How to improve meetings in hybrid working?

Prof. Dr. Nale Lehmann-Willenbrock, speaks with podcast moderator, Ingo Notthoff, about the effects of hybrid work for employees, ways to improve meetings, and her experience with meetings in the metaverse.

Nale Lehmann-Willenbrock - Professorin für Arbeits- und Organisationspsychologie an der Universität Hamburg
Nale Lehmann-Willenbrock
The Agenda Podcast

The Agenda brought to you by Sherpany uncovers the journey leaders take from facing challenges to making decisions. In this unique series of podcasts, leaders talk candidly with podcast moderator, Ingo Notthoff. #LeadingTogether

In this podcast episode, you'll hear:

Prof. Dr. Nale Lehmann-Willenbrock from Hamburg University as she discusses meetings in the workplace today — hybrid or virtual — the role of meeting leaders, and the reasons why it is important to improve meetings for efficiency and productivity. Falling back on years and years of experience and research, Prof. Lehmann-Willenbrock also discusses the effects of hybrid work for employees and managers, and shares her own experiences with virtual meetings in the metaverse.

Here are some of the topics covered in the podcast episode* that will help you get started with improving meetings, and shaping them for the future:

  • Why managers are not able to use meetings efficiently
  • The role of meeting leaders in meetings
  • The effects of virtual meetings on employees
  • On improving meetings with the use of AI


*Please note: The podcast episode is available in German.

How to improve meetings in hybrid working with Prof. Dr. Lehmann-Willenbrock

Why managers are not able to use meetings efficiently

"There are many organisations where meetings are rather inefficient and time consuming. And many employees often don't know when they find the time to complete their daily tasks. 

We need meetings for many different purposes and have few other solutions for that. Meetings are not set in advance or terminated because we don't know where to go with our time, neither the employees nor the leadership, but because we need them to exchange ideas, to solve complex problems together, to get information as quickly as possible as if everyone were researching individually, to make consensus decisions and so on. 

There are many organisational goals that are bound to meetings. And that's why it's not that easy to say, oh, let's give up on it. There are such attempts in practice, to set up something like meeting-free zones in the calendar. That's certainly all meaningful, but we can't give up on it because most of us work in complex work environments where we have to exchange ideas with each other, and that's often in meetings. It's not all asynchronous. [...]

If you look back 30 years now, there were significantly fewer meetings, 20 years back, 10 years back too, and you just see such an increasing trend, which also has a critical impact on the individual working hours. That was the question, what is it all about and when do we still manage to do our tasks? But it's just an expression of a very participatory culture of cooperation and that's not bad at all. So to say, decision-making is not the power of leadership alone, but we want to decide together where it goes, simply because we know very well from organisational psychology. Decisions that were made together are more carried out, more implemented."


The role of meeting leaders in meetings

"Teams that only work in a distributed way have great difficulties to maintain a common sense of 'we' or a common understanding as a team. That is difficult and exhausting. This also has consequences for the organisation. If members feel less connected to their team, then the team is just a part or the smallest collective within the organisation. And that means, in the long term, that I feel less connected to my organisation. [...]

The Corona pandemic time developed a different expectation: I want to be able to work from home and I want it to be easier for me to create the so-called work-family balance or work-home balance. It's just there and was shaped by the pandemics, and it has a lot of good things. So that's why compromises have to be found, in my opinion.

What role do managers and meeting leaders have?

A big one, if they are the ones who really lead the meetings. It can and should be a function that rotates in the team. We even advise that you look at whether or not there are individual agenda points where there are specific experts in the team, and then they should moderate these items, so that a common sense of responsibility for the efficiency of the meeting arises.

Nevertheless, it is often the leader or an official meeting leader that gives the tone. They have a very important role in the meeting. On the one hand, how does the meeting start? In which type of climate? Is humour allowed? And if so, in what form? What is the focus? How do we want to deal with each other? As a meeting leader,  I convey all of this as a kind of signal through my own behaviour.

So, when I come into the meeting and I start formally and directly with agenda, item number one, then, that has a completely different effect than when I come in and say 'hey, how are you today?' Don't you want to take three minutes so that everyone can briefly say what is driving them or her right now? Then we start with the agenda. These are conscious decisions that have a serious effect on how the meeting goes and, of course, the meeting also has its own interaction behaviour, a very strong model effect for everyone else. 

For example, we could show that meeting boards that discuss a lot about solutions themselves and also show visions, and interact positively can also start positive interaction patterns in the team. Versus, if I complain about how bad everything is, my team will definitely take it up and do it, so, your own behaviour is definitely a kind of model function. [...]

In hybrid meetings, they [meeting leaders] have to pay attention to where they are sitting. We know that it is particularly difficult when the meeting management is the only person who switches to remote and everyone else is on site.

If I know there is someone who can only switch on virtually, or want to switch on virtually, then maybe to make sure that I as a meeting leader have to be the person who ensures that there is inclusion and that everyone comes to the board in the same way, and that I also notice if someone wants to report from the remote area. Maybe invite someone or ask someone from the team to take care of it, so that these different leadership functions are distributed to several heads in the meeting."

It is often the leader or an official meeting leader that gives the tone. They have a very important role in the meeting.

The effects of virtual meetings on employees

"Many employees switch off in meetings because they can't do it anymore. Why do they switch off? For various reasons: they switch off because of physiological reasons. If I have a virtual meeting after the next one, I usually have it sitting on my PC. If I don't have breaks, I can't even open the window, or go to the toilet, or whatever else you need. 

And it's relatively plausible that the physical follow-ups, such as fatigue, concentration weakness, also eye problems. These are also things that we see in research fatigue. So, yes, hand-tight physical symptoms. The question is a bit, does that make sense? Does it make sense to keep putting things together in large groups? And you can counteract that a bit through simple things, like meetings that shouldn't take an hour, but must end after 50 minutes.

Like freeing outlook from compulsion. Outlook always sets up one-hour meeting slots as a standard. If I don't work hard, it's exactly what I have on the agenda. The next one does the same thing, and the next one does the same thing. In the end, you ask yourself where the breaks are going. They're not there anymore. Meetings last the same time as they are set up, and in no case shorter. So, just planning breaks is important. That has to be kept in mind. I've often experienced that meetings took an hour or even longer. 

What experiences did you have? 

You have to show discipline, and maybe refer to the research on meetings. We've also researched a lot about meeting lateness. This phenomenon is that many, many meetings start too late and that it's not uncritical, because the few who come on time are totally annoyed and stay in the meeting.

If you think about it, you don't have just one meeting, but maybe five. And every meeting that starts too late tends to overlap, and then threatens the punctuality of the next meeting. That's like a domino effect distributed over your working day. To be aware of that, ultimately, that is also an important task of meeting management. To be on time and to close on time is also in your own interest, because we know that leadership is the one who has more meetings. As employees, it is in your own interest to close on time so that you have a break yourself, and so that the next meeting can start on time."


On improving meetings with the use of AI

"We would have to get the computer scientists into the boat, but, ultimately, it's the image that my camera records and what is then given back to you on the screen. Then an AI can switch between so that it looks like I was looking at you and not just my screen. So that's possible. Then of course we can also consider the many, many problems with which virtual meetings are associated. That we don't really notice the connections. That we have little feeling for how the other is doing. There you could use AI in perspective, because AI can do things like detect affection. The question is: Do we want that? Who wants that? And what does feedback look like that really helps the team? And does not leave them with such a premonition that they then say nothing more? But the possibilities are there, and I think there will be a lot to do next year. We are also researching this. 

The other topic, metaverse. The discussion has been going on for a long time whether the future of meetings might not look like we are no longer sitting in front of the 2D-cash image of the computer, but all on the road with VR glasses.

I thought until a couple of years ago that that's all future music and money-making and that's not going to happen anyway. But the developments are just so fast that I am now also involved in researching with colleagues in computer science how group interaction processes look like in the metaverse. And we already had one or the other team meeting in the metaverse. There are different software platforms. It's fun and it breaks up the routines and rituals in the meeting. 

[...] An optimal meeting, in the not so distant future, looks like it doesn't matter whether people are on site, or virtually switching on, or are on the road in hybrid mode, because we have completely gotten used to all interaction models, and to a maximum range of opportunities for inclusion in organisations."

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Nale Lehmann-Willenbrock - Professorin für Arbeits- und Organisationspsychologie an der Universität Hamburg
Nale Lehmann-Willenbrock
About the author
Prof. Dr. Lehmann-Willenbrock is full professor and department head of Industrial/Organizational Psychology at Universität Hamburg. She holds a Ph.D. from Technische Universität Braunschweig, and studies team processes, workplace meetings, leader-follower dynamics, and behavioural patterns in workplace interactions.