Zoom meetings don’t have to be quite so painful

Simple actions can help avoid common pitfalls in the design and execution of online team meetings, say Rob Angell and Ben Marder


5 May 2021
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Zoom meetings do not have to be quite so painful for academics and university staff.

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Love them or loathe them, academic team meetings are part and parcel of the job and when done well, they can serve up opportunities for strategising, problem-solving, sharing news and galvanising colleagues. However, all too often meetings fall way short of expectations, especially online. Time evaporates and nothing of value is achieved; cue lower attendance, disconnected staff and higher levels of multitasking among those who do turn up (you know you do it).

With the era of virtual meetings appearing set to continue, academic team leaders face the same million-dollar question: how do we extract more value from meetings and engage colleagues in a way that propels their unit closer to targets?

Common pitfalls can mar the design and execution of team meetings. While there is no silver bullet, here, we outline five of these mistakes and provide simple solutions to make your next virtual meeting more of a success.

Mistake 1: choosing a slot that doesn’t suit

Traditionally, team meetings are scheduled around the leader’s schedule. Although this makes sense when everyone is physically at the office, it’s important not to lose sight of one of the key drivers of virtual meetings – the pandemic.

Members of your team may be facing ongoing and residual challenges, while still adjusting to their own new normal. These could include home schooling, caring for elderly relatives and neighbours or visiting a health facility for testing or vaccination. Trying to democratically establish the most convenient times for a regular team meeting will go a long way with people sailing in this boat.

Electronic polling, talking to staff individually or rotating meetings among slots will give the team the sense that their time is equally respected by those in charge. Posting a recording of the meeting for anyone unable to attend will also enhance feelings of involvement and engagement.

Mistake 2: no clear objectives

Virtual meetings have a lower barrier to entry, so they tend to multiply organically. It may be tempting for a leader to get the team together simply because “we always meet each week/fortnight/month”. But unless there is a clear purpose for the meeting, consider sparing the team or postponing the meeting until a time when there is something important to discuss.

Making the team aware of what will be covered ahead of time will help to focus attention on key issues and provide staff with a chance to prepare. It is also important to be realistic about what is achievable in the time allocated; with about 45 minutes before colleagues shift their attention to other tasks, a clear meeting agenda, pragmatically timed to each deliverable discussion point, will help to achieve more in less time.

Mistake 3: delivering a lecture when a seminar is needed

Team meetings are only as good as the interaction they generate. If a leader has a tendency towards 30-minute monologues, webcams will quickly be turned off. If the purpose of the meeting is to brief colleagues on a new development, posting a video on a secure meeting page site and devoting the time together to discussing and answering related queries is a better use of everyone’s time. If the purpose is to generate new ideas, send a memo to staff outlining the brief in advance and let them know to bring their thoughts to the meeting. Moderate the discussion; don’t dominate it.

Mistake 4: permitting the usual suspects to monopolise the discussion

Regardless of whether they are held virtually or in person, team meetings can quickly be overrun with the views of the “usual suspects” – those with the loudest voices. Offline, the moderator can deploy subtle physical cues (looking at other colleagues, pointing or holding a hand in the air). In a virtual meeting, however, individuals can ramble on indefinitely without real obstruction, and short of turning microphones off (not a good look), it is much harder to move a wayward discussion along effectively. If this race to the bottom is allowed, other colleagues will soon lose respect for the leader and their ability to manage situations effectively.

There are efficient ways to bring less-heard voices to the fore and invite fresh perspectives. For instance, clearly and assertively state: “I really want to get the views of other people here”, build a round robin into the agenda or encourage use of the chat function.

Mistake 5: failing to check in

Given mistakes two and three, leaders can be forgiven for being overly bullish with meeting timings, even overseeing them with military precision. However, working in a virtual setting also makes it much harder to gauge how the team are doing. Staff may join meetings with their webcams off, lurking only in the background. Issues may continue to fester without being picked up and addressed.

To remedy this, leaders should be on hand to greet people, while leaving time at the end to strike up one-to-one conversations. Informal but regular meetings with individuals for whom this may be needed most will also help to restore a leader’s peripheral vision.

With virtual team meetings here to stay, academic leaders must find their groove, adapting what they know about running meetings to make them more useful, purposeful and energising. Mitigating these five mistakes is a great starting point.

Rob Angell is associate professor in marketing research and director of internationalisation at the University of Southampton Business School.

Ben Marder is senior lecturer in marketing and director of collaborative PhD programmes at the University of Edinburgh Business School.

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