A combination of integrations, structural changes and new approaches can get company meetings close to being fully productive, members of the Braintrust say.
Good afternoon! Changing business practices resulting from the pandemic have put productivity under the microscope in the last year, and while there's been some consensus on hybrid work best practices, there are still a lot of unknowns when it comes to using meeting time. With this week's question, we asked the experts to talk to us about what full productivity in meetings actually looks like in these new environments moving forward as well as how close we are to getting to that much-sought-after peak. Questions or comments? Send us a note at firstname.lastname@example.org
Chief Product Officer at Calendly
While there's not a perfect equation to solve for time and productivity in meetings, there is an art to it. People tend to think of the challenges of meetings as a quantity issue, but the bigger issue is meeting quality. As we've gone digital, interactions that would have happened organically are being scheduled, yet lack the preparation needed to make those interactions effective. To see meetings as additive in influencing business outcomes, we need to approach them differently with time and intentionality in mind.
Most meetings are scheduled without the proper steps taken to ensure a quality outcome, whereas well-organized meetings inspire moments of connection, collaboration, creativity and productivity. One way to ensure a quality outcome is through thinking about the meeting as part of a broader meeting lifecycle and series of touchpoints: This starts with pre-meeting activities around communicating the goal, shaping the agenda and preparing attendees to contribute; in-meeting brainstorming and note-taking; and post-meeting activities to ensure action items are assigned and managed. At Calendly, we implemented core meeting hours — or preferred blocks of time for internal meetings — from 12-5 p.m. ET. This supports more asynchronous collaboration and helps maximize time for optimal meetings that drive shared decision-making and lead to clear actions.
Meetings aren't inherently bad; low-quality meetings are bad. If we broaden our view and take intentional steps to automate some of the manual heavy-lifting that's required for high-quality meetings, we'll find meetings become more effective and perhaps, even enjoyable.
CSO at Dialpad
100% productivity is an impossible ask for any employee. Despite the overall rise in productivity with the transition to remote work, we're still human and that means having conversations that wander, asking questions that are off-topic and talking about what we did over the weekend.
While we haven't hit peak productivity, we've certainly come a long way — exacerbated by the past 18 months — but we have years (if not decades) until we reach our full potential. There are no more hours in the day, so any increased productivity will come from using those hours more efficiently, which is where AI has a massive opportunity. As an industry, we've only recently begun to leverage all the data that is typically lost in voice calls. For example, with ASR, NLP and ML, we've already gotten to the point where manual note-taking and jotting down action items from calls are obsolete. Now, instead of repeating meetings to get to decisions, or forgetting actions or decisions that were made during calls, we have call transcripts that cut down on follow-ups and give us valuable time back.
But those automated workflows are really just the tip of the iceberg. Workflows of the future will be the defining difference that truly decreases the time spent in meetings. Imagine saying that you need to reschedule a meeting during a call and your calendar immediately finds the meeting participants' availability and schedules the time. Starting to automate these types of workflows is where additional gains will be made, and again, we're just in the early stage of it all.
Chief Innovation Officer at Citi and Head of Citi Ventures & Citi Productivity
When it comes to meeting length, I'd recommend taking an approach that can adapt to your team's needs. Some days and some tasks may require an hour of committed brainstorming while other issues can be solved in under half an hour.
My advice is: Don't make 30 and 60 minutes the default meeting times just because that is what most scheduling software automatically recommends. People will typically take up the scheduled amount of time for a meeting, even if the issue at hand could be solved more efficiently in less time. If a topic only requires 15 or 20 minutes, book the meeting for that amount of time — remember how many things we used to solve in a five-minute hallway conversation?
Finally, take note that a supportive and respectful working environment is a more important component of productivity than the amount of time people are required to meet. Leaders across all industries who display empathy to their teams will not only better understand their teams' limits but also better enable their teams to thrive.
Chief People Officer at Zoom
As with everything in life, moderation is critical. Leaders can find ways to make meetings more manageable as employees continue to work remotely and in hybrid environments. At Zoom, we recommend the "3As" framework — agenda, attendees and action items. Ensuring each meeting has an agenda and attendees are aware of their role and documented action items can increase efficiency and effectiveness by setting expectations and keeping teams on task. Enabling improved lighting capability for brightening dark rooms, enhanced noise suppression to cut through background noise and emojis to liven up your sessions can keep your participants engaged. Additionally, productivity practices like providing materials ahead of time and ending meetings five minutes early to give teams a buffer to recover mentally between meetings can not only help make the most of your meetings but also improve your team's workday.
CEO & Founder at Qatalog
There is too much dead space in meetings today, multiplied by the number of participants. Our addiction to endless video calls happens because the only way to get rich information from other people is to have a meeting.
Too often, meeting time is wasted by people getting up to speed on team initiatives organized in outdated spreadsheets or spread across different apps and channels. Getting on the same page in the first place is a huge waste of our precious time.
According to recent research from Cornell University, people are wasting about an hour each day just trying to find information at work. There's no source of truth. So they spend time trying to figure it out, then more time sharing what they've found with one another in the meeting. It doesn't have to be like this.
People should come to meetings with full context about what's happening across their goals and projects, ready to make high-quality decisions. Making the meeting close to 100% productive is a question of everyone coming with full context ready to drive towards outcomes. Even better, the meeting is no longer needed, as they've got everything they need to make a decision asynchronously.
Chief People Officer at SailPoint
Is there a secret meeting to no-meeting ratio to deliver maximum productivity? It depends on the quality of the meeting. It also depends if you have time to focus on the most important tasks at hand. I think we've all daydreamed about how much work we could get done if we took meetings out of the equation. At least for some of the day. I've implemented a campaign that encourages our crew to set aside two meeting-free hours twice a week. We call it Free2Focus, and by taking that time for ourselves we can reevaluate our priorities, devote time to them and make informed decisions on whether setting up a meeting with stakeholders to help execute on tasks is necessary.
There may not be a perfect formula where we measure success and productivity to determine how much time we should spend in meetings. But there is a mindset that helps get you there, especially in a hybrid world. When some people are in a room together and some are joining remotely, it's going to be a more effective and inclusive meeting when every attendee is on Zoom with their cameras on. Another trick is to have "unusual" meeting time blocks to maximize meeting efficiency. Limit meetings to 25 minutes instead of 30. Or 50 minutes instead of an hour. It gives people in back-to-back meetings a chance to digest the last meeting, reset and get ready for the next round. There's an Outlook calendar feature that automatically schedules meetings for uncommon time blocks that organizations should look to leverage.
CEO at Bambee
Can 100% of a company's meeting time be useful and productive? At Bambee, we aren't very far away from that mark. Despite the drawbacks of online meetings - sound and video issues, overtalking, dogs barking - we've benefited from a couple of positive changes. The first is that opening meeting small talk has practically vanished. If people want to catch up, they do it somewhere else. The second is that, probably as a result of the "please, not another video meeting" mindset, we have transformed from "let's update each other" to "let's get some things done right now."
At Bambee, the majority of critical personnel have been back in the office since late May. In that time, I've noticed that these new good habits that we've learned on video have carried forward. No longer, when a question comes up, do we have this conversation: "I'm waiting for so-and-so to get back to me." Or, "I'll run the numbers when I get back to my desk." Now, we tackle the problem in the moment. That could mean immediately pulling in the right person through Zoom, Slack, SMS or through a personal appearance to answer a given question. Or we let someone in the meeting break off to do some quick thinking or calculations and coming back with an answer before the meeting concludes.
Previously, one meeting might spawn several follow-on meetings. Today, we're finding that one meeting can move the company meaningfully forward. Is it 100% productive? It's close. I'll call it a 90%, allowing for the occasional barking dog.
Chief People Officer at Rapid7
I don't think there is a magic number for when it comes to defining what's considered useful and productive for meetings. The quality of time spent engaging is most important. This "future of work" world we are all in the process of exploring allows us all an opportunity to shift our approach to meetings and office productivity. Yes, people are getting clever with making meetings 25 minutes instead of 30 to allow for small breaks, or providing "camera-off" time for those suffering from video fatigue. I'd argue we need to think more radically not just about "meetings" but about maximizing the quality of time spent with others.
Whether it's in person or remote, we have the perfect opportunity to do things differently now. Perhaps rather than thinking of approaching "meetings" the same way we used to, just via video, we need to consider what the goal of these gatherings really are — and then seek to maximize the quality of that time spent together in a more advantageous way. The answer isn't no meetings, or days off from meetings — we need to solve for highly effective moments shared which will deliver the greatest possible impact.
See who's who in the Protocol Braintrust and browse every previous edition by category here (Updated Aug. 26, 2021).
Kevin McAllister ( @k__mcallister) is a Research Editor at Protocol, leading the development of Braintrust. Prior to joining the team, he was a rankings data reporter at The Wall Street Journal, where he oversaw structured data projects for the Journal's strategy team.
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