Mend your meetings

If you’re losing your staff’s attention in the boardroom, it might be time to revamp your methods.

Carolyn Scissons remembers one particularly painful meeting she sat in on several years ago. "It started out with a technology glitch, then was side-tracked by a comment from a participant — it was a very hot topic everyone else wanted to talk about, which was only remotely related to the project. I wish I could say we recovered but unfortunately not," the senior coordinator at Suncor Energy in Calgary says.

It happens all the time. You have good intentions — there’s a new process to go over with your team, or you need to apprise your employees of a new client signing on with the firm, so you ask your department to be in the boardroom at 10 a.m. But it doesn’t take long before things go off the rails: participants start losing interest and more glazed-over eyes are staring down at their iPhones than at the PowerPoint presentation that’s dragging on for what seems like hours with no real purpose. According to a US study by Bain & Company, which provides consulting services, companies spend 15% of their collective time in meetings, with senior executives spending more than two days a week in meetings with three or more coworkers. What’s more, meetings are often scheduled "just because."

Jon Petz, the author of Boring Meetings Suck: Get More Out of Meetings or Get Out of More Meetings, says a big reason why meetings are scheduled is because bosses doubt their decision-making process. "There’s less risk if six other people are involved," he says. "But are there two people you can call to make a decision rather than calling eight other people (to a meeting) and wasting their time?"

Of course, there are other reasons why managers choose to pull staff away from their desks and into the conference room, but not everything requires the formality of a meeting. ("The days of ‘let’s get together and I’ll read you an update on a company policy’ — stop it!" says Petz.) While you shouldn’t discount meetings entirely — they’re still necessary for some situations (such as relaying information that’s best disclosed in person) and there is value in bringing everyone together to share ideas — it might be time to reflect on your current practices and find new ways to engage your team. Here’s how.

SET AN AGENDA

If you feel a meeting is necessary, do the team a favour and prepare an agenda. Petz says everyone attending should receive it at least 24 hours in advance. He advises including two important items for the meeting — a mission statement with an objective and an outcome statement. (Petz says an effective way to make a proper outcome statement is to say to yourself, "When we walk out of the meeting, we will have accomplished x, y and z.") At least this way your staff will know what to expect and it won’t be a free-for-all.

EXPERIMENT WITH NEW TECHNOLOGY

If you feel PowerPoint is passé, try meeting remotely by private Facebook page or using Microsoft SharePoint. Jeff Lowe, vice-president of corporate marketing for Smart Technologies, says, "There’s a lot of unbelievably advanced meeting technology that isn’t used." For instance, his company has devised products for people who can’t let go of the dry-erase board but want to embrace technology. The Smart Kapp pairs the presenters’ phone or tablet with a Kapp board, where they write their presentation. Then they hit a button and share what’s on the whiteboard with recipients — sitting in the room or working remotely — who receive it in a text message or email. "People just love to get up and draw, so we paired it with another thing people love — their mobile device," says Lowe.

Instead of schlepping everyone in, give videoconferencing (which will allow more people to attend remotely) a try using join.me, WebEx, GoToMeeting, Google+ Hangouts or TeamViewer.

And how about having meeting-goers contribute via Twitter? (#Awesome.) Some companies follow the hashtag and show the Twitter feed live, providing a running commentary with equal access to all participants.

BRING ACCOUTREMENTS

Bernie DeKoven, originator of deepfun.com (an online resource that has games, icebreakers and other activities), suggests using everything from Silly Putty and Koosh balls to Tinkertoys to quell the inevitable "fidget factor" of a meeting. "If you don’t keep their hands busy, they’ll text or use their phone or do something distracting." DeKoven knows of one company that brought in a toy horse and equipped staff with a plastic stick. "Whenever anyone thought somebody was advocating something they’d already decided against, they’d start tapping on the horse. The message, in other words, was ‘you’re beating a dead horse.’"

GET MOVING

The Mayo Clinic suggests walking meetings and walking brainstorming sessions as not only a way to keep fit, but as a tool to energize a meeting. Employees at Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario in Ottawa, for example, have been holding walking meetings for the past four years. Mark Tremblay, director of the Healthy Active Living and Obesity Research Group at CHEO Research Institute in Ottawa, says when employees book a meeting, say, for 20 minutes, they send a meeting request through Outlook, which features a drop-down menu that’s used to choose timed walking routes in the neighbourhood. (There are routes for meetings of 15, 20, 30, 45 and 60 minutes.)

While Petz has heard of meetings on horseback, in washroom stalls and even rooftops, he favours the stairwell for single-focus meetings. With a maximum of five people, each person uses a flight to make a point, then colleagues use the next few flights of stairs to make a comment. If you’re on the move, use a smartphone or notebook to record material.

MAKE IT A HAPPY ENDING

For a meeting to feel effective and enjoyable, Scissons suggests making a big impact in the last five minutes. "Most meetings start off with good intentions, but the last five minutes are often neglected. Recap key points, assess whether the meeting objective was met and clarify the next steps," she says. Scoring meetings can also help, as can giving credit where it’s due. (DeKoven says there’s a temptation for employees to avoid brain- storming meetings because the person who called the meeting gets the credit for all the ideas.)

"What people need to remember is that good meetings are fun. Not only are you accomplishing, but you’re being heard, you’re really listening to others and there’s a real sense of mutuality," says DeKoven. "If the meeting is fun, you know you’re doing something right."

About the Author

Georgie Binks, Georgie Binks


Georgie Binks is a freelance writer in Toronto.

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