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Simple Steps for Productive Meetings

With the majority of office buildings closed and millions of people around the world working from home, virtual meetings have increased significantly and are filling up our daily schedules. According to a study by Bain & Company, employees collectively spend 15% of their time in meetings, and upper managers spend 50% of their time in meetings. “Meeting overload, which is already an issue in many organizations, maybe exacerbated in this current work from home environment,” said Sr Research Director Mike Fasciani at Gartner. We concur. On the Webex platform alone, we’ve seen the number of meeting minutes per month increase from ~7 billion reported in Feb 2020 to 25 billion in May 2020.

Take Back Control

By default, and out of necessity, virtual meetings are the driving force that keeps us connected.  But if 71% of senior managers consider meetings to be unproductive, do we really have to be fatalistic about our meeting time?  The answer is no; we can and must take back control.  So, the question is, “How do we stay productive and make timely decisions, while not spending too much time in meetings?”  The answer is fewer meetings, fewer distractions, and fewer decision-makers.  Here are some tips on how to accomplish this.

1) Shorten your meetings where possible

Be conscious of the meeting duration. Move away from 30 and 60-minute meetings and convert all meetings to a minus 5, minus 10 or minus 15 minutes from what they used to be.  Meeting owners can call for 15- or 20-minute meetings if that is all the agenda needs. Having said this, optimize for the outcome, not duration, and only meet to create value. If a meeting risks going longer but allows for more decisions being taken, and removes the need for another meeting, that’s even better.

2) Minimize frequency; less is more

Consider the cadence for recurring meetings. Move weeklies to bi-weekly. Move monthly to quarterly. Move daily to either Monday, Wednesday, Friday, or weekly. Calculate your weekly 1:1 time commitment and reduce it by up to 50%. As a rule, all recurring meetings can be set for only the next 4 occurrences, which helps you reassess the need for the meeting.

3) Ask yourself, “Do we need a meeting?”

The asynchronous future is here. With flexible work schedules and time zone differences, it’s harder to find a time when everyone is available. Consider whether any particular meeting objectives could be achieved with a team space, or via document sharing instead.  Try converting a few meetings into Webex Teams conversations by canceling the meeting and then debrief later to see if the technique worked and should be repeated. Perform active A/B testing between meetings and Webex Teams spaces to see if you could have avoided the meeting, to begin with. It’s amazing how much can be accomplished in a workspace with all the right people.

4) Limit multi-tasking by leveraging video

Encourage more people to use video so that they actively engage and remain truly present. Many of us feed on each other’s energy when we’re collaborating, and video helps us absorb that energy. It also helps to minimize the temptation to multi-task during meetings.  If people are multi-tasking, perhaps they shouldn’t be there and can instead use the time to get work done. There will always be legitimate reasons why some people have to have their video off, and yet they will still be able to engage productively in the meeting. The real point is to encourage people to focus on and not multi-task.

5) Push decision-making closer to execution

Assess your attendees and reduce rubbernecking by looking at the notes of past meetings.  If, in the past 3 meetings, someone hasn’t contributed at all, stop torturing them and forcing their attendance. If you’re inviting an employee and their boss to the same meeting, there should be a good understanding of why they’re both required to attend. Attempt to push decision-making as close to the execution as possible (lower in the hierarchy).  If you invited the CEO, could you have invited the Senior VP reporting to them instead?  This forces everyone to up-level, and it also gives more responsibility to the person who is actually implementing the work.

6) Plan in advance and set clear expectations

Webex AssistantForce preparation by having an agenda, a pre-read (where appropriate), and follow-ups after the meeting.  Cancel any meeting where an agenda has not been posted in advance.  Also, cancel the next occurrence of any meeting where someone hasn’t captured the previous one’s actions or take-aways. (Hint: you can use Cisco’s Webex Assistant to do this for you).  Meetings have a cost, and if people don’t make the appropriate investments, the meeting should be canceled.

a. Pre-Reads and preparation: Require pre-reads and send them to attendees at least 48 hours in advance. Pre-reads help clarify the goals of the meeting, and force people to think through, digest, and articulate their ideas before the meeting. The ‘social contract’ here is that attendees must read pre-reads in advance. If a pre-read isn’t sent out in advance, reschedule the meeting.

b. Agenda/follow-up action: The meeting owner is responsible for creating and sharing the agenda (which can be included with the pre-read materials) and for posting meeting action items. Without both, people should be allowed to skip meetings.

c. Indexing: A benefit to having an agenda in advance is that you might only need to be there for your particular topic. In that case, either appear at an agreed time OR ask one of the meeting attendees to send you a Teams message prior to when you are needed.

d. Respect other’s time: Don’t use meetings as a substitute to catch up. Do your work offline, and don’t waste other’s time to bring yourself up to speed in meetings. If you have a specific question about something or need additional information, reach out to the appropriate person 1:1 after the meeting.

e. Discipline: Teams need to consistently update meeting artifacts, dashboards, status reports, and metrics — then publish them for consumption by others on time. Others should bookmark the links and review them beforehand, so they can ask pertinent questions in the meeting.

7) Block time to keep your commitments

Your calendar can protect you:

a. Schedule a post-meeting time to complete your work. Block time for your individual commitments to make sure they get done. This could be a proposal you need to write, coaching time, an impromptu 1:1, or simply thinking time. Protect that time the same way you would protect a commitment you made to host a meeting.

b. Schedule reminders and delivery dates on people’s calendars. Meetings are often to check in on actions. Once you have the actions identified, schedule times on calendars for providing that deliverable and ensure those deliverables are provided in a Teams space. This way, you can chase them down in that given space without needing a meeting. In addition, if there is a project plan, continue to have that updated and refer to that to get status versus having another meeting.

8) Schedule “meeting-free” days

Consider having meeting free days for deep work.  An example of this would be to protect engineers.  Some organizations allow engineers to have 4 meeting-free days each week. The only meetings they attend are the ones called by themselves with other engineers or architects and are related to getting their work done (stand up, code reviews etc.). Sprint ceremonies, 1:1, all hands, and staff meetings happen the 5th day of the week.

9) Flip from “fear of missing out” to “joy of missing out”

Do some spring cleaning and consider a fresh start where you periodically cancel all existing meetings.  Your new calendar would start with only the meetings you need, with the appropriate people, and with a clear agenda and outcomes penciled in the invite. Outline prep work that people have to complete prior to coming into a meeting.  In addition to this, be willing to skip some meetings. Don’t attend meetings that you know for sure that you won’t contribute to. Instead, make sure the Webex Assistant is at the meeting and get access to the transcript or highlights afterward.

10) Be purposeful with your objectives

Stay the Course. Once plans have been set and agreed to during a meeting, avoid deviations because they take re-alignment from multiple parties and cause re-do’s.

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Contributors: The Contact Center leadership and the Collaboration Group leadership all contributed to these ideas with specific suggestions authored by: Omar Tawakol, David Wiener, Brian Schmahl, Sridhar Gaddiapati, Abhay Kulkarni, and Vinod Muthukrishnan.

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