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3 solid strategies to fix terrible meetings in a hybrid workplace

Now that the work-world is faced with the increased friction of getting humans to come to the office, it won’t be long before “That meeting could have been an email” tweets are joined by “That in-office day could have been a Zoom meeting.” 

3 solid strategies to fix terrible meetings in a hybrid workplace
[Photo: AndreyPopov/iStock]
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Bringing people together at a specific time, whether physically or virtually, takes energy. The scheduling, the task-switching, the attention required all have cognitive costs. And in a world where the number of meetings has only increased—doubled over the past year, according to Microsoft—that feeling of “I put on pants for that?” will become more common.

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Now that the work-world is faced with the increased friction of getting humans to come to the office, it won’t be long before “That meeting could have been an email” comments are joined by “That in-office day could have been a Zoom meeting.” 

Before yet another gathering, leaders who want to be successful in the hybrid work world need to ask the question they should have long ago: “Why?” Because if they don’t, everyone else will certainly ask it after.

A learning and development manager recently shared a concern about a hybrid-work reality she would soon smack up against. There weren’t going to be very many times when everyone would be in the same room, so what information should she share? To host/lead a gathering worth putting on pants for, she was asking the wrong question. Instead of “what” information to share, we should be focused on the “how.” 

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Gatherings–town halls, trainings, off-sites–match a message with the moment to create an effect. Like a hammer, they are a tool to achieve a specific outcome. Unfortunately, we’ve become accustomed to grabbing gatherings from our toolbox simply because we have information to share. Don’t start with the message, instead, start with the effect.

Establish what you want to get from the people you’ve gathered. Start by asking: What do you want or need to be different after the event? The answer usually falls into one of the following four categories: entertain, engage, comply, or inform. The answer also determines whether we need to pull people together or not. 

Pull together, push apart

We’ve all been on the receiving end of a brain dump—when someone is simply providing information to an audience. This is a “push” gathering, and unfortunately, corporate America’s default. They are as common in person as they are virtual and show up in many flavors, new hire orientation or a company all-hands are two common examples. 

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“Can you just send me the slides?” In a push gathering, the answer is often yes. If employees are present only to absorb information, the value of being together is minimal. Though this type of gathering can help employees comply or be informed, our employees expect more, and to be honest, would love to spend less time in meetings that they feel are a waste of time. If compliance or informing is the outcome consider pivoting to asynchronous communication options like email, Slack, or pre-recorded messages. 

But if the goal is to change a behavior or become invested in an idea, simply laying out information won’t work. The most effective approach to behavior change is to focus on the connection to the content, not the content alone. This is why we need to create an event where people want to attend. These are “pull” gatherings. 

An attendee’s role at a pull gathering is more than just information consumer, they have the opportunity to contribute. These gatherings lead to outcomes with tangible effects that look a lot more like more willing participation. That’s because in these sessions leaders aren’t just transmitting information to people, the aim is to use that content to spark a change in thinking and behavior, or inspire people to pick up the cause as their own. We can create powerful connections by relying on pull strategies instead of push. 

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How to pull instead of push

Turn employees from passive to active by giving them a role. This doesn’t mean adding interactions like an icebreaker or a game just for the sake of it. Instead, invite attendees to take ownership of the gathering from the start. As the old organizational behavior adage goes, we own what we help create. 

Give attendees two questions or prompts to pay attention to throughout the gathering. Or, share something unfinished with them and solicit feedback. “We don’t have all of the answers, so we’ll need your expertise to fill in the gaps.” These choices demonstrate that you need their thinking and they feel seen. 

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We gather for the uniqueness of the moment, not just a message. A bit of pull planning draws participants in so that they want to attend and not just wait to watch a recording after the fact.

Pants or no pants is the wrong question

Gatherings are an opportunity to do something with others, not at them. The purpose of gatherings is the connection, not consumption. In fact, we experienced this truth firsthand during last year’s steep rise in mostly miserable virtual meetings. Sharing information with other people wasn’t the problem—that’s something we were very capable of—it was connecting with them. We likely spent most of our 2020 Zooms in push meetings, but that doesn’t mean that they can’t be compelling.

The question isn’t here or there (in person or on video) but should we be doing this at all? What makes a synchronous gathering effective—one where we all come together at the same time—is the same whether it’s in person or dialing in. It’s not the technology or the channel that creates or constricts connection, it’s our choices. A hybrid world means we will rarely get to choose the channel. For this to work, we’ll need all of them. With that cleared up, we can finally stop trying to “fix” or worse, blame technology and tactics, and turn our attention towards getting more value from the gathering itself. 

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Will your next gathering be worth your employees’ time? Before calling another meeting, ask yourself why. If it’s to ensure people will follow a new policy, or announce employee of the month, consider an asynchronous communication method that reduces the burden of coordinating schedules and commutes. However, if you need buy-in on a new product launch, or commitment in a digital transformation initiative, planning a gathering that gives employees a chance to contribute might just be worth pulling on a pair of pants.  


Lindsey Caplan helps HR leaders and change champions enhance their communication impact so that change sticks. Her forthcoming book, The Gathering Effect, is based on her research and consulting practice teaching organizations how to enhance the way they gather for the effect they want.

Josh Levine is a speaker, consultant, and educator of all things culture. His book, Great Mondays, is one of BookAuthority’s best culture books of all time. 

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