A brief History of meetings.
Formal structured meetings have been around from the start of civilisation. There is evidence going back over 3,000 years to the Grecian agora (markets) where ‘conversations’ between groups of buyers, sellers and co-workers took place in support of commercial objectives. These were great social and networking occasions.
Virtual meetings, not a great medium to achieve those ‘social’ benefits.
Today more than ever the humble business meeting as a tool to plan and progress work has come into sharper than ever focus. Before the pandemic, the meeting was often the most important regular workplace social and networking occasion. How often did we get stuff done around the fringes or before and after the meeting itself?
The physical meeting was and is the place to see and be seen. That is not just the current speaker as is often the case on video calls. It is a place for ad hoc as well as formal structured communications, a place for verbal and non-verbal (given and received). The physical meeting can also function as a soapbox, a place to eloquently make a point or a means to exhibit a deliverable to colleagues. It is also a place where you can be inspired by a great leader. Of course, the meeting can also be a great source of energy (creative and problem solving).
Today, we are mostly meeting virtually. This two-dimensional medium, the video call, is not a great medium to achieve those ‘social’ benefits from meeting others.
If you are a team member seeking to shine or to get the bosses attention you need to work smarter. You will need to add more skills to your repertoire as well as those slick presentation skills that got you by in the past. You will now need to work on skills such pre-wiring attendees, so they are not depending solely on the virtual forum to appreciate your pitch. This requires enhanced networking skills.
As a leader it will be more difficult to spot the talent coming through when you cannot visually observe the team dynamics through the wider lens of the physical meeting. You will now be keen to witness those that can function most effectively in this more virtual environment.
The importance of CLIMATE in meetings
I had the good fortune many years ago to be sent on an ‘Advanced Meetings Skills’ course. Perhaps they were trying to tell me something about my developmental needs! That was in a world before the prevalence of conference calls never mind video meetings. The emphasis was on establishing Purpose, ensuring the Attendees were appropriate, Preparation, Roles, Structure/process, Climate, maximising the Outcome and setting out next steps.
I remember at the time thinking that the conversation around climate was new and interesting for me. This focused on how to establish an environment or climate which encouraged attendee participation and created the best outcomes. Of course, in between we learned about ensuring mutual respect, handling conflict, and managing the infamous rat holes. A warm climate was usually desirable to achieve results. This is a lot easier to achieve in a physical setting that in a virtual one.
One practice that may help is the ‘Check-in and Check-out process’. These need to be allowed for in the agenda. Get all your attendees to informally say hello, state what is going in their world, including anything that might be a distraction right now. The Check-ins are the conversations that would often take place naturally in the minutes before the meeting starts in a physical environment. At the end of the meeting, you encourage your participants to share their thoughts, views, and concerns. Again, these are the ‘water-cooler’ conversations that would often take place after the meeting attendees disperse.
Attention span in a virtual world.
Today one of our biggest challenges in the workplace is engagement and staying focused. It is generally acknowledged that later generations have a shorter attention span than their older colleagues. This can be great for moving things along at a pace but may not deliver the best outcomes. Technology enables this modern trait.
In a recently released book, Arthur Charles talks about Social Warming and its potentially dangerous effects. He observes that the smart phone is the modern equivalent to smoking. It is a habitual way for us to fill our time gaps. We cannot leave a time space unfilled. While we attend Video meetings, how many of us find ourselves distracted by our smart phone’s ding or the irresistible urge to fill the time gaps through the little screen when the meeting is not keeping our attention?
There is no easy answer or mitigation for this other than discipline. A coach will always encourage you to be in the now! Our natural tendency is to either dwell on the past or to be anxious about a future event that is rarely as traumatic when it happens. Meanwhile the world is happening here and right now.
We are all different.
Appreciating that we are all different is a great place to start. There is no one right answer, there is no one size that fits all. Understanding how we interact with each other is even more critical in this virtual environment as teams become more multigenerational and more multicultural.
I trained and qualified as an Emergenetics Consultant (https://en-gb.emergenetics.com/emea/) several years ago. The Emergenetics profiling tools help us become aware of and to understand our Thinking and Behavioural Preferences.
Continuing research and ongoing practice has determined that ‘Whole’ teams perform best. These are teams consisting of people with complementary Thinking and Behavioural preferences. Whether you are part of a fully complementary whole team or not there are specific approaches that work for people with different preferences. For example, an individual with an Analytical Thinking Preference will respond positively when the meeting starts and ends on time and the Objectives are stated up front. While the person with a Conceptual preference will respond best to Brainstorming. A person with a Structural preference will want to see a detailed agenda set and followed with action plans created. The person with a Social preference will be most concerned to create rapport and build a pleasant environment. When you throw in Behavioural preferences, you will have participants who prefer space to reflect, those driven people that need to be encouraged to listen and other individuals who just want to stay on task. When you understand the profile mix of your team you can run the optimal meeting.
To make meetings work, there is no one right answer,
In conclusion, there is no one right answer but lots of opportunities for us to adapt. There is no doubt the humble meeting has changed. Its evolution has been accelerated by the pandemic and the dramatic increase in virtual meetings. Whether you are an aspiring leader or a highly experienced leader, what worked for you in the past is unlikely to work for you in this new future.