The formal nature of team meetings has changed recently due to the mainstream arrival of remote working. With video conferencing becoming extremely common — but not all the problems they face began with this shift. Team meetings have been lacking across the board in many ways for as long as they’ve been held. Most notably here, they’ve lacked engagement.
If you’ve worked for a medium-to-large organization for a spell, you’ve surely noticed a proliferation of inconsequential meetings. They’re arranged due to a general understanding that meetings are important, pass without achieving anything of note, and are swiftly forgotten. This is massively wasteful — not least because they provide the illusion of progress while actually depriving the company of time that could be spent in valuable ways.
This isn’t to say that the solution is a broad ban on meetings, of course. They truly are necessary if you’re going to keep everyone on the same page, allow creativity to spring forth, and see that major obstacles are suitably addressed. But they need to be done correctly, and that means ensuring a solid baseline of engagement.
In this post, we’re going to cover five ways in which you can increase engagement during team meetings. Apply some or all of them and you’ll see a notable uptick in meeting value. Although you should still seek to improve upon your meeting formula on an indefinite basis because there’s no such thing as a perfect meeting. Let’s get started.
1. Build them around clear plans
Some companies like to hold ad-hoc meetings in the hope that spontaneity will make them more engaging. While it’s a neat concept to some extent, it fails to consider that meeting structures should be fully formed ahead of time. Winging it will inevitably result in awkward pauses, indecision about where to go, and confusion among the attendees.
If possible, you should plan every large-scale meeting (even if it’s a plan-review meeting), setting out the core objective, acceptable time expenditure, required/desired attendees, and available resources. Will you need to present your screen? Might a slideshow help? These aren’t choices to happen upon during meetings when it’s far too late.
Note that this planning needn’t be clear to everyone in the company. Indeed, it’s often useful to keep meeting details from the attendees so they don’t go into them with expectations. Suppose that you wanted to engage in some team-building activities, for instance: while you should have the activities planned, you shouldn’t disclose them to the attendees. Doing so would damage their engagement. All you’d need to tell them in advance is that they’d be working on making the team better. They wouldn’t need to know anything more.
When you don’t have a strong idea of what you want to accomplish, it’s readily apparent to the attendees, and they start to switch off mentally very early on. It’s understandable. Remember that meeting time takes them away from their core tasks, some of which may have imminent deadlines, and they may find the disruption frustrating while questioning its usefulness. One of your goals should be to demonstrate the value of your team meetings from the outset, prompting them to actually care about them.
2. Keep the numbers down
How many people do you invite to a team meeting? Five? Ten? Twenty? The more attendees arrive, the more disconnected a given attendee will feel because they’ll become just another face in the crowd. When you ask a question, they can stay quiet, knowing that they likely won’t be challenged directly. This is one reason why startups often have more energy. Their teams are smaller, and each employee matters more. It’s nice to matter.
If you can keep the numbers down by only inviting vital team members, do so. If you can’t because everyone needs to be there, look for ways to split them up during your meetings. Common video conferencing services support breakout rooms that can serve this purpose, while companies like Topia.io offer tools that provide spatial video chat (conversations are opened and closed through adjacency in digital landscapes, allowing for dynamic discussions).
3. Make them optimally succinct
If you’re setting out an hour for a team meeting, think very carefully about whether that amount of time is truly justified. Can you pay attention in a group setting for an entire hour? It’s harder than you might think. It’s easy enough when you’re working alone and you can get fully absorbed in a particular task, but even the most hectic team meeting isn’t non-stop action. It also bears noting that some contend that the average attention span has dropped in recent years (though thoughts on this are mixed).
Accordingly, you should trim them as much as you can. Cut the preamble, cut the lengthy and awkward Q&A sections where you try (and fail) to get people involved and use timestamps in your plan to ensure that you move things along at a rapid clip. Five minutes to set up a problem, ten minutes to discuss it, ten to note down conclusions, and five to wrap up. That might not sound like much time, but thirty minutes can go a long way if you plan carefully.
Remember that you don’t need to use all the time you’ve allocated, though: in fact, it’s a terrible idea to stick rigidly to your targeted finish point. State at the outset that you’ve allocated excess time and will get through things as expediently as you can. This will help people focus. Feeling trapped for an hour regardless of what they did would lead them to pay less attention.
There’s always the possibility that a meeting will take more time than you planned, but that has to happen organically due to attendee action. If you leave a buffer for feedback and questions and find that everyone is eager to learn more, you can allow more time — but if you extend the session because you’ve failed to get through your key points, you’ll engender disdain.
4. Give everyone tasks to complete
Most professionals know what it’s like to be invited to a meeting but feel completely surplus to requirements. You’re expected to be there and seem interested, yet you’re treated as though you’re not even present. The reasonable response is to let everything wash over you. You know you won’t be asked about anything afterward, and that the meeting content won’t affect you. Why invest any emotional or intellectual energy alongside the time you’re forced to give?
As the host of a team meeting, the onus is on you to give everyone something to do. You don’t need to contrive individual tasks for this: you can pick small groups and assign them tasks that require all those participating to actively engage. Think carefully about individual strengths before you pick the groups, though. If you put two graphic designers on the same team for an action requiring graphic design, one may simply leave the other to do the necessary work.
There will inevitably be some level of contrivance required, but don’t let that stop you from acting. Contrived engagement is still engagement, and it all has broader significance concerning team unity and employee value. Make the projects sufficiently interesting and people will enjoy working on them. They may even see them as opportunities to impress and earn progression.
5. Show that you actually listen
Lastly, a key ingredient of any team meeting is appropriate follow-up. If you receive valuable input from an employee (a SWOT analysis, for instance) but do absolutely nothing with it, what reason will they have to put in a similar level of effort for the next meeting? There’s no sense in committing a lot of time to produce a report for a boss you know won’t actually read it, after all.
During your meetings, pay just as much attention as you want your employees to pay, but don’t just offer constructive commentary: commit to acting accordingly. If someone has made a great case for adopting a particular software tool, follow through on that by approving a trial run and putting them in charge of the project. Offering vague approval isn’t enough, because people know that managerial types can forget such things and end up wondering what’s happening.
Iterate on how you handle your meetings
Wrapping up, there’s really no point in holding team meetings if they don’t keep people engaged. Be sure to put in the effort to make them as useful as they can be. You’ll soon see a positive difference in the results and strengthen your team’s ability to engage during both remote and in-person meetings.