefit and contribute to the agenda items in question. Anyone who is not contributing is unlikely to be actively listening.
Consider every person’s role – make sure they are clear on why they are joining and what is expected of them.
For senior associates who invite junior associates to shadow meetings, it is always helpful to ask them to note three observations on what was discussed – having something specific to focus on means that they are still taking part, even if not speaking.
5. Make it an experience, not a tick-box exercise
For a virtual meeting to have an impact, participants need to feel it was a good use of their time and that they have gained something from it.
Embrace facilitation skills that promote opinions being shared productively.
Set clear expectations and establish ground rules for how you will work together (for example, cameras on or off, when to ask questions, how to use the chat function and other tools).
Allow participants to organise their contributions by sharing a concise agenda in advance.
Studies report that more junior team members (Generation Z) have expressed “difficulties getting a word in during meetings, and [in] bringing new ideas to the table”, so it's crucial to make an extra effort to ensure your meeting is fully inclusive.
Views expressed in our blogs are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the Law Society.