Author: Maja Łukomska.
You know how "being chill" is considered a virtue in our modern world? When it comes to applying this mentality to work, well—let’s just say there’s a time and place for being chill.
It’s easy to run meetings on auto-pilot, thinking it doesn't require skill or thought. Let me be controversial here for a moment: At Wonder (and in the wider community of meeting and gathering experts), we believe that "gathering well isn't a chill activity". Effective and engaging meetings need more structure than you think.
What follows is a breakdown of how to make sure that your meetings bring out the best in people instead of draining energy, increasing frustration, or worse: resulting in faceless, silent gatherings where the person who called the meeting does all the talking (practically a modern-day horror story!).
Exclude people thoughtfully
Yes, you read me right! While it's amazing to have an inclusive culture when it comes to communication and team values, thoughtful exclusion is vital for meetings to be effective.
Remember the meeting where you invited the whole team, but only 3 people spoke and the rest never said a word or showed their faces? I do. This year I was in a meeting where 10 people were invited to brainstorm AND make a decision. Moral of the story - we didn't make a decision. Lesson learned!
Excluding people from meetings is both an act of courage and a demonstration of respect for people's time. Below are a few tips to ensure thoughtful inclusion and exclusion:
Ask for input in advance. If you need your colleagues' input on a particular topic, ask them to provide content before the meeting. Maybe this makes their presence unnecessary.
Sidebar: Assure them that they’ll be credited for their input in the meeting—and make sure you do it!
Keep teammates in the loop. If others need to be informed about the outcome, send them a memo after. They may not need to be there during the meeting itself.
Be transparent. Communicate why you're excluding people from the meeting, and let them know they can question your best judgment both ways (saying they should or shouldn't be there)—but do make your best judgment!
Why is all of this important? Because of social loafing, aka the Ringelmann effect.
It's the tendency for individual productivity to decrease as group size increases. Think of tug-of-war, a playground classic. Ringelmann, the father of research on social loafing, found that with every new helping hand added to the end of the rope, individual members pulled less strongly! Simply stated, we put in less effort the more people there are in a group. Equipped with that knowledge, rethink your next brainstorming meeting with 10 participants!
Bottom line: Include the necessary people and make others feel included by means other than participating in the meeting itself.
Start your meetings right
People remember firsts: the first time they met their partner, the first time they fell in love, etc. Translated into the (admittedly more mundane) meeting territory, it's the first five minutes that set the tone for the gathering.
I remember being in an online entrepreneurship workshop (serious stuff about using the business model canvas) where the trainer talked for the first 30 minutes. It was a sunny Autumn morning and I noticed my attention slowly drifting to the beautiful landscape outside my window (I was temporarily living in the mountains back then). When he later wanted us to be active and answer his questions in chat, the group was much less vocal than during a workshop one week earlier, where the trainer asked us to share our 1-min pitch at the beginning.
If you want people to be active and speak during the remainder of the meeting, follow these tips:
Break the ice. Invite teammates to speak up at the beginning of the meeting—here’s how we do it. Answering out loud works better for smaller meetings (2-6 people), and sourcing via chat saves time in larger groups (6+).
Activate the chat. If you want people to use the group chat, introduce it right from the start. Propose a simple question that requires little effort; a Wonder classic is "What is your energy level from 1-5 today?". It's so common at Wonder that I may soon coin a meme for it (but hey, I love this question!).
Bottom line: Make your beginnings energising and engaging. They are the place to be inclusive Once you get your teammates on board and engaged, share the agenda and objectives, and jump in for a smooth ride.
Own your meetings
Remember the chill host from the beginning of this piece? I've met some. It comes off as hands-off and uninvolved, not chill. By not assuming ownership, they leave the meeting at the mercy of the attendees.
I saw this first-hand last month when discussing a research publication; due to no clear meeting ownership, one person took over most airtime, the meeting went off-track, and it lasted 2 hours instead of the originally scheduled 1 hour. Time that should have been spent on finalizing three agenda issues was spent on just one (at least we had an agenda, I guess!). Everyone left exhausted and frustrated.
We need to courageously own our meetings to have great meetings. But fret not: it doesn't mean it's a solo act where you have to run the whole show! Commit to one (or all!) of the following:
Have an owner: First and foremost, designate clear ownership for every meeting.
Assign roles: As the meeting owner, assign people to help you out (note-taker, time-keeper, Q&A moderator). This frees you up to focus on your attendees, ensure their active participation, and encourage people who haven't contributed.
Be active: Don't be afraid to interrupt if the discussion is going off-track or taking too long. Have the courage to be temporarily disliked. Keep clarifying and summarizing what you hear and read. Be the fearless meeting owner your attendees need 💪
Bottom line: Take responsibility for giving structure to the meeting instead of leaving it to its natural flow. Be the captain of the ship, don't just let it sink!
Give your meetings closure
You've made it through, covered your agenda items, summarised the main meeting points, aligned on action steps, and have 5 minutes left. Someone jumps in and asks a completely new question that would require more time to answer, taking away the closure you've just achieved. When this happened to me after a presentation on user research findings, I kindly declined the question and said I'm happy to stay for a 5-min Q&A but declared the meeting over and waved my goodbyes first. Closure fosters accountability, helps people transition and shows respect for people’s time.
There are two bits to consider when ending your meetings.
Don't end with logistics. Instead, ask people to reflect on the meeting and their takeaways (at Wonder, we love to ask everyone what their top takeaway is from a meeting). Not only does it invite participants to actually reflect and remember what happened, but it also gives the meeting owner a glimpse into what attendees found useful and what mood they leave the meeting with.
Pro-tip: In case you have a meeting with many participants, ask via chat or a quick live poll.
Mark a clear ending and close loops. Once you've summarized and asked for takeaways, say the meeting is over. This is not a time for questions and opening new loops; give people a way to part in peace. (We're reaching the end of this piece, and I have become emotional about closing my own loops here.)
Bottom line: End the meeting purposefully and help people transition into whatever it is that they are doing next (hopefully telling a colleague about just how great and invigorating the meeting was!).
Let me chill out now (pun intended!) and summarise what I'd like you to take away.
Be inclusive by being exclusive
Make your beginnings powerful
Step up and take ownership of your meetings
End with closure and clarity
If you want to learn more, check out our Running Effective Meetings Etiquette Guide we use as part of our effort to run better meetings at Wonder.
And hereby, to practice what I preach, I turn it over to you: What are your top takeaways from the above?