Meetings are an essential tool for collaboration and consensus-building on projects, but also tend to be some of the most despised parts of developers’ days.
This is built on the perception that meetings are often unproductive and unhelpful. ‘Meetings that should have been emails’ are a meme for a reason. But by avoiding some common pitfalls, you can make sure that your meetings are as effective as possible.
Define an agenda
The goals of the meeting and what is to be discussed should not be a surprise to anyone invited. You can encourage your teams to ask questions or decline meeting invites if the agenda is not communicated ahead of time. A good agenda should spell out the items for discussion, the amount of time allotted for each item, and the desired output of the meeting.
Make sure it can’t be an email
We’ve all heard jokes about ‘meetings that could have been emails’. Make sure your meeting doesn’t fall into this category by thinking ahead of time of what you want to get out of it. For many people, a meeting is a break in what could have otherwise been a block of focused work. There is overhead to this switching cost, and keeping multiple people in a meeting when they could be doing other work and processing the meeting agenda asynchronously is an inconvenience. This is not to say you shouldn’t ever have a meeting, but rather think of it as something ‘expensive’ that should only be done with a compelling reason.
If the purpose of your meeting is simply to inform the attendees of a decision or change, then it probably should be an email. If you’d also like to assess the reaction or take questions around how something has been or will be addressed, send an email beforehand or include it in the agenda. This is so that people have time to digest the information and consider any questions they might have prior to the meeting so that the live discussion can be more productive.
Another good way to think about this is by considering what advantage an attendee might have going to the meeting in real-time rather than watching a recording later. If there is no advantage, consider why you are holding the meeting at all.
Most good meetings are used to have a discussion that would be inefficient over email, or build consensus around a plan or idea. There is also an intangible but real benefit to actually being able to see people’s faces and ask how they are doing rather than interacting strictly over written comms, but this is often used as an excuse to hold meetings when they are not actually needed and is not a justification in itself.
An effective meeting is defined by a few things: agenda being followed, actions being taken, and decisions being documented. A particularly helpful framework used by Frame Shift Consulting in their meeting skills training defines four roles to aid in these goals: Notetaker, Facilitator, Timekeeper, and Moderator. There are also cards to designate each role’s responsibilities. If your meeting is big enough, it may be helpful to assign people to each of these roles; if there are only a few people, they can be combined. Make sure that these roles are rotated as the folks holding them may not be able to participate as fully in the meeting, and administrative roles such as notetaking tend to fall disproportionately on underrepresented groups. If you ask for volunteers and the same people are always coming forward, make an effort to ask someone new.
In addition to estimating the time that each portion of the agenda should take ahead of the meeting, it’s important to check in on this throughout. If one item is taking longer than the allotted time, find a way to move on. If the discussion is still productive, figure out how to follow up and continue it outside of the meeting. If the conversation has devolved or gotten off-topic, wrap up and recap the discussion including any action items, and move on to the next. If the discussion didn’t progress as far as you’d hoped or produce any output, consider ways to continue or reframe it for future meetings.
It’s normal and expected that you should leave a few minutes of buffer at the top of a meeting for introductions, exchanging pleasantries, and even small talk, but don’t artificially stall for ‘any folks who may be showing up late’. This wastes the time of anyone who has arrived promptly and sets the expectation that meetings don’t actually start at their scheduled time. An equally important action is to end meetings a few minutes before the top of the hour or half-hour. This is helpful in office environments to allow people to clear out a meeting room and get to their next meeting, but equally crucial in a remote setting where folks still need a chance to stretch their legs, use the restroom, or get a snack.
Allow for silence
Some people will feel comfortable speaking up the moment they can get a word in edgewise, others will not. Meetings tend to be dominated by people who are willing to cut in, which can leave people who don’t want to be poised to speak at the next pause thinking they are unable to contribute to the discussion. As a result, these people can feel disenfranchised and as if they never really needed to attend the meeting in the first place.
This is especially pronounced in video chat environments where it’s harder to have a conversation flow naturally or notice when multiple people are trying to speak at the same time. When there is a break in conversation, don’t immediately move on to the next topic – pause for 30 seconds or more to allow folks to speak up who may be more reluctant. Also, consider shifting to using raised hands or a queuing system if people are constantly speaking over each other. As more workplaces resume operations in-person, allowing for equal participation for people both in the room and joining virtually will be important. Raised hands can help with that, as can having a way for people to contribute thoughts or questions through text channels. For large meetings where it’s not possible to address all questions, consider having participants submit questions ahead of time and vote for the ones they most want to hear answered.
My final piece of advice is that different people have different preferences when it comes to meetings, and it’s always helpful to ask rather than assume what they are. Some people prefer to have their meetings stacked together, so that they can treat them as a single interruption rather than multiple ones throughout the day. Others prefer to have time to prepare or attend to other things in between. Consider making team or company agreements around interruption-free time, whether these are ‘no-meeting days’, setting aside blocks of ‘focus time’ that shouldn’t be scheduled over, or designating core hours when meetings can be scheduled. It’s hard to accommodate everyone and there will always be some folks who just don’t like meetings – but by making an effort you are likely to lighten your team’s outlook on meetings and improve the experience for everyone.