Leading fruitful meetings: The role of (virtual) meetings

The pandemic has changed the way organisations hold meetings. In this interview, meeting scientist Prof. Dr. Joseph A. Allen talks about leading fruitful meetings in the 'new reality'.

Prof Dr Joseph Allen, Director of the Center for Meeting Effectiveness
Joseph A. Allen
Prof Dr Joseph Allen, Director of the Center for Meeting Effectiveness

'You don't know what you don't know, so find out what's happening with your meetings to make them better'. The Covid-19 pandemic has changed the way organisations hold meetings, transitioning from face-to-face to virtual meetings. What most still have to realise is that the practices for running fruitful meetings apply to virtual meetings as well. 

We invited Prof. Dr. Joseph A. Allen, meeting scientist, author of the book "Suddenly Virtual: Making Remote Meetings Work" , and Director of the Center for Meeting Effectiveness (CME) to speak about the challenges of meetings in the 'new reality', leaders' role in the new context of holding meetings, and the ways in which organisations can run fruitful meetings.


The COVID-19 pandemic triggered a sudden shift in organisations to move from face-to-face meetings to video conferencing. How will this impact organisations long-term? Will organisations ever hold meetings the same as pre-2020?

Prof. Dr. Joseph A. Allen: This question was what drove me and my co-author, Karen Reed, to write the book "Suddenly Virtual: Making Remote Meetings Work". 

The shift was sudden. Everybody went home and we were not permitted to talk or interact within six feet of each other. We did it, and we are still doing it for more than one year. The good news was that we had access to a ready-to-go tool: virtual meetings. Holding a meeting with video cameras helped us continue our collaboration like we did it in 2019, and previously.

The problem was that, because it was abrupt, people weren't prepared for the transition. Last year in May, everybody was looking for a webcam or a new computer to work effectively from home, and they were sold out. Further, depending on the nature of your business, you might have had one or two virtual meetings a week previously, or even only a few in a year. Suddenly, all meetings went virtual.

The pandemic forced most of us online, and made it harder to have regular social interactions with anyone. Those situations in which you bumped into your co-workers in the hallway, popped by someone’s office to ask a question, and so on were not available to us. In other words, virtual meetings meant we had to be more strategic, and plan our meetings much more. Things we were doing in our face-to-face workplace and meetings were harder to do virtually. For example, get a quick clarification while walking by someone's office.

Importantly, many of the things I talk about in my book are best practices from before the pandemic that I, or my esteemed colleagues in the science of meetings, Prof. Rogelberg and Prof. Lehmann-Willenbrock also mentioned in their studies and books. About 70% to 80% of the meeting practices from before the pandemic apply to virtual meetings. 

Practices such as 

  •  starting the meeting on time
  •  making sure all participants that need to attend are present
  •  having a meeting agenda , and 
  •  a clear meeting purpose.

These practices did not change because people started using a screen. In fact, they became more important BECAUSE we were using a virtual environment. However, it was other things that changed, things that people were not prepared for, such as 'Zoom fatigue'. We all knew holding a meeting was fatiguing in 2019, before we all went virtual. Why would we expect them to not be at least as if not more fatiguing during a pandemic in a virtual environment? 

Having a screen environment only reminded people of how much they disliked meetings. Seeing yourself on camera became an issue. You cannot have quiet little side conversations during a virtual meeting. The chat function just isn’t the same. And, participation is different because the meeting leader has to call on people. So, a lot of different things changed which changed how we work.


In your book, you mention that “entire enterprises are trying to level up their collective skillset to best navigate a world where video is the primary channel through which they are communicating”.
Could you please give us examples of how fruitful meetings can contribute to the successful achievement of an organisation's goals, especially in remote set-ups? are there some absolute ‘no-goes’ when it comes to (virtual) meetings?

Prof. Dr. Joseph A. Allen: Meetings are essential to organisational functioning. In workshops, I do this thought experiment: I ask participants to think about their organisations. Then I ask them to tell me how they worked if they held no meetings. Share with me how they'd do their jobs if they no longer met. When they start thinking about it, they realise they do not know.

Sure, there are industries where people do not have to meet often, if at all, to do their work. However, for the majority of industries, particularly in corporate environments, meetings are essential. Without meetings, organisations would not be able to coordinate, collaborate, and make decisions. 

The problem though is we don't hold meetings very well. Before the pandemic, more than half of our meetings were rated as poor. One of the issues that Prof. Rogelberg and myself discovered as we were doing our early studies was that one bad meeting causes more, often bad meetings . People who did not understand the discussion in the first meeting will often need another meeting to get answers to their questions.


Meetings are essential. Without meetings, organisations would not be able to coordinate, collaborate, and make decisions. 

Prof. Dr. Joseph A. Allen
Meeting scientist, author, Director of the Center for Meeting Effectiveness (CME)


Therefore, meetings can slow things down when not done well. Yet, when they're done well, fruitful meetings optimise the organisation. They promote employee engagement, an essential characteristic of an innovative and high performing workforce.

The second part of your question refers to the 'no goes' in meetings.

One 'no go' is:

Don't start your meetings late

Meetings that are five to ten minutes late are actually worse than bad meetings that start on time. Think about those poor meetings. If they started on time, they would probably still be poor, but they would not be terrible. Late meetings, are scientifically proven to be terrible, or at least more likely to be terrible. 

Part of the reason they are terrible is that late meetings induce a negative mood state for attendees. These negative moods lead to negative behaviors, such as complaining, which perpetuate the negativity within the meeting environment. Further, the negativity leads to unfavorable assumptions about the person who was the cause of the lateness.

This was one of my earliest discoveries. Meeting time courtesy was important to meeting satisfaction and meeting effectiveness. It affected the process and the engagement of people in meetings.

Another 'no go' is:

Back-to-back meetings

If we don't give ourselves a window of opportunity to rest, then by the time we get to the third or fourth meeting we're not capable of introducing new ideas. We’re exhausted. Before the pandemic we'd be hustling from one end of the building to another. On the way, we’d find a drink or the restroom. We had that transition, whereas with virtual meetings, there's often no transition time.  

Think for example of secondary education. We give our children a passing period so that they can transition from one subject to the next. Why aren't we doing that for each other in our meetings? 

So, when you schedule a meeting, make sure that you're not using the default system (i.e. 60 or 30 minutes meeting). Organise your meetings for a duration of 50 minutes or 25 minutes, and stick to the time. Most tips and tricks of making meetings effective are not complicated. They only require you to do a number of little things that add up to a big change in how we experience meetings.


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What is the role of directors in meetings, and why is the role important in how organisations hold meetings?

Prof. Dr. Joseph A. Allen: There are a few things. 


1. Leaders lead by example 

When it comes to meetings, directors can set the tone for effective meetings. They are often leading the meetings, or they are in the leader's position. If directors hold fruitful meetings, others will pattern their behavior after them.

This is basic mimicry and leader influence from introductory psychology class. If you are in a leadership role, and you engage in a behavior, then everybody believes that what you do is right/appropriate, and will follow you. That's true when it comes to meetings, and so many other things. 


2. Leaders' influence matters 

Directors are capable of setting and implementing expectations around meetings. For example, if a director says 'we no longer have 60 minutes meetings', then you’ll have to schedule shorter meetings, perhaps giving recovery time to yourself and others. Or if they say 'you can log off if there is no agenda, nor a clear purpose of the meeting', then this type of behaviour changes the whole scope of meetings.

One thing to remember is that leaders' influence is important in changing the organizational culture, particularly the meeting culture .


3. Leaders need to collect data on meetings 

Directors' role also helps them to collect data, either by assigning someone to do it, or doing it themselves. They can put in place a process to collect information about how meetings are going within, and across, teams. By doing that, leaders find out more about their meeting culture, and the challenges or opportunities.

Much too often we assume that everybody knows how to hold a fruitful meeting. The reality is most people don't run good meetings. That is because knowing and doing are two different things. 

As a director, if you gather data, you can get a view of your organisation to understand what to focus on to make meetings more effective. This is different from director to director, from organisation to organisation. A fascinating example is that of two different divisions in a large enterprise. We found that in one division 80% of their meetings are one-on-ones, while in the second division 75% of their meetings were three or more people.

That doesn't sound like a big difference (two people meeting versus three or more people meeting), but in reality dyads are very different from groups. In both cases, there is a whole science on how they work. When it comes to making their meetings more effective, the advice given to these groups should be different.

As a director, it's important to think about meetings, their environment, and what it's like for your people. What can you do to lead by example, and collect data to see how it plays out for your team, and your organisation.


In your perspective, if leaders paid more attention to, or valued meetings more highly within their organisations, what would be concrete, measurable benefits for them?

Prof. Dr. Joseph A. Allen: If leaders valued their meetings more, they would change their behavior. They would expect others to change their behavior, and they would keep track of meetings.

We saw that different organisations have from 10% to 30% increase in employee engagement if they put in place better meeting practices. Not even the best practice, only better practices.

Not everybody is at the same level, you have to think about that. Some people already figured out that having an agenda, and starting on time increases engagement. They also see increases in the amount of time spent on non-meeting activities. 

One of the challenges organisations have is the high number of meetings. The pandemic exacerbated this issue. We now hold more meetings than ever before. In the recent months I found that organisations with better practices have fewer, more efficient meetings. That means they have more space on their calendars to do things other than meet.


Different organisations have from 10% to 30% increase in employee engagement if they put in place better meeting practices.

Prof. Dr. Joseph A. Allen
Meeting scientist, author, Director of the Center for Meeting Effectiveness (CME)
There has been a sharp increase in the number of meetings, leading people to suffer from so-called “meeting recovery syndrome”. Can you please explain what this syndrome relates to, and how directors can help reduce it within their teams as well as for themselves?

Prof. Dr. Joseph A. Allen: First, I would encourage them to change their default settings to get rid of back-to-back meetings . There is no gap in between meetings and that's what is missing, the recovery.

Second, I would advise leaders to get insights into meetings. That is because you don't know what you don't know. There are organisations that are able to scrape the data from your calendars, and give you insights into how your meetings are operating. The data exists, and helps you to see what changed over the course of the pandemic, and do something about it. 

The thing about meeting recovery is that too often we have meetings on our calendar that are a waste of time. You tell yourself "I'll never get that hour back", so these meetings probably don't need to be meetings. For example, the standing meeting you've had every week for the last ten years. With an agenda that has gotten stale, and you show up, and you do the meeting. But nothing changes, nothing happens. It could have been an email. There are meetings like that, and you either need to cancel them, or refresh them. But you need to consider the purpose of a meeting.

I recommend a reflective process for directors. Look at your calendar and ask yourself

  • What is the purpose of this meeting?
  • Does it require collaboration?

If the answer is yes to both questions, then the meeting needs to happen. This is true for a new meeting too, if you're thinking about a new meeting. 

Ask yourself what the purpose is, and if it requires collaboration. If you can't answer yes to those two questions, then don't schedule meetings. Send an email. Not that we need more emails, but if we had less meetings, we'd be able to catch up on our inboxes.

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Prof Dr Joseph Allen, Director of the Center for Meeting Effectiveness
Joseph A. Allen
About the author
Prof. Dr. Joseph A. Allen is a Professor of Industrial and Organizational (I/O) Psychology at the University of Utah, and the director of the CME (Center for Meeting Effectiveness). He's an established expert on workplace and safety meetings, and authored many articles and books.