Expert offers 10 science-based tips to improve virtual meetings
“Making Remote Meetings Successful: Leveraging the Surprising Science of Meetings” was the focus of the most recent VCU School of Business Tommy Vines Human Resources Lecture. Each year, this series welcomes a leading expert on human resources topics to broaden perspectives and stimulate conversation among VCU students and faculty as well as Richmond’s business leaders.
On October 16, VCU presented Dr. Steven Rogelberg, author of the recent best seller, The Surprising Science of Meetings: How You Can Lead Your Team to Peak Performance that was ranked one of the best business books of 2019 and 2020 by The Washington Post, Forbes, SHRM and Business Insider.
Rogelberg has been profiled on CBS This Morning, BBC World, Freakonomics, the Harvard Business Review and the Wall Street Journal. He shared a total of 10 science-based tips to improve virtual meetings – before, during and at the close of a meeting.
Virtual meetings are plagued with challenges
According to Rogelberg, the best meeting leaders recognize their role as a steward of other people’s time. While most meeting leaders are intentional and make thoughtful choices during meetings with clients or customers, this isn’t as true when it comes to hosting meetings with one’s on team or peers. In a recent TEDx talk and during his VCU lecture, Rogelberg offered advice on how to fix that:
Four Pre-Meeting Tips
- Don’t over invite. The quality of a meeting plummets as size increases. Be mindful that virtual meetings can be recorded and played back later at double their speed by non-essential participants. If team members feel marginalized if not invited, allow them to present at the top of the meeting or to request an invitation to a future meeting after viewing the recording.
- Set appropriate meeting times. Avoid defaulting to one-hour meetings unless that time is truly needed. Work will expand to fill the time allotted to it. Reduce meeting time to 20 or 45 minutes. You will still get the job done but perform more optimally.
- Sharpen your agenda. Instead of a set of topics to discuss, organize your agenda as a set of questions to answer. This causes the meeting organizer to think more critically. By setting questions, the organizer can invite more relevant people. Can’t think of any questions? Then you probably don’t need a meeting. When is the meeting over? When the questions have been answered.
- Activate your video. Though it’s increasing unpopular due to “Zoom fatigue,” requiring participants to activate their video cameras is a great way to create presence in meetings. No one wants to be captive in a bad meeting, but video is appropriate and helpful in smaller, shorter meetings.
Four tips to improve virtual meetings
- Start your meeting well. As a meeting leader, your mood sets the tone and even produces a contagion effect on attendees. Don’t be artificially positive, but start the meeting with energy, appreciation and gratitude. Doing so will promote creativity, listening and constructiveness.
- Establish some meeting norms. Periodically create mutual expectations with your attendees for what makes for a good virtual meeting. How can we expect to have good virtual meetings if we never talk about what makes for a good one and what we should avoid? For example, considering keeping contributions to no more than 30 seconds so that everyone has a chance to speak.
- Be an active facilitator. In virtual meetings, meeting leaders must embrace role of facilitator to draw virtual attendees in. Invite individuals to share their thoughts. Avoid generically saying, “Any questions?” because you won’t get any. Quickly interrupt participants who ramble or go off topic.
- Embrace silence at times. In his recent Harvard Business Review article, Rodelberg explains that, while it sounds crazy, research supports the benefits of silence in meetings as way of gathering more ideas, perspectives, insights from attendees. Silent brainstorming groups typing directly into a document produce twice as many ideas as those brainstorming verbally. What’s more, those ideas tend to be even more creative. Why? With everyone writing, they can all “talk” at once. There’s no waiting for your turn and less filtering of ideas given the simultaneous generation of ideas. Silence is the best technique for building genuine inclusion into your meeting.
To do it in virtual meetings, simply share a Google Doc with key questions or prompts and encourage everyone to contribute for an appropriate amount of time for the task at hand. During this window, attendees can actively generate ideas, comment on other’s inputs and collaborate in writing. When time is up, the meeting leader can debrief, identify themes, conclusions or next steps. If the outcomes aren’t apparent, the leader can take time to go through an actual document and circle back with attendees.
This same approach works well in circumstances where attendees take turns providing “updates” on their work, a historically tedious time for attendees. Instead of verbal updates, allow participants to simultaneously type into a share document. This allows them to see other’s input, key in on relevant information and make comments and connections. The meeting leader may call out certain themes, as appropriate. This approach has become increasingly popular with technology companies, like Twitter. Even in groups of 25-30, all can provide updates in silence. Research suggests meetings done in the this way can be accomplished in half the time and are more satisfying.
Two tips to strengthen the end of your meeting
- End on time. While starting meetings late causes stress, ending meetings late is tremendous source of stress for individuals, so don’t run over. Be sure to end well. In your last few minutes, clarify takeaways, make sure people know what was decided and what actions are coming.
- Identify the Directly Responsible Individual (DRI) for each takeaway. Don’t let anyone leave your meetings wondering what was accomplished.
Rogelberg’s “bonus” tip and additional suggestions
After his bestselling book propelled his demand for media appearances, Rogelberg was regularly asked: “What is your single best piece of advice for making meetings better?”
While science doesn’t suggest a single “magic bullet,” he concludes that the best way to make your meetings better is to simply ask the people who regularly them how they are going. Alternately, offer a quick survey asking what’s going well, what’s not going well and asking for ideas for improvements.
Asking people for their input is the ultimate act of stewardship. By being intentional and making excellent choices, we all can fix our meetings, one meeting at a time.
Some still question if virtual meetings can be as effective as in-person meetings, but Rogelberg believes they have a bright future. After the pandemic is resolved, hybrid work environments will be here to stay. Remote meetings offer unique benefits, like shared documents and breakout rooms, that may allow them even more effective than traditional meetings.
About the Tommy Vines Human Resources Lecture Series
Now in its third year, the Tommy Vines Human Resources Lecture Series welcomes leading experts on human resources topics to Richmond to broaden perspectives and stimulate conversation among VCU students and faculty as well as Richmond’s business leaders. Last year’s lecture examined generational differences in the workforce.
Vines graduated from VCU School of Business in 1979 with a bachelor’s degree Human Resources and has more than 25 years of human resources experience with IBM, Cigna and the University of Michigan. Prior to his retirement, Mr. Vines served as vice president of Leadership at IBM where he directed the company’s global leadership center. Under his leadership, IBM was recognized by Fortune magazine as the top-ranked company for developing global leaders.
Vines created the Human Resources Lecture Series in 2018 as a way to give back to his alma mater and promote the human resources profession.