Are you still plagued by meetings you’d rather not attend? Do you wonder why you were invited or what you’re expected to contribute? Do meetings drain your energy and rob you of the time that you need to “do the real work”?
We discuss these issues and share what we're doing with clients to help them break those patterns of behaviour by tackling the real issues underlying our reliance on meetings. This is far from a quick fix, if you’re going to do it properly, but nevertheless there are things you can think about doing today to make real change.
It seems we need to put more energy into planning our interactions with others. This is something that doesn’t always feel valuable, but if you’re going to invite 6 people to an hour long meeting (imagine how much that is costing your organisation), don’t you owe it to everyone to ensure it’s the best use of their time?
The brain needs breaks: Microsoft article/research mentioned by Lisa & Karen
AWA Host: Karen Plum
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Advanced Workplace Associates: https://www.advanced-workplace.com/
AWI contact: Brad Taylor firstname.lastname@example.org
Music: courtesy of bensounds.com
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00:00:01 Karen Plum
Hello and let me start this episode by asking a question. When you think about meetings, how do you feel? A sense of joy, excitement, or just dread?
Are meetings things to be endured, a way to demonstrate to others that you're committed, just because you showed up? Or does your fear of missing out mean you turn up, even though you can't add any value? Do you try to multitask during meetings to make the time seem well spent?
Sound familiar? So how do we change the mood music? Let's find out.
INTRO: Welcome to the Changing the World of Work Podcast where we provide insightful, practical content to untangle and demystify workplace change. I'm Karen Plum, director at Advanced Workplace Associates, where we combine science with nearly 30 years’ experience, helping organizations change the way they work, for the better.
00:01:03 Karen Plum
I've been fascinated by the problem of meetings for a long time. People are always saying “I never get any work done, I just sit in meetings all day”. So you know if meetings aren't work, why do we go to them?
The problem seems to have gotten a lot worse during COVID and I wanted to explore the issues and some potential solutions, so who better to ask than two ladies who have loads of experience helping people navigate these choppy waters?
Both are senior associates with AWA and friends of the podcast, so it's great to welcome them back. First up is Lisa Whited, joining us from Portland, Maine, on the East Coast of the US. Hello, Lisa.
00:01:41 Lisa Whited
00:01:42 Karen Plum
And from just outside Copenhagen in Denmark, we have Anna Balle. Hello Anna.
00:01:47 Anne Balle
Hi Karen, thanks for having me.
00:01:49 Karen Plum
You're very welcome. Great to see both of you. So, people are complaining about too many meetings. That's nothing new, right? We had that before the pandemic.
So what happened during the pandemic? Why did it get worse? Or did it really get worse? Lisa, what do you think?
00:02:04 Lisa Whited
Yeah, it's a great question to ask because, I don't know that it really got worse. I think that we are noticing it more because we're in a different setting and recognizing going from one to the other to the other, this back to back, that was always there but there was at least a little break you'd move around you, go to another room.
But people have been complaining about meetings from the beginning of time, I think. And one of my favorite analogies is the holiday ham story. Can I share that holiday ham?
00:02:34 Karen Plum
Go for it!
00:02:35 Lisa Whited
All right. So you know, year after year the family gathers, they cook a wonderful ham, but before it goes in the oven, they always cut the ends off. They cut the ends off of the ham and finally, somebody says, why aren't we wasting all of that good meat, before we put the ham in the oven?
They do a little research into their family and go back like 5 generations, the great, great, great great, great Grandmother’s oven was too small, and so she always cut the ends off. And that's the way we treat meetings. It's like we've always done it this way, so let's just keep doing it.
The opportunity that the pandemic has given us is to question those assumptions of why we have meetings.
00:03:16 Karen Plum
Well, I guess it's given us the opportunity, but have we actually seized it? Because, you know, from what I've heard over the last couple of years it kind of got to the stage that people were literally in back to back meetings all day. And I guess the thing is, if everybody’s working from home and everybody knows everybody’s working from home, there's no escape, right? So if you're invited to a meeting, you can't say no well, I'm not going to be in the office or around or whatever. Did that contribute to the situation, do you think?
00:03:46 Lisa Whited
I think it did contribute to the situation, and I think that the organizations that have given their people permission to say no to meetings; or have through their working together agreements and their other conversations agreed that when you set a meeting you make sure you know who really needs to be there, have the agenda ready, and think differently about how you prepare people to participate in a meeting, think about it differently.
00:04:11 Karen Plum
So from what you've seen, some organizations have taken the opportunity to try to crack this particular nut and try to instill in people some different approaches and disciplines to you know, even having meetings in the first place.
00:04:26 Lisa Whited
00:04:27 Anne Balle
There's been lots of research on, you know the good of virtual meetings, face to face meetings, hybrid meetings. We kind of figured out some interactions are better done virtually, which has been a surprise for a lot of people, so that sort of shakes us out of our usual habitual thinking.
Some interactions are really difficult to translate into a virtual setting, and they just work best face to face or easier face to face, they require a set of virtual skills to function. And then I think we're still sort of in a place where hybrid meetings just aren't great. It's just really difficult, and everybody is struggling with how we're going to make these hybrid meetings work.
So it's giving us the fuel that we need to start thinking about how we're meeting, so it may be difficult, it may be suboptimal, but I think it's the fuel that we really need to stop knee jerking with our meetings, I mean meetings and scheduling meetings is just like a knee jerk, like cutting off the edges of the ham like you said.
We're not thinking about it and we need to start thinking about that more intentionally, and we're getting an opportunity to do that now. And lots of our clients are really thinking about this in a very sophisticated manner.
00:05:36 Karen Plum
To some degree we need the leadership not only of managers, but of other people that organize meetings and that we move away from this proxy for commitment type of thing, so I'll accept your request for a meeting because I think I might miss out on something or I might fail to show that I'm committed to the subject or to the team or to the meeting.
Is some of this incumbent on those leading teams to show that reacting differently is OK?
00:06:08 Lisa Whited
We always say that you got to walk the talk or, you know, be the model for the new behavior that you want people to adopt. Those that have done that I think, are showing that it can be done well, but it doesn't mean it just happens overnight, with the flip of a switch.
This is an ingrained habit and behavior that most organizations have had for decades. It's just how things have been done, so it does take work.
00:06:33 Anne Balle
I think there's also something about maybe just getting this started by using some other words. You know when we talk about a meeting, what do we see in our heads? We see someone sitting in a room on a chair around a table looking a little bit tired, sipping on their coffee and looking at something on a PowerPoint.
You know we're not meeting just to have meetings. This is about how we collaborate, it's about how we interact, it's about how we share knowledge, it's about how we work together. So this whole idea of, I don't get any work done because I'm in meetings all the time, maybe we should call it collaboration, interaction, inspiration.
00:07:10 Lisa Whited
Think about physical for a second. To have what's one of my favorite ways to have a group come together in – setting the chairs up in a circle and no table in the middle and just have a conversation and let it move around the circle. That changes the dynamic of interaction.
I mean, we have heard that just zoom squares, rectangles on a screen has also changed some dynamic of interaction. It does level the playing field. There are some people that are participating more than they did before because of the change. But I do love the idea, so let's think about this, we know how important social cohesion is right to create high performing teams, it's one of the six factors to have social cohesion.
And would a leader say to their people you know you're in there having coffee, you and Anna I saw you sitting over there, having coffee, when are you going to get back to work? What have we been doing for 45 minutes? We've been connecting, building social. Cohesion, how do they know what we've been talking about?
And so this perception that work only happens in certain ways, that a meeting is work and that working by yourself is work Its all work, work is work. It doesn't matter where you are or what you're doing, you're working.
00:08:20 Karen Plum
But I guess the thing is that if I'm asked to go to a meeting and I have another deadline that I'm working to and this meeting is getting in the way of my deadline, then particularly if I turn up to the meeting and it doesn't feel like a good use of my time, then it's not going to feel like work.
And it's the control that I think we feel, or whether we feel empowered to say no, there's something else on my schedule that I should be devoting my time to.
00:08:50 Anne Balle
I think that's a really good point, and I think there's a lot in there about energy that has to do with how our brain works. As a client said on a call today, we were doing a workshop and he said – “we’re 3D humans”, he kept saying “we’re 3D humans and when I don't see people in 3D don’t get the same energy”.
And a manager said last week and I thought that was very clever and I thought why haven't I thought of that myself, but I haven't, so this was one of my clients who said, you know, we're actually very aware of that social cohesion, how important it is to have those coffee breaks. So we've done a whole bunch of virtual coffee breaks during lockdown.
The problem is, it doesn't feel like a break. It feels like another meeting and if I was in the office and I went to go get a coffee and I met someone, we had a chat that would have felt like a break. But when I do it on my screen, it just feels like another meeting, so it's this experience of what feels like work, what feels like a break, what feels like energy, what feels like connecting with real humans.
00:09:53 Karen Plum
Yeah, and what's spontaneous and what's planned. I for one, I'm sick of people talking about the serendipity of the water cooler. Because really people claim so much for that.
00:10:04 Lisa Whited
I think the opportunity from 3D people and coffee breaks is to say we don't want you to have a coffee break and use the video.
We want you to go outside, use your cell phone if you want and talk to somebody and walk or do something different. You don't need to be in the screen the whole time. Because think about people without sight, right? And we take that away, our hearing improves and so that might be a good dynamic, to give people permission to do things differently and to connect in a different way.
And on the water cooler moments, I asked my husband about this the other day. He said yeah, the only thing with those water cooler moments you know sometimes I'd run into, you know Fred and he talks a lot and I'd be sitting there thinking. I have work I need to do and it's. And I didn't use the real name to protect my husband.
00:10:55 Karen Plum
But that's it, it's not always a good interaction, is it?
00:10:59 Lisa Whited
It's not always a good interaction and Anna to your point, I did this recently. I was supposed to be at a meeting, there’s a regular meeting we have once a month with the team internally. And I showed up and I knew I had something else I had to get done and 10 minutes in I said to the team, I said guys, I'm sitting here and I'm multitasking and I'm doing both things really poorly and I'd like permission to leave this meeting so I can focus on a task that I gotta get done and then hopefully I can get caught up, otherwise.
I think we need to give people their permission to do that. They want you all present, they want you all there, you know when somebody is not all there, right?
00:11:32 Anne Balle
And it might be one of the challenges as well with virtual meetings because we have to use more energy to really be there. I mean, I notice it when I'm facilitating workshops.
If I'm in the room with people, I get a natural kick of adrenaline, call it energy, call it adrenaline, whatever. Some days it's a bit too much adrenaline. And other days, it's just energy. But that kind of keeps me going and sometimes when I'm doing a full day of meetings, I kind of get this feeling of - I could just press that button and everyone would go away!
But I can't do that when I'm there and I'm not saying that I want to do that, but it's just when you're tired, you get something when you're physically together. And at the same time, as we've also seen, when you're virtual, there are so many things that work better as well, so it's getting that perfect mix. But again, not just talking about meetings. Let's talk about interactions. There could be so many different things.
00:12:28 Karen Plum
Yes, and thinking about the degree to which these sorts of things that we're doing online, or that we have been doing online for the last couple of years, why they're so exhausting. Lisa, you shared with me an article that Microsoft had produced, some research that they've done on the impact on the brain of continuous back to back activities and sessions and how if you even have a five or ten minute break between those, it allows the brain to cool down for a bit and then ramp up again for the next session so that you can bring a better self to that next engagement.
00:13:04 Lisa Whited
Absolutely, it's sort of like going to the gym. If you go to the gym every day and work your muscles, your muscles need a break and then they're stronger the next time. It's the same with our brain - if it's just continuously going and I love the imagery that is in that maybe we can provide a link in your podcast notes, Karen, but to see the brain that didn't get a break versus the brain that gets breaks and you know there it is very, very visible and people complain about, they feel it, they know it. That's the zoom fatigue or whatever people are experiencing, it's a real thing. We all do as humans need some breaks for our brain.
00:13:38 Karen Plum
We certainly do, and talking of breaks, it's time for a quick one now, but I'll be back with Anna and Lisa after this message.
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I'm David Smalley. I'd be delighted to invite you to an AWI event as my guest. If you're interested, there are details in our show notes. I look forward to hearing from you.
00:14:32 Karen Plum
Welcome back. So before the break we were talking about breaks being important for the brain. And just as we design different spaces for different purposes in the office, there's nothing to stop us introducing variety in our working environment when we're away from the office, even if it's just being in a different room for a while, right?
00:14:50 Anne Balle
It's down to the contrasts, isn't it? Contrasts just work, even if it's not a break, if you're doing something different that you're not doing otherwise. I think those contrasts are important because just as well, when we're in the office, if we're in back to back meetings, say, even though they're face to face, that isn't fantastic either.
And lots of our clients are actually talking about that. They're saying OK, now we will be coming back to the office every now and then, but all those serendipitous water cooler moments that we've been talking about, we're not going to have time for that 'cause look at my schedule. When I am finally in the office I will be stuck in that meeting room all day.
We've got to stop this knee jerking. And really think about why are we in the office? Why are we coming back? How do we create that - we're not there to have meetings, we're there to interact with other people, it's not the same as meetings.
00:15:40 Karen Plum
But I can just imagine that even if you agree in your team that we're going to have two days in the office and three days not in the office, and we won't have any meetings in the other three days, the meetings are going to creep in there.
00:15:52 Anne Balle
I have clients who try to have meeting free days like across the organization, say this day of the week is meeting free and yes they do creep in, but there's still that intentionality around it and the shared understanding that it's actually legitimate on a Thursday to say, sorry this is my focus day and it's a meeting free day. So I can perfectly well choose to say I don't want to come.
And I think those shared understandings are really important. Often it’s really simple stuff, it's not rocket science, but being intentional and being intentional about things together just makes all the difference.
00:16:28 Lisa Whited
Absolutely, I can't help but think of, at least in the US, we have Prince Spaghetti Day! That ad campaign came on probably the 60s and we all grew up knowing that Wednesday night was Prince Spaghetti. Prince was the brand name for the spaghetti. So Wednesday night was spaghetti day and so that is how pervasive something can be if the culture really embraces. said no, you know.
00:16:55 Karen Plum
What we need is an advertising campaign to promote these things.
00:16:58 Lisa Whited
Karen, it is so true. So this is what we've been, you know, more recently with clients, now they're really picking up energy, this idea of coming back to the office and treat it like a production event.
You really want people to come back, then you show them you want them to come back. You put thought into how they're going to come in and what they're going to experience. I mean..
00:17:19 Karen Plum
Sell It to them!.
00:17:21 Lisa Whited
if you want your People to come back you treat it like a hospitality - like I've got the Queen coming to visit
00:17:25 Karen Plum
Well, she's got COVID so..
00:17:28 Lisa Whited
Well, she has COVID, she's not coming! You treat them like they are the gold that they are.
00:17:36 Anne Balle
I think this is interesting because I have other clients who want to do the opposite. They actually want their people to stop being so office centric and they have a whole bunch of people who are just like - oh the office is going to open and I can be back five days a week and it's going to be marvelous. And we're trying to push a bit more of a hybrid culture to say maybe that's not the great way to go.
00:17:57 Lisa Whited
Oh, definitely, I agree Anna. I think that when you go to the office there's a purpose, there's an intention for why you go, absolutely. But then when people are there, you know to be intentional about their experience so they really have a great experience.
00:18:12 Anne Balle
We have a lot of clients as well that have onboarded hundreds of people during the lockdown. People that haven't met face to face, so this whole thing of coming back to the office is also you know we've seen that we can really maintain relationships virtually. We can also build them but it's more difficult so coming back to the office and getting the possibility to establish relationships with new people who have been on-boarded during lockdown is relevant.
But again at AWA, we know that we can actually both build and maintain relationships virtually.
00:18:46 Karen Plum
The best thing we've had from the pandemic is that it has really been a springboard, and it's been long enough for people to really think, well, we can't just hold our breath for a few weeks and it'll all go away.
So what are we going to do? What things do we want to change? How can things get better? Do you have some cool examples, Anne?
00:19:04 Anne Balle
I do - I actually have a client who's working in a very, very sophisticated manner around their meeting culture and using this whole return to office, hybrid working, new ways of working as a springboard to do that. And it's really interesting because, again, what we're working on is, it's not just about meetings, so we call it meeting culture, but that's not what it's about.
This is about how we collaborate, how we interact in order to actually solve our mission, solve our goals, achieve a shared purpose. That's what this is all about.
We're not having meetings for the sake of having meetings. So we're actually working with this client on creating tools to help people plan meetings and facilitate meetings in an efficient way. Simple visual tools that are also being coded into existing tools.
Tools that avoid that knee jerk reaction. So thinking about, do you really need this meeting? Does everybody really need to be there? Are there some of these participants that don't actually need to? These participants you've invited - what's their role? You know how are they expected to contribute to this purpose?
What is the purpose of the meeting? Can you be very, very clear on the purpose of the meeting? Is there a rational goal for the meeting and an experiential goal? So what's the experience that you want people to have in the meeting? But also, what's the rational goal of it. And what's the format that we're using for the meeting? Is it the right kind of meeting?
So just thinking those things through and the interesting thing with that is, again, it's really not rocket science. It's very nuts and bolts, but it takes not only time but also bandwidth, mental bandwidth for anybody who's planning that meeting.
And a lot of people are saying, oh, I don't know, that means, you know, I run a lot of meetings. Doing all that planning beforehand for my meeting, you know that's not going to be realistic. But on the other hand, if you have a meeting that's an hour long with ten participants and you just find out, even if you find out one of those participants doesn't need to be there - using 15 to 20 minutes on that is a fantastic business case for the organization.
So it's very much sort of trying to understand the importance of that prep, of that planning, and we've actually also launched what we're calling Facilitation Academy, which is an in depth course in actually facilitating meetings so that the client organization themselves has people within the organization that are upskilled in facilitating interactions, and they are actually again not just there to facilitate meetings but to go out and be culture carriers for a more evolved collaboration culture
00:21:50 Karen Plum
Yes, but it takes time and energy and a lot of support because if we're gonna cook this ham in a different way, maybe we're gonna cook it, you know, not even in the oven, I don't know, it's about looking at the way the work gets done, isn't it, and not assuming getting people together for an hour or whatever it is, is the best way to crack every problem.
00:22:08 Anne Balle
It becomes more than just the meetings. It's about the culture. It's about how we collaborate. It's about what the relationships that we build and how we work together. And there are lots of leadership skills in that as well.
00:22:22 Karen Plum
Yeah, but it does mean that there's a lot more energy, time, commitment, training, transition involved in all of that, as opposed to - let's just run better meetings. So it implies a real depth of commitment on the part of the client to want to really leverage change in the way the work gets done, which I find very inspiring because a lot of organizations would be looking for a sticking plaster.
00:22:50 Anne Balle
Yeah, I think you can only get so and so far with a sticking plaster. And again, it's a question of saying, you know, it's an investment. But if we are evolving the way we collaborate, and if we can see people are burning out with the volume of meetings and whatnot, that at the end of the day, this is actually going to be an improvement overall for our culture, for our ability to achieve our goals as an organization.
00:23:15 Lisa Whited
I've often said that the smartest investment a company could do is to train their people to learn how to facilitate conversations and facilitate meetings. So the skills that Anna is talking about is probably one of the smartest training investments that a company could make because it will have a very wide ranging positive impact for so many people.
What I'm seeing also is people being smarter about using technology to support the interactions, they recognize these tools have been there for a while, but then there's been a great deal of improved development on tools over the last couple of years and I have seen that being used more effectively, which I think is fantastic.
The simple tool that we've been using for a while, Mentimeter, just to make sure people are engaged and paying attention and doing really quick live polling in the moment - even for town halls - to get them to pop to life but opening rounds.
There's just a lot of good tech that can be used and the other positive change I've seen many have adopted this in their working together agreements, is to commit to 20 or 25 minute meetings instead of 30, or 50 minute meetings instead of 60. But to do that effectively you do need people to hold each other accountable, 'cause it's way too easy to let the clock keep going and nobody says anything.
00:24:36 Karen Plum
Yeah, absolutely, and I really do think that the example Anna gave - the commitment to look at the skills around facilitation because there are so many of them, even down to the basics of listening skills and thinking about how to get the best out of each person attending whatever that event is, so that you're leveraging so much more benefit.
But just to finish off, given that that's a whole big program with a lot of commitment and time, but can you both suggest perhaps one thing that you think people could start doing today to make things better or to set them off on the journey of less meetings or better meetings, or whatever?
00:25:23 Lisa Whited
I'll share a story. So, I have three children and when the first one is born, any little thing you think oh my God, we got to go to the emergency room!. And then the second one comes along and you're a little ease up on it and like, no, we probably don't need.. maybe the quick care or maybe we're good.
The third one you're like, buddy, unless you're not breathing, you're good. So like if we took that way to think about meetings, to say, if the leaders could say a meeting is a last resort, you know. Like let's really be radical in thinking anyway lets use that as an experiment, say, jeez, is this really what we need to do? Can we get an outcome with a different approach? I think that's a very radical way of thinking, but I think it can start these conversations which could lead to good change.
00:26:10 Anne Balle
I'm not sure I can give like a really, really succinct and simple thing, because I don't think it's super simple and I've been working very intensely on all this facilitation stuff for a while.
I think there are three elements that you need to think about in your organization, so if you're saying, oh, we gotta do something about meetings. Let's start off by saying where's the problem?
And as I see it, there are sort of three different areas that we could look into. Is it our use of tools and technology? How are we doing on that? Does it have to do with our culture and our relationships? Do we have a lot of conflicts? What's our psychological safety like? Do we feel good talking to each other, sharing knowledge?
So that's the other part, so there's the tools and technology, there's the culture and relationships and finally, there's just meeting planning. You know, like the really boring discipline of making sure that I've thought through the meeting, through the participants, who's there, I've sent the pre read, I've done the agenda, I know the goal - all this kind of stuff that we really don't want to spend time on 'cause it's not very sexy.
But it's absolutely super important and try to start out by saying within those three areas - where is the problem? Because we're not going to solve culture and relationship problems by being great at doing Zoom meetings. No matter what we do, our hybrid meetings are not going to be good if we have issues with our relationships.
And very often I have to say what I see is, the problem is in the prep. It's in the discipline, it's the - we don't want to spend 15, 20 minutes preparing every meeting and that's just, that's a discipline. But start out by figuring out where the problem is before we just sort of go into it head first.
00:27:57 Lisa Whited
Really, what we're talking about is having respect for those that you're pulling together - really being respectful. I mean it's a way to show respect to give the thought that needs to go into, to plan it properly and often our working together agreements, the foundation is respect, respect, and trust. So it's just a good way to treat people.
00:28:18 Karen Plum
OK, well that's about all we've got time for today, so very many thanks to Anna and to Lisa for sharing their experiences and the ham story, which I'm sure will live l with us all.
00:28:31 Lisa Whited
00:28:32 Anne Balle
Thanks, I'm gonna go cook a ham.
00:28:34 Lisa Whited
I'm going to do one over an open fire.
00:28:39 Karen Plum
So thinking about what problem it is you're trying to solve is a good place to start. And thinking about how the work gets done, not just about why meetings are a drag and how to get out of more of them. Improving our planning and execution of collaborations, however we label them, is something we can all work on.
I hope we've inspired you to try something different and create some new habits. Don't cut the ends off that ham, buy a bigger oven or a smaller ham!
CLOSE: Thank you for listening to this episode of the Changing the World of Work Podcast. Please follow or like the show so you don't miss any of our content. You can find more information on this episode in our show notes, including a link to the AWA website, if you'd like to know more about us. Hope to see you next time. Goodbye.