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Rethinking the Role of Meetings in Digital-first Workplaces

August 15, 2022 Collaboration and Productivity
Lance Haun
By Lance Haun

Remote work may be commonplace now, but it isn't new. I've been working remotely for more than a decade, and most of that time has been spent as one of the few people on the other side of the conference room screen. 

There were many things that were bad about that situation back then: feeling left out of critical conversations, missing out on relationship-building activities and the overall culture of the organization. With a background in HR, I knew these things were vital to a sense of belonging.

Moving to a digital-first — or digital-by-default — approach to work has been helpful for staying on the same page with colleagues, but it sometimes feels like we're focusing too much on how we can accommodate those employees who aren’t physically at the office. We end up forgetting about the things that did make work life good before Zoom. 

And meetings, as surprising as it sounds, may be the key to creating a richer work environment in a digital era. 

This Email Should’ve Been a Meeting

In digital-first work, it’s easy to go asynchronous. If your organization is going from one time zone to six, it makes sense. But there is now a tendency to send collaborative documents or emails instead of trying to figure out a time to talk — one, of course, that doesn’t eat into the other person's "down time."

Take it from global organizations that have had people in practically every time zone: meetings are sometimes worth the hassle. That is, as long as there are some ground rules. Here are three I've found to be critical:

1. Quality Over Quantity

Identify the moments and projects that matter most, so that you know when a meeting should be a meeting and not an email. For example, the beginning or end of a project are usually important times to meet and go over details "live."

There may also be key milestones or decision points in the midst of the project that make it worth getting together. Establishing check-in points throughout a project may be a good habit to instill in team work, though less is often more. An impactful 30-minute meeting once every two weeks, for instance, is often better than a weekly 15-minute meeting where not enough is getting done so people end up missing it or wasting their time attending it.

2. Flexibility

If the team presets a frequency for coworkers to meet, it's important to remain flexible if more urgent matters interfere or if the project isn't advancing at the expected pace. Canceling, postponing or moving up a meeting should all be options to keep in mind as things evolve.

The key is understanding that a project timeline is a guide to help everyone make it from point A to point B as planned, but it isn't carved in stone. The most successful organizations know to pivot on a dime if circumstances change — and that applies just the same to meetings.

3. Compromise

Perhaps the most important to teamwork is compromise. My first official meeting of the day is at 7 a.m., my time, but there are many instances when I have meetings well before that. Those meetings require me to start earlier than usual, but I know that my colleagues often meet with me at 4 p.m. my time, when it’s after bedtime where they are.

Looking back, there’s probably only been a few hours between midnight and 4 a.m. when I haven’t had a meeting. That's part of today's flexible, work-from-anywhere reality. But when everyone makes an effort to give and take, equally, so that meetings take place at the best moment for all involved, it’s easy to make it work and be respectful of others. 

Related Article: 'Giving Back Time' and Other Lies We Tell Ourselves About Meetings

Make Time for Connection

One of the great things I remember about meetings before the pandemic is that because I was remote and would miss out on hearing about all the big and small events happening in my co-workers' lives, we would use the first few minutes to connect on a personal level. That helped bridge the gap from not being able to spend a few minutes with them, waiting for a cup of coffee at the communal watering hole every morning, and it helped us build stronger bonds. 

Especially when meeting face-to-face, it’s great to have some of that time and be intentional about connection on a personal basis. We sometimes start meetings with a quick “good news” portion, where people can share what’s happening on a personal or professional level — whatever they are comfortable with. It’s a nice reminder that people are still taking meaningful steps forward at work and in life, even if we don’t hear about them as often in today's workplace. 

When professional relationships run deeper, they are better able to stand the test of time — and stress. It's easier to see another person's point of view when we understand their personality, where they're coming from and what they're going through. It minimizes the chances of communication mishaps that are pretty much inevitable in the digital era.

Related Article: How to Find a Best Friend in a Remote or Hybrid Workplace

The Video Meeting Burden

Progress is good, and the widespread adoption of video meetings and openness to seeing people in different spaces is a net positive. That said, there are some downsides to constantly being on video. Even early on, when I figured out how to turn off my video for calls, that light on your webcam always lets you know that someone is watching. 

Turning off video or having a video-free meeting is a relief, especially early or late in the day. It may be because I’m a geriatric millennial, but talking on the phone with no video allows me to walk around or even just fidget without feeling judged — or making everyone motion sick from movement. 

In short, it’s OK to just call, especially if you’ve built those relationships already. 

Related Article: When Should You Meet in Person in a Hybrid Workplace?

It Takes Time

Let's keep in mind that we’re all still adjusting (and readjusting) to these new norms. Even for someone like me, who's been working remote a long time, today's workplace is nothing like it was pre-pandemic. And it's likely nothing like it'll be a decade from now.

New tools and technologies are constantly making it easier to have better, more productive and more connected meetings. From digital note-takers to in-app collaboration, I believe that the future of meetings can be a bright one in spite of their bad reputation. But ground rules must be followed. By knowing when a meeting should be a meeting and making time to be human, meetings can be a better team-building experience for everyone.

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