We’ve all lost countless hours to meetings — where participants weren’t prepared, weren’t paying attention or spent the first 20 minutes discussing the latest Mad Men episode.
I’d argue, though, it’s easier to keep people on track in a face-to-face meeting, so long as certain guidelines are followed (say, everyone is required to leave their cell at the door). But according to a recent Harvard Business Review piece, it all starts with an effective agenda.
This sets clear expectations for what needs to occur before and during a meeting, says Roger Schwarz, an organization psychologist and CEO of Roger Schwarz & Associates.
“It helps team members prepare, allocates time wisely, quickly gets everyone on the same topic, and identifies when the discussion is complete. If problems still occur during the meeting, a well-designed agenda increases the team’s ability to effectively and quickly address them.”
Running a virtual meeting, though, is quite different from running a face-to-face meeting. And while an agenda is still critical, it’s going to look a bit different than a traditional one.
Most of us are guilty of multi-tasking during a virtual meeting — checking email, scanning social media sites or maybe even catching up on that Mad Men episode. Equally to blame, though, are organizers who drone on and on about topics that aren’t relevant to the people in the meeting or expect participants to follow an hour’s worth of PowerPoint slides.
In fact, a recent survey by Robert Half Management Resources found that employees felt that more than a quarter of their time spent in meetings was a complete waste of time. And the biggest time waster? Not sticking to an agenda.
And when running a virtual meeting, you can’t tell if people are multi-tasking, daydreaming or dozing off. Making it work means keeping people engaged, using their time wisely, and using technology to complement the meeting (rather than dictate its format).
That’s why an agenda should encourage participation. Assume that attendees will start to get distracted after 10 or 15 minutes, or after three presentation slides, says Nancy Settle-Murphy, principal and owner of Guided Insights, in CIO magazine.
Design an agenda with various ways to engage attendees — more so than you might in a face-to-face meeting. Web conferencing tools allow participants to make use of file sharing, online polling and interactive whiteboards to keep them engaged for better collaboration.
For large meetings, online polling is particularly useful, since you can solicit feedback from everyone in a short period of time — including those who are less likely to speak up in front of their peers.
Technology, of course, is key, but it has to work. Here’s a humorous example from comedian David Grady on just how inefficient a conference call can be when there aren’t rules or guidelines (and we’ve all been through this before):
The agenda should be short and focused, with ground rules set in advance (such as when to use mute). And the technology should match the meeting: Is a manager speaking to his or her department? If so, encourage active participation through online polling. Or is it a team that’s working on a project together? Then document-sharing capabilities will be essential.
Technology should assist in the objectives of the meeting, not dictate how the meeting will be run. And no barking dogs or Mad Men allowed.
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