Transform Flexible Meetings: Best Practices for Better Hybrid Collaboration

January 11, 2023
Checkr Editor

Key strategies to reduce “meeting overload” and bolster flexible meetings.

It’s no secret that the world of work changed essentially overnight during the early days of the pandemic. Now, nearly three years in, the novelty of remote work has worn off. Many teams expect to collaborate with some version of hybrid and remote colleagues. But although employers have grown used to this new normal, they haven’t yet optimized it.

Workers are all too familiar with the pitfalls of remote work: everything from Zoom fatigue, to loneliness, to the logistical gymnastics of scheduling meetings with colleagues across time zones. Time is a precious resource — and employees are faced with the frustration (and comedic fodder) of an unnecessary calendar invite when that meeting could have been an email.

Nearly 70 percent of workers surveyed by LiveCareer said they spend between four and 10 hours a week in meetings. This isn’t just a pain point for workers — it also hurts a company’s bottom line. US businesses waste $37 billion in salary costs for unnecessary meetings, according to a study from Atlassian.

Workers have grown accustomed to changing norms: more than half reported how they collaborate and communicate has changed since they began to work remotely, according to data from Buffer, a software company with a fully distributed team. At this inflection point, employers should take advantage of people’s willingness to adapt. Employers need to get strategic about how to maximize the effectiveness of “flexible meetings” (meaning either fully remote or hybrid meetings).

In 2023, it will be all the more crucial that globally distributed teams focus on enhancing their collaboration and communication approaches.

Become more intentional about scheduling meetings

So often in the business world, the solution to a problem means a push for more: more sales, more customers, and more revenue. But when it comes to remote and hybrid collaboration, less can yield more.

Workers want fewer meetings to get more efficient, effective, and timely work done. Time spent in meetings has ballooned by at least 50 percent over the past two decades, according to the Harvard Business Review.

This doesn’t necessarily lead to a better track record or improved concentration: Nearly one in four workers surveyed by Asana said that too many meetings lead to missed deadlines, while others say that meetings come at the expense of deep thinking). More than nine in 10 workers surveyed by Atlassian daydreamed in meetings, while more than seven in 10 admitted to completing other work.

Addressing these pain points doesn't mean eliminating meetings altogether, but it does require employers to rethink them. Here, experts at Microsoft highlight key strategies to make meetings more engaging:

  • Think intentionally about why the meeting should exist. Some useful reasons include building connection and relationships with colleagues, discussing complex topics, or increasing clarity on a long-term or cross-functional project.
  • Be strategic about who needs to be there (and why). The person setting the meeting should be able to justify their rationale — in other words, why the meeting needs to happen. Workers should be able to articulate goals of the meeting, intended outcomes, and key players who must be in attendance.
  • Facilitate interactivity over information-sharing. Deliberate whether the meeting is intended for collaboration or merely to relay updates. If the latter, it could be worth sharing updates via asynchronous communication tools — like email, Slack, Microsoft Teams or a shared document — for greater efficiency.
  • Account for what your employees prefer. More than half of workers surveyed by Buffer said they’d prefer “asynchronous-first policies,” but more than six in 10 said their companies lack such policies. The best results will come from approaches that your workers support — and often, the most direct way to find out what people want is to ask.
  • Redesign rather than eliminate. Reducing meeting overload doesn’t have to mean wiping them out. Employers can gain substantial time savings by meeting less often and making meetings shorter, according to the Harvard Business Review.

Meeting participants need common ground

Effective communication requires a sense of mutual understanding, or establishing common ground. To make the most out of meetings that are warranted, those who are facilitating a meeting should aim to minimize what Microsoft experts call “grounding issues.”

What is a grounding issue? It’s an error that hinders the participants of a conversation from having the same understanding of what’s happening — and, even more importantly, one that prevents participants from knowing they all have a shared understanding.

Let’s say that a colleague working from home is interrupted by loud ambulance sirens during a team meeting. Though people have grown used to this kind of interruption, it still can detract from focused engagement. Once the colleague gets distracted by the noise, he apologizes for the nuisance happening outside of his home and loses his place in the slides. However, it turns out that the meeting platform has automatically muted his background noise for the other participants. He still hears it, but others do not.

Microsoft experts call this kind of grounding error the “leaf-blower problem.” One person is experiencing a distraction but his teammates aren’t on the same page. Grounding errors can lead to miscommunication, team-wide failures, and conflict.

As employers continue to build systems for hybrid work, it’s paramount to cut down the time it takes for participants to achieve common ground, according to Microsoft experts. This can involve designing common ground into meeting softwares — such as making sure that visual and auditory experiences are shared — whenever possible. When this can’t be done, meeting leaders should try to make participants aware of the other person’s situation.

Strategies to solve typical grounding issues

  • Set aside time for introductions and hellos. This doesn’t need to last long, but can be beneficial to quickly establish common ground and ensure that all participants are engaged.
  • Mute when not speaking. This one feels intuitive, but three years in, many folks still forget.
  • Use the chat feature on video calls. This can help participants share when they’re experiencing background noise or other distractions so that everyone is up to speed.
  • Use visual information. Slides or shared screens can help people share information so that everyone has the same evidence and cues from which to draw conclusions.
  • Make your segues and cues more obvious than you think they need to be. Make a concerted effort to be clear when you’re finished speaking and wait for a response longer than you would for an in-person meeting. (“Turn-taking” — prediction and management of which person should take the next turn to talk — was the top remote interactivity issue reported in a study of Microsoft employees.)
  • Be intentional about keeping video on or off. People’s preferences differ, and often for good reason. Nearly half of people report being exhausted due to camera meetings, according to Virtira, but only about one in 10 reported that cameras were actually being used for the purposes of team engagement.
  • Consider phone calls or walking meetings. Good old-fashioned phone calls can help alleviate meeting overload while also offering surprising benefits. People perform better cognitively when they’re moving, according to a researcher at Stanford University. Some studies suggest that audio-only communication can enhance team cohesion and productivity, while others show that people mirror others’ vocal tone and pitch more effectively than in video meetings — which can lead to better connection and problem-solving.

Slot discrete time for socializing

Creating more time for connection and relationship-building might appear counterintuitive to cutting down on meeting time overall. However, people still crave social engagement. More than half of the remote respondents surveyed by NextWeb reported experiencing recurring workplace loneliness.

Employers should be intentional about carving out some meetings for tasks and others for socializing — and making these intentions clear ahead of time. Rather than adding more meetings to boost connection, consider integrating phone calls or casual launch meetings to maintain “water cooler chats” — along with the camaraderie, informality and spontaneity that these interactions bring.

Overhaul your meeting approach in 2023

We’re still optimizing flexible work and better understanding different problems that can arise with meeting overload in remote and hybrid environments. This coming year, it’s crucial for leaders to take a step back, re-assess the relevance or necessity of meetings, and wipe their slates clean to redesign them.

A suite of elemental changes — like being more strategic about attendees, promoting interactivity over data-sharing, and surveying employee preferences — can help employers and leaders facilitate more productive meetings that truly keep workers engaged.

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