Research shows that silence and other surprising tactics can make virtual meetings better

By Kevin J. Delaney

How do you make virtual meetings better, and make sure they don’t exclude or privilege certain people or groups? For answers, this week I spoke with Professor Steven Rogelberg of UNC Charlotte. He’s an organizational psychologist who studies the workplace and last year published a book titled The Surprising Science of Meetings.

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Below is a transcript of our conversation, lightly edited for clarity:

Courtesy Steven Rogelberg

What makes for better remote meetings?

The keys to virtual meetings are:

- Don't over-invite. Dysfunction increases with size.

- Actively facilitate, because there's so much need to do so. And if you don't do it, it doesn't get done.

- Keep the agenda much more compelling. I'm a big advocate of framing agenda items as questions to be answered, as opposed to topics.

Those are the three keys that I think can get us to some high levels of success.

What does research tell us about ways to make virtual meetings more inclusive?

When you run meetings effectively, you get more inclusion. Over-inviting is fake inclusion. It doesn't really engender engagement. You think you're checking the box for inclusion, but you're really not.

There are two paths to inclusion. One is to keep the meetings lean so that people can get airtime and truly engaged with the content. Then the second path would be a meeting leader diversifying their approach to meetings so that different styles and preferences can be accommodated. For example, typically meetings are designed to favor more extroverted individuals who like to use their mouths during a meeting.

But there are a host of different approaches that can be used in meetings that allow us to privilege other styles and preferences. For example, we know that silence can yield more positive outcomes, especially with regard to brainstorming. Silence can be used very readily in virtual meetings. This is a great option to diversify the meeting experience, where we share a Google doc with some questions to be answered and let people respond in silence. Using polling apps is a great mechanism for truly seeing whether you have consensus. If you have a bunch of people in a virtual meeting and you say, 'Hey, does everyone agree?' the dissenters often will be quiet, especially if the boss appears to agree. But if you use one of these polling apps, then it's a great way of actually testing consensus. It's a great way of seeing whether dissent exists, and if it does giving it voice, which ultimately promotes inclusion.

Other tactics for more inclusive meetings include distributing the agendas beforehand so that participants who aren't as extrovert have a chance to process and ready themselves for what they might say. Another is recording meetings and making the recordings available within a company because that gives people a chance to go back and process the material covered and then follow up.

People struggle with preparing fully for meetings. There's a time crunch. So while it's always a nice idea to give people a heads up about what's being discussed, I don't think that's going to be the path to true inclusion. That's just the path to having an informed discussion. Having recordings available is a path to transparency, so that people can access what's being discussed, what's being concluded, and what decisions were made. That's just a nice way of having a transparent workforce, which ultimately helps promote trust—which is a more indirect way of promoting inclusion.

You suggest using silence during meetings. Why?

The research demonstrates that when you compare groups brainstorming in silence and those that brainstorm with their mouths—the brainstorming in silence groups produce nearly twice as many ideas and the ideas tend to be more innovative and more disruptive. Because there's just not this editing that appears to occur and everyone can speak at once. You don't have the air-time jockeying that can happen when people are brainstorming with their mouths. And it can just be done very quickly and readily in virtual meetings. We could go to the chat, share a Google doc, and people click on that link and just start typing. The beauty of it is that you get this incredible engagement and you get so much more done in such a quicker time. The added bonus is that people can be adding comments to other people's remarks. So you're basically building this very dynamic interaction without a word being spoken.

It's particularly challenging to have creative collaboration via a virtual meeting—there's no physical whiteboard, no energy from gathering in a room. What do you recommend?

One of the key ways of creating a more positive meeting mood state—besides keeping meeting size on the smaller side—is starting the meeting with positive energy, gratitude, and appreciation. There's a contagion effect and the mood state that the meeting leader brings really sets the tone of the whole meeting. When groups are experiencing more positive mood state, more creativity emerges. There's more careful listening. There's more constructive disagreements as opposed to personal disagreements. People tend to be more present. So if you can keep the meeting small, create compelling questions that require innovative solutions, start the meeting with energy and positivity, and then don't hesitate to leverage some of these alternative approaches such as silence—I think you can achieve great creativity and innovation.

People talk about Zoom fatigue and how it's not natural to be on video for hours every day.

I've been studying meeting fatigue for going on a decade. It's not a new thing. So the question is why are people fatigued? The main reasons are not the technology. The main reason that people are fatigued is that they're sitting in a lot of bad meetings. So what's most fatiguing about a meeting is a bad meeting. If you're not engaged, if you can't be inclusive, that's what's fatiguing. Having your video on can be the cherry on the sundae, but that's not fundamentally the issue. If you run an exciting, powerful, meaningful, relevant meeting, people are not going to be fatigued.

And what's the benefit of video presence? So we know that one of the proclivities that occur in virtual meetings is that people can start to feel a little bit more anonymous. And when people start to feel a little bit more anonymous, they do something called social loafing, which is a reduction of effort in the presence of others. This also helps to explain multitasking, which is so common in virtual meetings. So by having video on, it's just creating that presence. The more presence you can get, the more engagement that you can have. But with that all said, if you're overinviting and you're having not compelling meetings, and you're requiring people to have their video on, then you're just being mean.

Do you have any recommendations for hybrid meetings, where some people are in the room together and the rest are remote?

My recommendation is for everyone to be Zooming. If you have a meeting with some people present, some people remote, the people present become privileged. Their views, their perspectives become privileged. The work to truly integrate effectively these remote people is hard. Most meeting facilitators or meeting leaders do not have the skills to do so. We've gotten better at virtual meetings. This is a skill set that's actually improving with time—our data seem to be suggesting that. So having everyone remote and leveraging some of the tips I mentioned earlier could very well lead to a more effective meeting than a hybrid meeting.

How do you decide what the right length for a meeting is?

We do time estimates all the time. So if we have a task to do, we can generally say, I think this task is going to take 15 minutes. If we have a chore to do, we can generally say, I think this is going to take like 20 minutes. But we just don't flex these muscles when it comes to meetings. If we say, here are the goals for what we want from this meeting or here are the questions we want to answer, we could make a good estimate. We just choose not to. Instead we just go to the default. Humans are not horrible at estimating the amount of time that things should take. The idea that a meeting has to be an hour is silliness.

Why don't we have meetings that are 42 minutes or 33 minutes? We have that power, we have that control. So what I advocate is that a meeting leader looks carefully at what needs to be done and then makes a choice. Because if you don't make a choice and you just go with the default, then you're really going to be victim of Parkinson's law, which is the idea that work expands to fill whatever time is allotted to it. So meetings scheduled for an hour magically will take an hour. But what's so exciting is that if you dial those times back, so you say, okay, I think I can do this in 42 minutes, Parkinson's law will be used to your advantage. You'll get it done in 42 minutes. The other added bonus is that research shows that when groups are operating under some level of pressure, they tend to be more focused and perform more optimally.

Without physical meetings, we're losing some of the unstructured chit-chat that happens in the room and ultimately turns into social capital for an organization. Should remote meetings try to replace that?

Virtual meetings really aren't the place for it. The difference is that in physical meetings people can pair up, they can have a quick little private conversation. In virtual meetings, you might have six or eight people on the screen at once. It's just not the mechanism to promote this banter. Especially, with disclosing more personal information. Because it might be the case that there's a couple of people that you'd feel comfortable doing that with, but not the broader set. So what I advocate for is if you're trying to build a sense of cohesion and trying to build the team and things like that, tackle that as a separate challenge. As a leader, chat with your people to try to figure out what mechanisms you should use to serve that goal. Be purposeful, be intentional. It could be the case that a new initiative is implemented where each team member makes sure that they have a 20-minute lunch with someone else on the team every other week. That's a more direct way of building a sense of connectedness. Just don't leave it to chance, make it a problem to be solved and let your meetings be your meetings. And interestingly, having really effective meetings also serves to build cohesion.

What do you think of Amazon's approach, where they write narrative memos and everyone reads them at the beginning of the meeting?

I just love the idea of diversifying meeting experiences so that not every meeting has to look and feel the same. Amazon's practice definitively has its place. I think that could be an interesting approach depending on the challenge or problem that you have that you're confronted with. One of the things I really do in my book is try to not present this magic formula to making meetings better. What my book does is says, be intentional, make choices, here's a variety of things that you can choose from. And that's one of the choices you can make.

Very few people are actually trained to run meetings. The assumption is that somehow by having attended meetings they have qualified themselves to be leading meetings.

That informal approach leads to a recycling of bad meeting practices. We know that people aren't naturally great at this. People wouldn't be complaining nonstop about meetings if there was this incredible positive skillset that the majority of our population has. Yeah. At the same time, we know that there's this meeting leader blind spot where meeting leaders tend to have an inflated sense of how well the meeting went relative to the attendees. The fact is that we need to have training. But it has to be much more high-fidelity training. If we just tell meeting leaders, to have a good meeting you need to have an agenda, that's actually bad advice. Agendas do not in and of themselves improve meetings. What we really want a meeting leader to do is to think about the agenda. What really needs to be accomplished? Going back to who really needs to be there. How does that meeting leader facilitate completion of those agenda items? Those are much more rich, challenging skills. They can be trained, but it takes more work. So definitively people need to be trained. But, at the same time, organizations need to build in some feedback and accountability.

I've presented in front of lots of chief talent officers of companies. And I do this exercise. I say, how many of you in your organization have on your engagement survey content around meetings? Basically, no one raises their hands. So this is another tremendous blind spot on behalf of organizations. They have this activity, where there are 55 million meetings a day. You have a meeting leader blind spot, and you have organizations who do not provide any feedback or accountability, which could be achieved through an engagement survey. This is a triple whammy of why organizations have bad meetings. And then what happens is that organizations accept bad meetings as a cost of doing business. And that's false. Organizations can become more effective with their meetings—that could become a critical differentiator. Because when you have so many folks investing so much time in this activity, if you can improve the return on investment, the gains are really meaningful.

How did you start studying meetings?

As an organizational psychologist, I tend to be attracted to studying things that are highly practically relevant, and also things I find very frustrating.

Does researching meetings mean that you observe lots of meetings?

I observe lots of meetings. I also do lots of research studies where people fill out surveys, keep diaries, and we track people's experiences with meetings over time. We record meetings. We use a host of different methodologies.

At this point, can you tell within 60 seconds whether a meeting is going to be a train wreck or a transcendental experience?

Yes.

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