How to run great meetings – online or in person

With the rise of remote and hybrid working along with new ways of communicating at work, the risks of holding bad, unproductive, or annoying meetings are only increasing. The meeting ‘that could have been an email’ is now joined by the meeting that could have been an instant message or just a thumbs-up emoji.

But it’s also never been more important to get collaboration right across locations and time zones. Luckily there’s no shortage of research into what makes great meetings work, so we’ve gathered some of the key insights.

Set a challenging agenda

Everyone recommends having an agenda, but Professor Steven Rogelberg, author of The Surprising Science of Meetings, says getting the content right is key. He recommends avoiding a “laundry list of topics” in favour of asking specific, challenging questions, such as: “How will we reduce our spending by 100K by the end of the fiscal year?”

He also suggests asking attendees what should be on the agenda in order to improve engagement. And he says to put the most essential questions first. “Meeting science shows that content at the start of an agenda receives disproportionate amounts of time and attention, regardless of its importance,” Rogelberg says.

Invite the right people 

Among the biggest complaints about meetings is that the right people aren’t in the room, says leadership development consultant Mary Abbajay. If key decision makers are absent, nothing can get done, while including “everybody and their sister” just “wastes time and dilutes engagement”, she says.

She recommends asking whose input is needed to reach the meeting’s goals and ensuring they are available and committed. “Do what you can to invite the right people, and only the right people,” Abbajay says.

Decide how to decide

“We’re very clear at the beginning of every meeting whether it’s one person’s decision, or whether it’s more of a discussion to reach consensus,” says Carl Bass, former chief executive of Autodesk, in the New York Times.

People can contribute more effectively when they know if they’re attending to receive orders, to discuss a plan of action or to brainstorm ideas. That way you’ll get the right kind of engagement and people won’t be disappointed if a discussion doesn’t lead to a democratic vote.

Help everyone contribute

It’s always been a problem in meetings that some people hang around on the sidelines, but ensuring everyone participates is even more challenging when some of them are dialling in on Zoom. Jennifer Phillips at the messaging platform Slack suggests maintaining engagement by never going more than five minutes without giving the team a problem to work on.

Have people write down questions, including in the Zoom chat, and tackle them together, she suggests. Set up breakout groups to tackle small decisions and report back. And Phillips suggests providing a dedicated space for responses from remote team members, perhaps during an icebreaker, to get them comfortable with chipping in.

Leave with an action plan

Honeywell’s former chief executive David M. Cote says how a meeting ends is all-important. “Your job as a leader is to be right at the end of the meeting, not at the beginning of the meeting,” he says. Wrap up the meeting with a discussion of next steps and deadlines.

Real estate developer Mark Toro tells the New York Times he ends meetings with a catchphrase that has become a common acronym in his office: WWDWBW, or Who Will Do What By When? “We track people who deliver and those who don’t,” he says.

If you are interested in learning more about facilitating effective meetings, check out the Real World Facilitation channel on YouTube.