At the end of last year, I created a fun survey to invite people to share their biggest frustrations with virtual meetings at work. It was an invitation to vent, complain, and let it all out.
Eighty of you took the opportunity to share your biggest gripes. And thanks to my friends at Waggl, who allowed us to use their technology, not only did people share their issues with virtual meetings, they got to see the responses from others and vote up those that resonated the most strongly with them.
In all, there were over 600 votes cast to help us narrow down the worst practices of virtual meetings. Today, I’m going to share the results with you to motivate you to be both a better meeting host and participant in the future.
Then, I’ll share a few tips on making your virtual meetings more effective and less terrible in the future. Perhaps one of the nasty legacies of 2020 that we can leave behind is awful meetings.
5 Worst Practices for Virtual Meetings
Below is a list of the most commonly cited challenges and issues people shared about their experiences with virtual meetings. Each of the five represents my best effort at summarizing a common theme in responses.
I’m also sharing a few snippets of actual responses to help you feel the pain and frustration that accompanied each. And there is plenty to go around.
As you read, it might be helpful to remember that meetings generally sucked before they were forced to become virtual. The move to virtual seems to have amplified the bad stuff and stripped out some of the good.
Without further ado, here is the list.
This one really annoys people. If you’re going to have a meeting, be at the meeting.
“Meetings need to be more alive and human, and I don’t want to be on another Zoom call where people are bored and multitasking!”
“It’s too easy to sit back, let others do the talking, stay off video or stay on mute, and let the meeting happen. If you’re important to the meeting, show up ready to contribute.”
“People who are obviously multitasking during a meeting are bad—talking, typing, eating, cooking, showering, you name it. But, people who forget or choose not to mute themselves and then go about multitasking in the loudest way possible are the worst!”
2. Too many meetings
It’s one thing to have bad virtual meetings. It’s another thing to be stuck in terrible virtual meetings all day. People complained that one reason there are too many is that meetings are being overused. When in doubt, schedule a meeting. Oof.
“Much like in-person meetings, sometimes it could have been an email or a phone call. We don’t need to look at each other all the time!”
“If you have an open block visible on your calendar then we MUST have a meeting so I can consume all chances of productivity!”
“Back to back to back meetings all day…”
“[We] don’t get the side conversations like before. If you just want to quickly connect with someone, it turns into another meeting.”
3. Tech fails
Virtual meetings can’t happen without technology. And I’m grateful that we have it in a time of pandemic-required isolation. But, with technology comes technology snafus—both on the part of meeting planners and attendees.
“People who don’t take the time to learn the platform so you spend the first seven minutes troubleshooting.”
“People blaming technology when it is really a user error.”
“People who forget they are not muted and say things they shouldn’t.”
“People not muting themselves when they aren’t talking and making noise (sometimes carrying on conversations with others who are in person with them or on their mobile). We should know better by now!”
“It’s always a challenge to be heard (without my kids chit-chatting in the background) and to hear (without blowing an eardrum using my headphones), but the WORST is when someone figures out the worst possible combination of audio options and has the Feedback of Doom. Kill me now.”
4. No facilitation or structure
While this is not a new issue, moving meetings to a virtual setting seems to amplify when a meeting lacks an agenda or purpose. It also feels more acute when the person leading the meeting doesn’t guide the discussion.
This lack of facilitation and structure manifests in many different (and annoying) ways. From people speaking over one another to poor time management, it’s a problem.
“When there isn’t a clear agenda or the meeting could be solved in an email or assignment.”
“It doesn’t necessarily bother me when participants are a couple of minutes late, but when the meeting organizer is on time but then starts the meeting 10 minutes late to wait for others, it’s a pet peeve. Then the meeting runs overtime unnecessarily.”
“People talking over each other and nobody hearing anything.”
“Seems our meetings are less focused. I appreciate the check-ins, but let’s also make progress on something. It’s hard to not tune out when we’re on the 823rd canned self-care lecture. If it were genuine that would be helpful, but it’s not so let’s move on.”
5. Hiding (e.g., not turning your camera on)
This last worst practice is unique to virtual meetings. If it’s a video meeting, people hate it when you don’t turn on your camera. Which makes sense, I suppose, since you couldn’t hide your face if you were meeting in person (or at least it would be very weird).
“People in meetings who don’t or won’t turn their camera on”
“The folks who reluctantly turn on video, but make sure the camera is only seeing the top of their heads.”
“People who do not turn on their camera when others do. I certainly understand the argument for those who do not have good working conditions or have to get WiFi from a parking lot. But for colleagues who I know are at home in a normal environment, it’s frustrating when they don’t engage visually—ever. I find that it impacts the cadence and overall “feel/vibe” of the conversation when you can’t see their expression. Not all meetings have to be video but when they are, everyone should be on.”
How to Fix your Virtual Meetings
I hope that your meetings aren’t as painful as some of these sound. But it sure feels like there’s much room for improvement in how we meet virtually.
Now, let’s turn our attention to what to do about these issues. Here are some tips to help you create better meetings for your team this year.
1. Make sure you need a meeting before you schedule it.
Since the pandemic struck, our default setting has been to schedule a meeting for everything. It feels like the right thing to do since we don’t see each other in the office.
This has to change.
Meetings aren’t bad. But, too many meetings or meetings with no clear purpose are. Before you schedule a meeting, hit the pause button and ask yourself a few questions:
- Is a meeting really necessary?
- What is the purpose?
- What needs to be accomplished?
- Is live discussion needed?
- Is there a good alternative? Could an email or a quick phone call do the job?
Instead of more meetings, we need more meaningful interactions. Change your default setting to “schedule a meeting only when necessary.” When you have a meeting, make it an engaging and positive use of everyone’s time.
2. Have a plan
Meetings are expensive. If you do the math to calculate the number of dollars invested in each meeting in both the salary of those at the meeting and the opportunity cost of other productive work that cannot happen during the meeting, it’s real money.
That kind of investment warrants that time be invested in planning how the meeting will be used. Before scheduling a meeting, you should be able to clearly articulate the purpose and objectives. You should also be able to clearly describe what outcomes will be achieved.
Only once you’ve achieved this clarity should you decide who should be invited. Ask yourself these two questions:
- Who needs to be there to achieve our objectives?
- What role do you expect each person to play?
As you could hear in the responses above, the worst meeting is one where you aren’t clear why it’s happening or why you’re there. Meetings like this are a result of a lack of preparation and intention.
A little planning will go a long way toward making your meetings more effective, engaging, and productive.
3. Use an Agenda of Questions
When you’ve planned your meeting well, creating the agenda is simple. But, not all agendas are created equal.
One suggestion from Steven Rogelberg, author of The Surprising Science of Meetings, is to use questions to frame your agenda. What questions need to be addressed or solved to accomplish your meeting’s objectives?
Using questions feels more dynamic than traditional agendas that read like to-do lists. Questions also help clarify exactly what needs to be discussed in the meeting to help with focus.
4. Set the Stage in Advance
Prior to the meeting, share the purpose, objectives, and agenda with all attendees. If preparation is required, be very specific in terms of what needs to be done and why.
In addition, use this communication as an opportunity to establish expectations or protocols for your meeting. Be explicit and detailed. Use the general rule, “If it matters, write it down.”
Here are some examples:
- The meeting will begin on time. If you are going to be late for any reason, please join when you can.
- This is a “camera on” meeting. Come as you are, but be prepared to have your camera on and be fully engaged.
- Find your mute button and use it. When you aren’t speaking, please mute yourself so you aren’t distracting from who is speaking.
- Please limit distractions during the meeting. Out of respect for your calendar, I’ve only scheduled 30 minutes. If everyone is focused and engaged, we should be able to avoid a follow-up meeting.
Setting the stage in advance makes it infinitely more likely that attendees will behave as expected and the meeting will be productive.
5. Facilitate the meeting.
Notice that I didn’t say “lead” the meeting. Great meetings don’t require leaders; they require facilitation.
To facilitate, by definition, is “to make easier or less difficult; help forward (an action, a process, etc.).” That’s what most bad meetings, virtual or otherwise, are often lacking—someone to help move things forward and make things less difficult.
If you called the meeting, this role either falls to you, or you need to designate someone to facilitate. Here are some tips for effective facilitation:
- Set the ground rules up front for how the meeting will work (video on/off, mute buttons, how to get the floor to speak, proper ways to use chat, etc.)
- Actively include all voices. This will likely involve calling on people and asking for their input or thoughts.
- Step in when necessary to keep things moving. If someone is talking too much or going off topic, it’s on you to step in and get things back on track.
- Keep your eye on the clock. Start and stop when promised.
6. Make tech your friend.
The amazing technology tools we have should help us create great virtual meeting experiences. But that requires our participation.
First, we have to know our tools and how to use them. If you’re using a new tech feature for a meeting, practice in advance to ensure you know how to make it work.
If you haven’t already, set clear expectations for your team and others who attend your meetings in terms of technology familiarity and proficiency. If people need training or coaching on it, make it happen.
That said, the fact that there are still so many people who claim a lack of proficiency in video meeting tools is unacceptable. If you had someone who refused to learn how to use any other piece of technology that was critical to doing their job effectively, how would you handle it?
It’s time we draw a line in the sand. It can no longer be okay to say you don’t like or are intimidated by the technology. That ship has sailed. Figure it out or find a role where you don’t need to use the technology. No more excuses.
2021: The Year We Fixed Meetings
Maybe that’s a little ambitious based on how many bad meetings are happening today. But we can make a big jump. Transforming a bad meeting into a good one can happen quickly with the right intentions and skills.
At the very least, let’s make a resolution to have fewer meetings in 2021. And when we do meet, let’s make it count.
That’s a resolution worth keeping.