Recently I had an experience that had me reflecting on the importance of meetings, and it had nothing to do with productivity or agendas and everything to do with connection and support. I have a fabulous group of colleagues that meets every quarter and commits to regular phone calls between meetings to check-in on each person's actions and goals. In a recent quarter, we found it more difficult to keep up our availability for our regular phone call and one or more of us often ended up sending email updates instead. While these emails were lovely and the stated goal was met (hold ourselves accountable; regular reporting on actions and goals) I couldn’t help feeling like there was something missing. And admittedly my own personal motivation started slipping a bit. Confession: I even started to skip the email updates.
When we got together in person, I observed our joking acknowledgement of our failed connections and I couldn’t help but feel what was left unsaid: we had missed those actual conversations and our support system didn’t feel the same as a result. When we feel scheduled to the brim, or are striving to meet client or customer demands, routine meeting commitments and status updates can sometimes feel like interference in our “real” work (or our billable hours!). But I believe we often underestimate the value of the human support that comes from real conversation, which you just can’t get from emailing a to-do list. When our group got together, our deeper conversations that day left me feeling way more energized and helped me re-engage with my goals.
There’s certainly been lots written about the value (or lack thereof) of meetings at work and how to make them productive, efficient and strategic. A common thread I've found is “thou shalt make meeting productive or don’t bother meeting at all.” Productive is typically defined as producing a tangible result (e.g. the glorious strategic-plan) or making critical decisions that lead to tangible results. And with technology, I've heard lots of examples of how regular team meetings have been scrapped in favor of internal social media, slack channels, email lists or other message technology.
Here’s the thing: while I would never advocate frivolous meetings that waste time or interfere with important work and achievement, if we want vibrant connections at work, we have to re-consider some of what we mistakenly believe make meetings “unproductive” – i.e. the small talk, the side-bars, and yes, even those uncomfortable elephants in the room. As we reclaim and bolster our humanity at work, we need to appreciate how powerful a meeting can be in building connections for people, and that meetings are not just about achieving results on tasks. Human relationships don’t follow strict agendas and some of the best decisions come from diverse discussions which might mean a digression in the conversation from time to time.
It’s time to really appreciate – especially in the workplace - how chit-chat, social time and face to face dialogue are important interactive processes that humans use to build connection. By embracing this, we can be strategic about how we leverage this process to enhance both connection and productivity in our meetings, so people can be humans together while still keeping meetings on track.
While phone calls are always better than email, striving for more face to face meeting time is even better and technology should support meetings rather than replace them. Recently, a colleague of mine who works remotely, shared that their manager required their regular check-in meetings to take place via video call and not just voice. The expectation was that they didn’t care what anyone looked like (because working from home and let’s face it – sweats are comfy) it was presence that counted. My colleague clearly valued not only the time their manager made for them, but the intentional face to face connection.
Meetings create more opportunities to practice our emotional intelligence, empathy skills and trust, which all help us get better at navigating relationships at work and beyond. And with so many easy and accessible meeting technology options that are practically free (e.g. Zoom, Google Hangouts), enterprise level investment isn't required so even small business can find a great balance between technology and humanity to connect face to face.
Once you’re in the room (virtual or otherwise), it's ideal to incorporate time to intentionally build connections. If planned well and adopted as part of the meeting routine and team culture, it takes mere minutes for maximum benefits. Here’s some formal and informal suggestions for quickly boosting connections during meetings:
- Be hip about humour-make time for good natured humour - share a comic or video just for fun, (obviously keep it in the workplace appropriate zone) and don’t let formality and rigid agendas overshadow comfortable team banter.
- One word wonders- try opening or closing your meeting by having people give 1-word (or statement) on how they felt about something - either the meeting, their work day, their weekend.....etc.
- Win/Challenge- build time into agendas for each person to share a personal (or team) win and challenge they are experiencing – it could be specific to the project or meeting topic, or could be about their day to day activities.
- Book reports – invite team members to share news about their latest reading whether its personal, business or their latest news feed.
- Each one, teach one – ask team members to report back on recent training they’ve attended and invite questions and dialogue.
- Snack savvy – make snacks welcome (or sometimes provide them!). Whether its a meal together or just seeing someone choose chocolate over chips, people always find ways to connect about food.
- Attitude of Gratitude – wrap up each meeting by letting each person state what they appreciated about the meeting, a colleague, or their day.
- Happenings and helpers– allow team members specific time to chat about top stressors and any help needed as well as any help they can also give.
- Poll or pop quiz – use a strategic poll question or 1-2 question quiz to get people thinking and talking about something related to team goals, industry trends, internal updates or social topics.
- Just go with it – don't plan and just let the first 2-3 minutes of any meeting be time to say hello and check in with each other about life. Be upfront that it is valued and has a limit and openly and smoothly transition to task focus.
It's time to challenge some of our "efficiency" mindsets and recognize that empathy and emotion lead to greater productivity and that balancing our people focus and task focus is crucial if we want to achieve our most vibrant work. By making it a priority and using simple strategies to build real connections with our co-workers, and not just contact lists, we can be intentional about connecting, increase collaboration and creativity, and not only add value to our meetings but more meaning to our work.