How to Make Your Next Meeting the Best Ever

Employees distracted or unengaged during meetings? These tricks boost productivity and energy levels.
Lisa Bertagnoli
October 13, 2021
Lisa Bertagnoli
October 13, 2021

Feel you’re spending more time in meetings since working from home? It’s true. You are. 

Time spent in team meetings has jumped by 25 percent since the start of the pandemic, according to research from Clockwise, an intelligent calendar assistant. “With so many people joining Zoom or other video meetings for back-to-back hours on end, it’s no wonder meeting fatigue is taking a toll on employees,” said Matt Martin, Clockwise CEO and co-founder.

Meetings can be energizing and productive. It just takes a little work to get there. Holding a meeting should be more than slapping a date on a calendar and sending an invitation. 

Why You Should Avoid Meeting Fatigue

Meeting after meeting can drain employees' energy, sap creativity and quash productivity. Keeping meetings fun, fresh, short and on-topic with an agenda will the most out of employees during their time together.

“While there’s not a perfect equation to solve for time and productivity in meetings, there is an art to it,” said Annie Pearl, chief product officer at Atlanta-based scheduling platform Calendly, which has seen a 20 percent jump in meetings since the pandemic. (The most popular meeting day is Wednesday, the most popular start time is 10 a.m., and the average meeting lasts 36 minutes, according to Calendly data.)

Calendly managers think of the meeting lifecycle as “an experience of touchpoints: determining and communicating the goal, shaping the agenda and preparing attendees to contribute, assigning action items immediately following, and so on,” Pearl said. The company has a set time for internal meetings — noon to 5 p.m. ET. “This not only encourages more asynchronous collaboration, it also helps maximize time for optimal meetings that drive shared decision-making and lead to clear actions,” Pearl said. 
 

Schedule Smartly

Here’s another step toward better meetings: Schedule them during the time of day when you feel most energetic and capable of leading a productive meeting, and consider polling employees about their meet-time preferences, said Chang Chen, head of growth and marketing at transcribing service Otter.ai. 

 If you manage people across multiple time zones, make sure you know when and where everyone is working. “This way, you can reserve meetings for specific times of the day or even stagger meetings for certain team members,” she said. Scheduling meetings within the traditional 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. work day helps avoid super-early meetings for West Coast workers or evening-hour meets for East Coast employees.
 

Set an Agenda 

“Employees don’t want to simply sit on the phone and listen or worse yet, sit on the phone and have nothing but silence,” said Ray Kimble, founder and CEO at privacy security company Kuma. “Each call needs a purpose and that purpose needs to be clearly articulated to everyone on the call.” Make sure the meeting starts and ends on time, too.

11 Ways to Perk Up Meetings

  • Set an agenda and stick to it.
  • Schedule meetings during peak productivity times.
  • Keep meetings to 30 minutes or less if possible.
  • Plan a reasonable cadence for regular meetings.
  • “Cold call” on attendees or ask questions to encourage participation.
  • Use breakout rooms to take advantage of small-group dynamics during big meetings.
  • Take notes to avoid repeating information and to share with those who couldn’t make the meeting.
  • Schedule breaks between back-to-back meetings. Better yet, avoid back-to-back meetings.
  • Devote 8 percent of each meeting to a fun activity.
  • Start meetings with a ritual, then mix things up.
  • Try meet-free days.

To keep hybrid meetings engaging, energized and productive, Owl Labs starts each with a prep-read. The prep-read, sent to attendees one to three days in advance of the meeting, includes everything they need to know about the pitch or concept that will be discussed in the meeting, said Frank Weishaupt, CEO of the Boston-based company, which builds 360-degree video conferencing solutions. The prep read results in quicker decisions and keeps meetings productive and efficient, Weishaupt said.
 

Keep Them Short

Kimble suggests no more than 30 minutes, with silent time minimized and content focused on the agenda. “Focus on decisions, not brainstorming,” he said. “Brainstorming is hard in a virtual environment with multiple people on the line."
 

Find the Right Cadence

Holding the same meeting too often is one sure way to bore employees; holding it not often enough might lead to team confusion. “Start with the obvious question: Should this be a recurring meeting?” said Mollie Khine, director of career coaching at coding bootcamp Flatiron School

Further ReadingWhat is a Hybrid Work Model, and How Do We Make It Work?

Khine’s team was hosting four different weekly or bi-weekly meetings, and finally decided on one standing meeting on a four-week rotation: One as a full group, one with teams, one dedicated to training, and one non-manager-attended peer discussion time.
 

Encourage Participation

People attending a meeting feel shared ownership and a sense of belonging when they can provide input at meetings, Khine said. Engaging everyone does take effort, “but it overflows with benefits, if done well,” she said. “People are most engaged when they are talking, so make a point to pass the mic often and delegate parts of the agenda or MC role to various team members,” she said.

Chen of Otter.ai agrees. “Once the meeting begins, you need to actively engage with your audience,” she said. Addressing people individually as they enter the meeting is easy, but engagement gets tougher as meetings progress. “Ask individuals questions directly and loop people into the conversation,” she said. “When people feel like they’re just attending a meeting to listen, they’re more inclined to lose focus. However, if they know or expect to actively participate, they are more engaged and the meeting will likely be more productive.”

What To Consider Before Scheduling a Meeting

Keep a few things in mind to plan a successful meeting, said Chang Chen of Otter.ai. Every meeting has a purpose. What do you want to accomplish with the meeting? What are the most pressing issues that need to be addressed? Who really needs to join?

The “cold call” also encourages participation. During a meeting, the facilitator calls on someone to answer a question or offer feedback. It’s something that John Hutchinson, vice president, delivery at New Jersey-based EPIC Software Development, picked up during business school. “I was much more alert and prepared for evening classes where the professor was known to pose a question to anyone in the room at any time, including those who were not raising their hands,” Hutchinson said. “Preparation was a given.” 

Cold calls aren’t meant to cause embarrassment or anxiety. “The expectation must be set in advance to avoid a surprise, as we want it to be a positive experience for all,” he said. “Done warmly and in a constructive way, it helps keep everyone engaged — it makes for a more interesting meeting, and people will know to be ready for the call.”
 

Make Time for Friendly Chat

 “Burnout is a real thing in the virtual environment,” said Kuma’s Ray Kimble. “As a manager, it’s your responsibility to have fun and keep your staff and employees energized.” He suggests managers wear something “outside the norm,” for instance a holiday-themed or sports team top (if your city’s home team makes the playoffs) during a call every now and then, have a prop available to talk about, create a themed meeting, or have employees show off their pets during video meetings. “Meetings aren’t always conducive to these types of things, but look for opportunities to do them as much as you can,” he said. 

Michael Alexis follows the 8 percent rule, meaning that 8 percent of the time in any meeting should be dedicated to a fun activity. “This practice helps ensure that team members are engaged, having a good time, and participating in a way that feels enjoyable instead of tiring,” said Alexis, CEO of TeamBuilding, which leads virtual and in-person team-building events. Eight percent adds up to about five minutes per hour; it can be bumped up or down depending on the length of the meeting.
 

Use Breakout Rooms

 In meetings with 10 or more people, it’s easier for participants to turn off their cameras or otherwise let their attention wander. Organizing attendees into small breakout rooms keeps employees engaged and lets managers take advantage of small-group dynamics, Alexis said.

“Small groups mean more people have a chance to talk and contribute in a meaningful way, which produces energy and participation that carries into the main session,” he said. Pepper small group meetings with icebreakers such as “how do you take your coffee” or “what’s the last book you read” keep small-group members engaged with each other. Trivia works too: At TeamBuilding, winning trivia teams get funds that they can donate to nonprofits.
 

Take Breaks

There’s nothing quite as draining as back-to-back meetings, day after day. If they must take place, schedule at least 30 minutes between meetings to give everyone a chance to refill on coffee or tea, use the restroom, or just plain rest, said Chen of Otter.ai.
 

Take Notes 

Chen uses Otter Live Notes to produce a transcript of meetings. Video recordings, available on most video meeting platforms, do the same trick. Recording “frees you up so that you can get more out of every meeting,” Chen said. Managers and attendees have that record to refer to after the meeting ends, and the transcript or recording can be sent to colleagues who were unable to attend.
 

Mix Ritual With Novelty

Start each meeting with an employee shout out, sharing a client win or an icebreaker. These rituals create consistency and “familiarity — a bond, even,” Khine said. 

Further Reading Don’t Get So Technical: How to Communicate Effectively At Work

Mix things up after the ritual opening. Follow the agenda with a mixed slate of presentations. Maybe there’s a whiteboard opportunity, a case study or department highlights to share, or a new person on staff to meet. “However you’re used to doing things, your challenge is to try something a little different to infuse some fresh energy,” Khine said. “Once you do, try mixing it up again.”
 

Try No Meeting Days

Friday is No (Internal) Meeting Day at Boston-based Kognitiv, which provides Workday support to clients. The company, which employs 135, has been working with tools like Clockwise to help employees manage time, including making sure they have enough space for deep work. 

Mark Grignon, president and co-founder, decided to make one day of the week free of internal meetings. Friday ended up being that day for two reasons: Workday’s Sandbox environment, the place for experimenting and testing, is refreshed and overwritten every Friday. Projects that aren’t moved on Friday are gone forever. The second reason? Fridays without meetings make three-day weekends easier.

Grignon established the meet-free day earlier this year. “Feedback has been amazing,” he said. “There’s no way we could change the policy at this point.”

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