Why do we need Meeting Best Practices?
Working remotely, we cannot do what we did in an in-person environment. Remote work has led to an increase in remote meetings that are having uncharacterized effects on employee mental and physical health as well as work-life balance. Long-term implications could reduce employee efficacy and productivity and increase burn out.
What can we do about it?
When we first got word of work-from-home orders back in March of 2020, I was the Vice President of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology (Company size ~6000) New Researchers’ Support Group (membership ~600). Our mission was to create an inclusive work environment that supported new researchers to succeed in their endeavors and to navigate the complexity of the rather obtuse cultural norms. We received a number of complaints from employees struggling to maintain work-life balance. They feared that if they weren’t available, it would count against them and jeopardize their career. It didn’t help that senior management struggled to find their own work-life balance and were normalizing an unhealthy commitment of being always available – working 8-5 in back-to-back meetings, and using after hours to catch up on work.
I worked with a team of people to run a survey and begin curating a list of meeting best practices. We then circulated the recommendations across every division for peer-review. As we circulated these recommendations for feedback, I learned that even managers at the highest level of the organization were thankful to get guidance. Sometimes it’s easy to think that people with authority have all the answers and the ability to make change, but the reality is that cultural changes are wicked problems. No one person has the authority to make a change. It requires everyone, or at least most people, to “buy-in” to the solutions. This is called social constructivism. It means that if enough people follow guidelines, then they “construct” a cultural norm.
The following recommendations are a synthesis and should transcend any one company. The best part? They should hold up in a virtual or in-person work environment.
Guidance for Hosting a Meeting
Before scheduling, consider using other communication channels. Which channel you use will depend on the people on your team. It’s good practice to have an open dialogue among your team about their preferred modes of communication. Here I have listed some recommendations:
Some times we can accomplish a lot with a short call, or text.
A summary email after a call can ensure both parties agree on what was discussed
Great for impromptu side conversations.
You can pin/save important conversations, group chats, private channels, etc.
Not all use this platforms today, so make sure people want to use it.
|Communications that require a record of decision making, go out to many people for situational awareness, etc.
When scheduling, provide in the body of all meeting invites:
- Meeting Context (optional)
- Objective of the meeting
- Agenda with time table
- Measurable Outcome
This may seem trivial, but taking the time to outline these points will do several key things. First, it will force you to be clear about the intent of the meeting and what you hope to accomplish so that you can stay on track. Second, it will communicate this purpose to others. This demonstrates respect of their ability to plan and manage their effort and time across competing requests. Third, it will force you to think through how much time you truly need. Scheduling meetings for a default duration and then wasting time in the meeting to get to your point is disrespectful of everyone’s time, including your own. Remember, time is the most precious commodity. Once you spend it, you can never get it back. Finally, not everyone is an extrovert. Introverts require time to digest and think through their contributions. By providing an agenda in advance, you create an inclusive environment that enables everyone to equally contribute during meeting time.
Considerations for scheduling should include setting a meeting length and accounting for peoples’ complex schedules. In particular, let your meeting agenda dictate the duration of your meeting. As a rule of thumb, meetings should be <50 minutes and for meetings longer than an hour, there should be a scheduled break in the agenda every hour. This is for everyone’s health benefit as people need to move every hour and look away from computer screens regularly for eye health. Also, most people cannot focus for long periods of time, so pushing through is actually a less effective use of everyone’s time. To this point, most people require longer periods of uninterrupted time to settle into “deep work”. If it is possible, through federated calendar sharing within your company, check peoples’ schedule availability before scheduling a meeting and try to book at the beginning and end of available times. For example, if you see that someone is free from 8 – 10 am, schedule them for 8 am or 9:45, not at 10 am. Lastly, unless it’s an emergency, avoid scheduling “day-of” (same day) meetings at the last minute to respect that person’s planned breaks.
When in a meeting, there are a few things you can do to cultivate an inclusive meeting environment. First, encourage everyone to take sidebar conversations offline with a focused group. You can do this both as the facilitator of the meeting and as a participant through suggestion and demonstration. This will shorten the meeting for everyone. Second, pay attention to who is speaking and make sure that you create space for everyone to contribute. It can help to mention the names of people who may be most interested in what you are talking about and invite them to respond either. When meetings are long, our attention naturally drifts, so hearing your name can be a gentle queue to tune in. Note that introverts may not be able to respond right away, so invite ideas in the then-and-now and offer a time for follow-up.
It’s also good to rotate the responsibility of taking meeting notes that are shared with the team for those who cannot attend. This is important so that everyone feels included and you dismantle any “fear of missing out” so that people can take time off if needed. Rotating roles for note taking is really important both for cultivating inclusion and engaging and empowering your full team. Often women, especially young women, are asked to take notes. By rotating the role, you ensure that everyone is given an opportunity to speak and actively, rather than passively, contribute. It’s ok if some one “is not a good note taker”. They will never get better if they never practice. The person who takes notes, also has the power of recording what matters most; this is what will be remembered. Rotating that power through the team not only encourages all perspectives, but also to mitigates risks that something is not being considered.
Finally, it is good practice to take notes in a public, editable resource (e.g., Google Docs) and display notes as they are taken. This harnesses the power of collective note taking so that everyone can edit in real time. This releases some of the pressure for any one person to take all the notes. By displaying notes as they are written and the conversation progresses, everyone can see what’s being captured and ensure recording accuracy. This practice fosters an inclusive environment because not everyone is an auditory learner. Displaying notes engages visual learners and taking notes engages kinesthetic learners.
During breaks, get up and move around! Movement is essential for joint and muscle health, it can stimulate our organs and metabolism, awaken the mind, and can even benefit our eyes. Did you know that staring at computer screens reduces our blink rate and can lead to clogged tear ducts that can never be unclogged?!
Guidance for Managing your Own Schedule
While it’s nice to establish cultural norms, there are things you can do with your own schedule to take charge and prioritize your mental and physical health. Here are some things to consider about your own schedule:
- Reserve meeting free times (e.g., lunch hour, productive work times) by blocking them off on your shared calendar so others cannot reserve your time;
- Try to reserve a 20-30 minute break between meetings, especially if you have ≥ 5 meetings/day. During this break, go for a walk; and
- Remember to set work hours and turn off or hide your lap top during non-work hours. It may even help to turn on “do not disturb”.
Some other things to consider is the value of a personal connection. Ask someone how they are before jumping into business. Remember we are humans first and we all have stuff going on in our lives. It’s important to acknowledge this. You can only “push through” and compartmentalize so much before it will eventually catch up with you. As my life coach, KD Hurlbutt from Bask + Being once told me, “you have to be strategically selfish, to be sustainably selfless.” Acknowledging each persons’ external influences to the job, breaks the barriers and allows each person to be a little selfish, while also creating space for selflessness. You’d be surprised how creating the space for others and listening to them, will create more space and empathy in return. Lead through example.
Finally, if you find yourself very tired, consider your connectivity. Yes, I mean bandwidth. Did you know that audio is compressed reducing the frequencies that are transmitted to cut down on data transfer. This can strain your hearing and actually lead to fatigue. Similarly, blurry visuals can strain your eyes and may even result in headaches.
Check your bandwidth and make sure you aren’t adding unnecessary stress on your body:
|Speeds Listed as Download/Upload
|Bandwidth Used in a One-on-One Meeting
|Bandwidth Used in a 4 participant Meeting
Bandwidth Used in a large Meeting
150 Participants, 25 video streams (max per screen)
|0.15 Mbps / 0.15 Mbps
|0.5 Mbps / 0.15 Mbps
|1 Mbps / 0.15 Mbps
|Voice and Video
|1 Mbps / 1 Mbps
|2 Mbps / 1 Mbps
|5 Mbps / 1 Mbps
|Voice, Video and Sharing Content
|1.5 Mbps / 1.5 Mbps
|3 Mbps / 1.5 Mbps
|5 Mbps / 1.5 Mbps
|Voice, Video and Sharing Video Content
|2.5 Mbps / 3 Mbps
|4 Mbps / 3 Mbps
|5 Mbps / 3 Mbps