We are meeting as never before – online. Particularly in connection with our jobs this may present challenges, but it can also be very productive. Here is some advice from researchers for smart meetings in the virtual environment.
According to researchers, a team member in the IT industry spends up to ten hours per week in meetings. While leaders can have three times as much meeting time. But what is effective meeting culture on the web, and which meetings serve as a stalwart in our new digital everyday life?
From time waster to efficiency booster
Viktoria Stray, a SINTEF research scientist, is among those who been working on the issue of meetings for some time. According to her, they can in the worst case slow down projects and be perceived as a waste of time. Virtual meetings are by no means a new idea – many industries and businesses operate globally with no need for co-location. As a result, researchers working in this field have obtained clear insights into what is smart and what is not.
“For example, it is important to be clear about what sort of meeting you want to hold. Different meetings should be conducted in different ways. There needs to be a difference between brief status meetings, workshops where a group is to co-operate to solve a problem and, for example, open meetings in which an entire department or company is to be trained or receive new information,” she says. This means that virtual meetings also need good planning if they are to function effectively.
A meeting that is well-planned, with an agenda, an appropriate number of participants, good tools and a suitable timeframe can be very efficient.
This is what you should be aware of
This being said, it is easy to fall into some traps. The biggest challenge in virtual meetings is the lack of body language. When all one sees is a face, it is difficult to pick up the signals that a person normally provides in a physical meeting. Moreover, if video is not used it is impossible to interpret the body language. So using video and a good headset is essential, according to research scientist Nils Brede Moe.
Another challenge is to retain the attention of all the participants. When people are sitting in front of a computer screen they can easily lose focus on the meeting if they receive an e-mail, a text message or suchlike. This is particularly likely if the meeting has been going on for a while or if they feel that aspects of the meeting are not relevant to them.
“Using humour and showing support stimulate positive behaviour during meetings. Providing positive feedback, encouraging participation and proposing solutions to problems will improve the performance of the team,” says Stray. On the other hand, complaining has a negative effect, so the meeting chair should be quick to interrupt anybody who moans or grumbles.
“The tendency for “social loafing” –to expend less effort when being in a group than one would as an individual – increases with the number of participants and the degree of anonymity”, Stray explains. Participants who speak early during a meeting are more likely to be active later, so start with a simple, informal check-in procedure: what went well yesterday, or what do people perceive as the purpose of the current meeting?
The most productive meetings are unplanned
Studies indicate that most people working in a team spend slightly more time in unplanned meetings than in planned ones. Meetings that happen by the coffee machine, chance encounters in a corridor or visits to another team are examples of unplanned meetings. Whereas these meetings are found to be productive, a large part of the time in planned meetings is perceived to be of little value and as much as 30-40 per cent of the meeting time is perceived as being wasted, according to the researchers. Meetings that produce little of value impede the progress of a project and reduce job satisfaction.
Attending a large number of meetings is tiring
When all meetings take place in front of a computer, people spend more time sitting still. Hence, those who usually attend a lot of meetings and are used to moving from one meeting room to another find it more tiring when faced with many consecutive meetings, often without breaks. Staring at a computer screen all day is also tiresome, when one would normally be used to seeing other people. Researchers therefore stress that we should choose to attend certain meetings, and drop others.
According to them, one should ask oneself the following:
- Which meetings can I attend while I am walking about?
- What is the best time for me to attend meetings?
- Which days or times of the day should I keep free from meetings if I am to be productive?
- Which meetings do I not need to attend?
- When do I need to take breaks?
- And not least: which meetings can I drop completely or replace with something else?
The research projects:
The A-Team is a knowledge-building project looking into autonomous teams. The project is co-ordinated by SINTEF, with Kantega, Knowit, Sbanken, Storebrand and NTNU as partners. The project is funded by the Research Council of Norway. The A-Team project is intended to discover smarter ways of working, so as to enhance Norwegian competitiveness in a world marked by increasing need for digitalisation, growing globalisation and disruptive events.
10×Teams is an innovative project that is developing a new large-scale method of programme innovation in autonomous teams. The project is co-ordinated by Iterate, with SINTEF, Zedge and SpareBank 1 Development as partners. Among other things, the 10×Teams project will focus on practices and methods for co-ordinating teams in complex networks and models for supporting extremely high levels of individual autonomy.
Many of the results of the projects have been published. An overview can be found at: https://www.researchgate.net/project/Autonomous-teams-A-team
So how does online meeting culture function in practice?
At the Norwegian SpareBank 1 in Oslo it would appear that the number of meetings has increased since before the corona virus crisis. Informal meetings have become less common because now these also have to be scheduled. The result is that all meetings now appear to be more formal, according to Marthe Slaatsveen, Development Manager and Team Leader at SpareBank 1 Development.
In spite of this, there is a consensus at the bank that online social chat is actually surprisingly productive.
“It almost feels as if we have got to know each other better now that we can see the family dog and the wife in the background. ‘Have you painted your room?’ someone might ask. On Friday we had a bit of fun: somebody had given themselves a haircut, which caused a lot of laughs.”
At the same time people might not feel comfortable sharing everything. “I sit in the middle of my living room. To begin with I was afraid that one of my three boys or my husband might walk past in his underwear, but now I’ve decided just to take it as it comes,” says Slaatsveen.
Another challenge is that chairing meetings becomes more difficult, in her opinion:
“On some days I have felt completely drained after staring at a blank screen without getting feedback from people,” she says. I have found that asking, “What do you think about this?” is not very effective. It’s better to say, “Let’s all think about this for two minutes, and then we’ll go round the table.”
However, there are also some positive aspects as regards meeting culture:
“Meetings start more promptly now and it takes less time to get things going. Also, instead of using whiteboards, we write things directly in a digital application, which saves a lot of follow-up work,” says Slaatsveen. She believes that in future we will spend more time working from home and will be more flexible about when we work. Maybe it will be common to do a morning session and an afternoon session later in the day.
When asked which meetings work best, she answers:
“Monday commitments – meetings that are held on Monday morning, where we look at what plans and goals we have for this week. These are brief meetings, lasting no more than fifteen to twenty-five minutes. They are by far the best meetings!”
Also at Entur, a company that supplies services for simplifying travel among a combination of public transport companies, experience of digital meetings has been generally positive. Here there are no more meetings than there used to be, but employees have become better at using digital meeting tools and discovering the advantages of working from home.
“In the past people avoided online meetings. The pre-conceived idea seemed to be that they were less effective than meetings in which everybody was physically present,” says Rolf Knutsen. “However, there has been a change in attitude. Our organisation has a fairly flat structure and now everybody participates on an equal footing.”
Moreover, Knutsen believes that the impression of most employees is that productivity is high. “We get much more peace so that we can actually work. In the long run we may have problems co-ordinating ourselves, but we are conscious of this and so far it has not been a greater problem than usual,” he says.
“We hold Monday meetings in which the teams present things that are relevant to the week ahead. This is not about what we are to do within the team, but about what may be of interest to others. A positive experience we have had is that participants specify in advance what items they wish to talk about. This makes it easier to follow and the meetings become shorter and keep to the agenda.”
These are the SINTEF researchers’ ten tips for enhancing the efficiency of online meetings:
- Invite as few people as possible and make it clear whose participation is optional. The more participants, the shorter the time available for each to be active. When only a few are active in meetings that call for interaction, others will become more passive. When such meetings have more than 12 participants, the participants will be less satisfied.
- Open the meeting room early. It is an advantage if participants are able to test the audio and video before the meeting starts. Participants who log on after the meeting commences quickly disrupt the flow and interaction of the meeting.
- Status meetings should be avoided if possible. This type of meeting may be considered useful by managers, but less so by others. They can be replaced by one-on-one meetings or brief written updates.
- Use video, as this makes it possible to see body language, reduces social loafing and makes it more difficult for participants to multitask.
- Be an active chairperson. Address participants by name. Involve everybody who has chosen to take part.
- Make use of the functions of the video tools. It can be difficult to make oneself heard during a video meeting. One might want to get a message to others without interrupting a person who is speaking, etc. For this reason one should use chat functions in parallel.
- Arrange shorter meetings. Parkinson’s Law states that work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion. If you allocate one hour, the meeting will probably last an hour. Save time by arranging shorter meetings.
- Encourage people to leave the meeting. At the start of the meeting, inform everybody that it is fine to log out if they feel they are not contributing or learning anything new.
- Evaluate meetings and meeting culture (continuous improvement). What should one stop doing, what should one begin to do, and what should one continue to do?
- Facilitate unplanned meetings, as these are the most valuable. More unplanned meetings require one to cut down on the number of existing, planned meetings. Ensure that colleagues are readily available, for example by using communications tools such as Slack, Discord or Teams.
This article is based on the following scientific articles:
Stray, N. B. Moe and D. I. K. Sjoberg, Daily Stand-Up Meetings: Start Breaking the Rules in IEEE Software, Vol. 37, No. 3, pp. 70-77, May-June 2020.
Schneider, K., Klünder, J., Kortum, F., Handke, L., Straube, J., Kauffeld, S., 2018. Positive affect through interactions in meetings: The role of proactive and supportive statements. Journal of Systems and Software 143, 59 70.
Viktoria Stray, Nils Brede Moe, and Mehdi Noroozi. 2019. Slack me if you can! Using enterprise social networking tools in virtual agile teams. In Proceedings of the 14th International Conference on Global Software Engineering (ICGSE ’19). IEEE Press, 101–111.