How to Lead Fewer, Better Meetings in 2021 and Beyond
Matthew M.F. Miller
Senior Writer Matthew M. F. Miller is a bestselling author with articles in the Los Angeles Times, The Dallas Morning News, and more.
The majority of teams need to meet less, insists communication expert Daniel Stillman. But there’s one meeting he thinks every leader should have—a meeting about meetings. “I believe that’s the most important conversation right now,” says Stillman, author of Good Talk: How to Design Conversations That Matter.
Meetings have long been a pain point for both organizations and employees. Software company Atlassian reports that US companies lose $37 billion annually in salary costs and employees lose 31 hours per month due to unnecessary meetings. That same report showed that employees considered 50% of meetings a waste of time.
The COVID-19-led transition to remote work made it impossible for co-workers to drop by an office or desk to ask a simple question, something fully distributed companies have managed to do without for years. Remote companies utilize real-time communication platforms, such as Microsoft Teams or Slack, to allow for simple, less intrusive check-ins. For those new to remote work, however, Stillman says the drop-by void was instead filled with impromptu Zoom meetings to resolve every issue, big or small.
Slack found that 83% of those new to remote work said they could easily get in touch and engage with their co-workers. That ease, however, comes at a cost. A 2020 Robert Half survey found that the 76% of employees who participated in virtual meetings reported spending nearly 30% of their workday in those sessions, with 38% citing video-call fatigue.
“Video calls became the go-to way for professionals to connect, collaborate, and build rapport at the start of the pandemic,” said Paul McDonald, Senior Executive Director of Robert Half, in a press release. “While effective in some instances, they can be draining in others and are best used in moderation.”
Stillman believes this problem can be solved by designing better conversations. The modern employee is bombarded with too many meetings and forms of communication, an issue that has worsened during the pandemic. With remote and hybrid work environments here to stay, leadership teams should consider one basic question: Can our team communicate quickly and efficiently with trust?
Surveying Your Team’s Communication Landscape
A decent portion of the time employees spend in meetings would be better spent thinking, strategizing, and completing essential tasks, says Stillman. To rebalance the current workday, leaders must reconsider their team’s entire communication strategy. Step one: Get a handle on the quantity of team conversations.
“Ask your employees, ‘Are we talking enough or are we talking too much?’” he says. “This is a huge question because everybody’s burned out and everything is a meeting.”
If employees feel like there are too many meetings, leaders should compare the sheer volume of conversations against how much work comes out of each session.
“Unless we can dial back the amount we talk, we can’t actually move projects forward,” Stillman says. He believes we must measure meeting effectiveness by the clarity that emerges—how easily and successfully the work discussed in the meeting is completed.
One of the biggest struggles is that leaders generally believe the meetings they lead are essential. Harvard Business Review reported that 79% of managers said the meetings they initiated were very productive versus 56% for those initiated by colleagues. Cutting down on meetings means asking yourself if you need group consensus to complete or assign the task at hand. Stillman says we often mistake consensus-building for a vital building block of productivity, when what teams actually need is alignment.
That alignment, or lack thereof, has enormous financial implications, with highly aligned companies increasing revenue 58% faster than their misaligned counterparts. They are also 72% more profitable.
For alignment to occur, it’s less about constant consensus, reached only by continuous debate and feedback, and more about trust. A gulf exists between strategy formulation and execution. Stillman says when teams inherently believe in the mission’s value and the team’s capabilities, less consensus—and communication to achieve it—becomes necessary.
It’s up to leaders to guide discussions, starting with communicating company values and team goals, and ending with definitive action items.
Teams must focus on delivering those goals, both as individuals and as a group, so that each member has a high level of ownership.
“We have to trust each other more to do the work that we say we’re going to do, even when we’re not together,” he says. “That will result in fewer meetings.”
Fewer Conversations Through Improved Trust, Documentation
Technology can help establish that trust and alignment. Stillman believes Slack is useful for more frequent, continuous conversations by giving visibility and a digital drop-in experience for teams. It allows users to easily provide daily status updates on projects without disrupting colleagues’ work.
“But it’s not one size fits all,” he says. “There are a lot of organizations that can’t use it for a variety of reasons, and so they only have email and meetings. There’s no place else where the conversation is happening.”
That’s why having smarter, well-documented conversations can help teams regain their in-person mojo digitally. First and foremost, Stillman says, teams have to decide what the “sole source of truth” will be for collaborative work. That starts with deciding what type of communication works best for each team.
His friend, Jocelyn Ling Malan, Business Design Partner at The Holding Co., urges leaders to ask questions such as:
· Are we an email or Slack team?
· Are we a Google Workspace or Microsoft Teams team?
· Are we a Trello or Asana team?
“Every team needs to know where to look to find out exactly what’s going on—to know the status of a project at any moment,” he says.
“The conversation about a team’s sole source of truth is one every group needs to have for themselves because every leader’s brain works differently, and every team has different needs,” Stillman adds. Making a team decision rather than being told how their work will be tracked and managed leaves the fewest obstacles in teamwide adoption of the documentation process.
Real-time documentation doesn’t just align teams, it also improves cross-functional communication. A LinkedIn study found that 60% of respondents believed a misalignment between sales and marketing departments could lead to decreased financial performance.
The better the documentation and communication, the better aligned a team will be and, according to Stillman, the fewer meetings the team will need.
Structuring Conversations for Better Results
Holding fewer, better meetings also means wringing the most out of every conversation the team does hold. To improve facilitation, Stillman says leaders should revisit basic storytelling rules.
“Every conversation has a beginning, middle, and end,” he says. “Be it a book, film, or business meeting, every great story follows the same arc—there is an inciting event, there is a complication, and then there is a resolution.”
Being explicit about the conversation’s structure and expectations at the outset will lead to a more compact, efficient dialogue. When everyone understands the boundaries, as well as the conversation’s agenda, Stillman believes they arrive at actionable resolutions more quickly. He also advocates for storyboarding an entire meeting—drawing pictures and writing words to map out exactly how you plan to tell your session’s story—which establishes that arc in advance. Doing so, he says, will allow leaders to better understand the actual issue for which the team is trying to solve.
“In conversational leadership, one of the most important things is framing the challenge—asking a question that people can actually form reasonable answers to,” he says. Knowing that challenge ahead of time ensures a manager assembles the right team, prevents the dialogue from becoming an endless loop, and keeps a meeting self-contained. “It always moves the conversation forward instead of going around and around.” Inspirational leadership is key too, but inspiring your team without a meeting structure that allows decisions to be made and action items to form only leads to frustration and unmet goals.
“We frequently think about good leaders as people who can get troops to follow them into battle, but that’s just the traditional command and control type of leadership,” he says. “Most people need to work more on having a real conversation that has a center and no sides, getting everyone to say what they really think about a challenge, and then finding a way forward. That requires a different way of showing up and facilitating dialogue.”
Investing in that improved dialogue, in addition to revamping a team’s digital communication strategy, makes not only for fewer meetings, but also for happier, higher functioning employees. Stillman believes that’s something every leader of every team—office-based, hybrid, or fully remote—can get behind.