How to stay on time at online meetings

stay on time at online meetings Tired of meetings that don’t end on time? Who isn’t? Things were bad enough when we held our meetings in person. Now so many meetings are online, it’s easy to saddle remote workers with back-to-back meetings. When one overruns, you’re late to the next one. Hey presto, your tardiness snowballs! (And, no, you can’t be on two Zooms at once without going through tortuous hacks.) Sure, sometimes you’re at the mercy of others. But you can stay on time at online meetings when they’re your meetings — if you follow the guidance below!

NOTE: Many of these suggestions are good practice for any meeting!

Before the online meeting starts

Set expectations

Apart from those rare meetings that are ritual courtly dances with every step minutely choreographed, what happens at a meeting is unpredictable to some degree.

Ideally, the only unpredictable parts should be when you’re doing useful work, like sharing ideas, discussing options, making decisions, etc. And setting expectations for the meeting before it starts is key to minimizing the time-wasting behavior that we’ve all experienced during meetings.

You have two tools to set meeting expectations: creating agreements and the meeting agenda.

Creating agreements

I’ve facilitated meetings for decades. In my experience, the best way to reliably improve a meeting is to create and (gently) enforce agreements about how participants act there. Consensual group norms generate powerful motivation to keep meetings running smoothly and productively while discouraging unruly behavior. I’ve found that having an appropriate set of agreements eliminates the vast majority of common problems. And if someone still goes down an irrelevant conversational rabbit hole, interrupts others, or talks too much, it’s much easier to lightly redirect them.

Agreements can either be communicated before the meeting or at the start. While there’s no single set of agreements that’s optimum for every meeting, some base agreements should be familiar to anyone who regularly meets online. For example:

  • Join the meeting on time, ready to participate. (Tip: Here’s how to start online meetings on time.)
  • Mute your microphone unless you wish to speak.
  • Signal via a pre-agreed protocol when you want to say something, e.g., by raising your hand (literally or via a platform mechanism like Zoom’s “Raise Hand”), or via text chat.
  • If you’ve joined by phone, say your name before speaking.
Additional agreements

Additional agreements that are generally helpful include:

  • Commit to being present at the meeting unless an emergency occurs.
  • Don’t interrupt. Instead, use an agreed process to indicate you want to speak.
  • Follow the group’s discussion and decision processes.
  • Respect agreed time limits on speaking.
  • Support the meeting’s scheduled ending time.

Besides meeting-wide agreements, agreements about processes you will use during the meeting are very important. Create agreement and a clear understanding about how participants will:

  • take turns to speak;
  • discuss issues; and
  • make decisions.

The processes to use depend on the meeting’s goals (see agenda) and implicit or explicit power differentials between attendees. For example, you’ll use different procedures if a decision is going to be made by consensus, majority vote, or the presiding CEO. I’ve included some examples below.

Whatever processes you chose, be sure to explain how they work either before or at the start of the meeting. Make sure that all supporting technology, such as an on-screen timer, is available and there’s someone responsible for running it.

Providing an agenda in advance

An agenda is a vital tool for staying on time at online meetings, in fact at any meeting. Providing participants with a clear, detailed agenda in advance is respectful and smart. “In advance” doesn’t mean five minutes before the meeting. It means giving attendees enough time to read and review beforehand. This allows people to formulate questions, ideas, and positions on agenda items beforehand, saving time during the meeting. Whenever possible, include participants’ input into the agenda by distributing a draft with a deadline for questions, corrections, and additions for a final agenda before the meeting.

Timed agendas are very helpful for staying on time. Even if it turns out the written times can’t be fully adhered to, they give attendees an idea of what’s expected and make it easier to reschedule upcoming agenda items on the fly.

Be clear who is running the meeting. Online meetings often need various kinds of support. Be sure everyone knows their responsibilities for note-taking, setting up breakout groups, displaying visual aids, polling, monitoring text chat for questions or requests to speak, maintaining time agreements, etc.

Occasionally, an itemized agenda is impracticable because the meeting is preliminary and exploratory: for example, a group meeting for the first time to discuss a possible collaboration. Even under these circumstances, be sure you circulate a brief description of the meeting goals and a start and end time.

During the online meeting

First, start on time! Here’s how to do this.

Check that everyone involved with meeting tasks and support — facilitation, note-taking, setting up breakout groups, displaying visual aids, polling, monitoring text chat for questions or requests to speak, maintaining time agreements, etc. — is present and ready to do their work. If the meeting is large, a backchannel for these folks to communicate, like Slack, can be very helpful.

Online discussions can often become messy, with people interrupting, taking up too much time, or going off-topic. To avoid this:

  • use one of these procedures to determine who speaks next.
  • gently enforce time limits for speakers. I use an on-screen timer program, ManyCam, but low-tech solutions such as a timekeeper displaying their phone’s countdown timer work too.
  • use an online fishbowl or fishbowl sandwich to control the discussion. (If your meeting is purely discussion, you can employ a dedicated fishbowl platform like Stooa).

Expect to readjust your schedule during the meeting

If you haven’t supplied a timed agenda, it’s important for the meeting leader to share their thoughts on how the group will use the time available. Since it’s rare to precisely follow such plans, regularly recalculate the time allotments as the meeting proceeds, and update/consult with participants on any changes you think you’ll need to make.

If you complete the meeting agenda ahead of schedule, end it early! No one will complain. 😀

Finally, end on time! It sometimes becomes clear during a meeting that the agenda scope was unrealistic. More time is needed to satisfy the meeting’s goals. Asking to extend the meeting duration may be an option, but don’t just keep going. Instead, before the meeting is scheduled to end, estimate how much longer is needed and poll attendees to see if they can stay. Respect their responses and proceed appropriately. Options include:

  • Continue for an additional agreed-upon time (which you may need to negotiate).
  • Continue without one or more participants if you can still achieve your meeting goals despite their absence.
  • Schedule another meeting to finish what’s been started.

Conclusion

It’s important to stay on time at online meetings. Yes, running late inconveniences everyone attending, and some people may have to leave on time, with the consequent loss of their contributions and involvement. In addition, every corporate or community meeting that runs late reinforces the all-too-common dysfunctional cultural norm that all meetings will overrun. The resulting psychological, and emotional burden imposed on attendees who routinely experience losing control of their time is high.

Hopefully, these ideas will help you and your colleagues stay on time at online meetings. Do you have further suggestions? I’d love to hear them in the comments below!

 

How to start online meetings on time

start online meetings on time Is it possible to routinely start online meetings on time? Yes!

But first…

Think about the last three meetings you attended. Raise your hand if all of them started on time.

Anyone? Anyone?

Why don’t scheduled meetings start on time?

The reason that almost no scheduled meetings (in-person or online) start on time is that we provide one single time for meetings to both open and start.

Even with the best intentions, participants can’t and won’t all arrive simultaneously at the exact time a meeting is scheduled to start. With a single fixed time to open and start a meeting, everyone will either be “early” or “late”.

In addition, meeting invitations don’t supply information as to what the consequences of being early or late will be!

  • If you arrive early for an in-person meeting, you may find the meeting room locked or occupied by another, earlier meeting. You have to wait around until the room is free. You have no idea if anyone else may be early, which gives you little incentive to be early.
  • If you arrive early for an online meeting, you may find the meeting host hasn’t opened the online meeting platform yet. You will have to wait around until the host starts the meeting and lets you in. You don’t know if anyone else will be around beside the host, with whom you may have to chat to be polite. If you’re busy, the smart thing to do is to join the meeting at the last minute. And if there’s a glitch in the meeting platform technology or connection, you may end up being late.
  • If you arrive late for an in-person or online meeting, you may miss stuff. Things may need to be repeated for your benefit, annoying the folks who did arrive on time. Or you may effectively delay the meeting start because you (or enough of the other participants) are late.

Whatever happens, no one wins, time is wasted, and the meeting quality suffers!

Scheduling a meeting to open and start at the same time invariably ensures that it won’t start on time.

We reluctantly put up with this imperfect state of affairs for in-person meetings. Over time, repeated team or intra-organization meetings tend to create an implicit expectation as to when they will start. (For example: “We never get going until ten minutes past the hour“, or “the VP is always five minutes late and wants to be the last person to arrive“.) We adjust our behavior accordingly.

Starting online meetings on time is typically harder, because many of them include a specific mix of people who have never met before (and may never meet again as that exact set). There is no prior history to guide when you should arrive.

Although the following advice can improve the likelihood that any kind of meeting will start on time, I’ll focus on online meetings here.

How to start online meetings on time

Two small changes make it far more likely that an online meeting will start on time.

1. Include two times in your meeting invitation. The time when the meeting will open, and the time when the meeting will start.

For example: “We’ll open the Zoom meeting at 13:45 EDT, and start promptly at 14:00 EDT.”

2. To improve the meeting start experience further, let people know what (if anything) will be happening between the open and start time of the meeting.

For example: “Arrive a little early, and chat with our presenter, Lamar Moorel, before the meeting starts!”

Providing both an open and a start time for a meeting gives participants the information they need to plan when to join the meeting. People can join “early” if they are worried about getting the technology or connection to work, or if they want to chat informally with others before the meeting starts. And because it’s clear to everyone that there is a buffer time available to join the meeting, people are likely to understand and accept the expectation that the meeting will start promptly at the start time.

How much time should we allow between opening and starting the meeting?

The time difference between the opening and starting times depends on the meeting circumstances. For a small meeting using a familiar meeting platform, I’ll typically schedule 10 – 15 minutes. For a larger meeting, or one using an unfamiliar meeting platform I might open a meeting 30 minutes before it starts. This allows time for a help desk to assist anyone who has problems signing in.

Begin the meeting promptly at the start time!

Whatever duration you schedule between open and start times, it’s important to begin the meeting promptly at the start time! Unless a key person is missing, do not delay starting your meeting. By clearly communicating your meeting’s starting parameters, the onus to be on time falls on the participants, not you. And because most people will respond to the (invisible) social pressure created by your announced open and start times, you are likely to have many more people arrive “on time” than if you had just scheduled a single start time.

A final word about folks who are habitually late

Everyone is late to a meeting once in a while, for reasons beyond their control. But some people routinely arrive late to meetings, typically for two reasons:

  • Power dynamics — some folks feel the need to demonstrate they’re more important or busier than you.
  • Cultural differences — people from cultures where arriving “late” to meetings is normal. (For example: participants from such countries as Mexico, Greece, Malaysia, Nigeria, Saudi Arabia, Brazil, Algeria, Ghana, India, Kazakhstan, and Russia may be habitually late.) Such folks aren’t being impolite — it’s simply what’s normal for their culture.

I don’t have a magic way to make people who are habitually late for meetings arrive on time. But by incorporating an open and a start time into your online meeting announcements, such people may get the message that you’re not going to delay the meeting start for them. If attending the entire meeting is important, who knows, perhaps they will stop being late for your meetings! (Only your meetings though.)

Do you have other strategies to start online meetings on time? Feel free to share them in the comments!

Can a rehearsal be better than a concert?

rehearsal concert Can a rehearsal be better than a concert? You be the judge!

Every summer since 1951, the world-famous Marlboro Music Festival takes place my small Vermont hometown. Last week my wife and I attended the free morning rehearsals for two pieces of chamber music — Mozart’s Horn Quintet and Dvořák’s Piano Trio No. 3 — played at the formal concert that afternoon.

The rehearsal

Around twenty-five people showed up in an auditorium that, in a few hours, would be filled with hundreds. We could sit anywhere! Naturally, we chose front row center.

Earlier Festival rehearsals are held in classrooms scattered around the Marlboro College campus. Many years ago, when I taught at the school, I’d wander around during the summer and hear beautiful scattered fragments of music. Auditorium rehearsals are the last before the performance, so they tend to contain long stretches of music, punctuated with only a few pauses and occasional repetitions at the ends of movements.

This rehearsal was no exception. The artists played both pieces through with little interruption. They conferred with each other on stage, but we couldn’t easily hear what they were saying.

After the rehearsal we noticed that several friends were present, and it was easy to stroll over and spend some time chatting.

Rehearsal versus concert

It’s interesting to compare the rehearsal and concert experiences. I think many listeners would agree that rehearsals are primarily about the music, though some rehearsals I’ve attended at other venues have offered fascinating glimpses into the ways in which musicians think and work together.

Concerts are, hopefully, primarily about wonderful performances of great music too, but they are also social events. Sometimes, I admit, I find the social aspects distracting and/or detracting from the performance. Audience coughs, rustling, and occasional clatter are inevitable. Navigating my way through crowds to take my seat, get a drink during intermission, or leave when the concert is over is sometimes irksome.

Paradoxically, we met and chatted with more friends at the rehearsal than we’d probably have at the concert, where it’s harder to physically move near people who you know.

Listening to a breathtaking musical performance with hundreds of others is also a unique experience, with the loud applause and, sometimes, standing ovations emphasizing the depth of feeling that the audience collectively shares and of which you are a part. The rehearsal, in contrast, is a subdued affair, with each audience member individually responding to the music and the performance.

Which is “better”? I’ll leave that as an exercise for you. (Feel free to share your perspective in the comments.)

Final thoughts — a performer’s perspective

For a dozen years I sang tenor with the Brattleboro Concert Choir. This involved many weekly rehearsals, followed by just two or three public performances. Like all musicians, we spent far more time rehearsing than performing.

As a performer I learned the wisdom of a mantra that has stood me in good stead over the years — after I slowly and painfully acquired it. “Process not product!” The frustrating, time-consuming, and taxing process of learning your part in a majestic piece of music and working to sing it really well with others is valuable in itself. Though there is the bonus of finally performing publicly to an appreciative audience, I did not spend my time and effort to be rewarded with applause. I rehearsed mightily because I love to sing for or with others. That, as an amateur musician, is sufficient reward.

Photo attribution: Mitsuko Uchida & Jonathan Biss from Marlboro Music

Why meeting evaluations are unreliable and how we can improve them

evaluation 5201223017_52a7453f27_o

A fatal flaw

Traditional meeting evaluations are unreliable. We obtain them within a few days of the session experience. All such short-term evaluations of a meeting or conference session possess a fatal flaw. They tell you nothing about the long-term effects of the session.

What is the purpose of a meeting? Unless we’re talking about special events, which are about transitory celebrations and entertainment (nothing wrong with these, but not what I’m focusing on here), isn’t the core purpose of a meeting to create useful long-term change? Learning that can be applied productively in the future, connections that last and reward, communities that grow and develop new activities and purpose—these are the key valuable outcomes that meetings and conferences can and should produce.

Unfortunately, humans are poor objective evaluators of the enduring benefits of a session they have just experienced.

Probably the most significant reason for this is that we are far more likely to be influenced by our immediate emotional experience during a session than by the successful delivery of what eventually turn out to be long-term benefits. We like to think of ourselves as driven by rationality, but as Daniel Kahneman eloquently explains in Thinking, Fast and Slow we largely discount the effects that our emotions have on our beliefs. Although information provided by lectures and speeches is mostly forgotten within a week, the short-term emotional glow fanned by a skillful motivational speaker can last long enough for great marks on smile sheets. And paradoxically, the long-term learning that can result from well-designed experiential meeting sessions may not be consciously recognized for some time.

Other reasons why evaluations of conference sessions can be unreliable include quantifiable reason bias (the distortions that occur when attendees are asked to justify their evaluations) and evaluation environment bias (evaluations are influenced by the circumstances in which they’re made). These biases are minimal if we receive evaluations from the environment in which participants can implement hoped-for learning: i.e. back in the world of work. But instead—worried that no one will provide feedback if we wait too long—we supply evaluation sheets to fill out at the session, or push evaluation reminders right away via a conference app.

How can we improve meeting evaluations?

If we want meeting evaluations to reflect real-world long-term change, we need to use evaluation methods that allow participants to report on their meeting experiences’ long-term effects.

This is hard—much harder than asking for immediate impressions. Once away from the event, memories fade, our professional lives center around our day-to-day work, and we are less open to refocus on the past.

While I haven’t formulated a comprehensive approach to evaluating long-term change related to meetings, I think an effective long-term meeting evaluation should include the following activities:

  • Individual participants document perceived learning and change resolutions before the meeting ends.
  • Follow-up with participants after an appropriate time to determine whether their chosen changes have actually occurred.

In my next post I’ll share a concrete example of one way to implement a long-term evaluation that incorporates these components.

Photo attribution: Flickr user jurgenappelo

7 more great iPhone/iPad apps for event planners

App_Store Three years have flown by since, excited by my immediate purchase of the original iPad, I shared 13 great iPad, iPhone, and iPod touch apps for event planners. I am still a big fan of five of these apps (Simplenote, DropBox, Square, Evernote, and GoodReader) while the remainder have been discontinued (WifiTrak and, sadly, TweetDeck), or superseded in my affections (Adobe Ideas, Beat the Traffic, Box.net, Instapaper, iTalk, and WeatherBug) by other apps. Here are 7 more great iPhone/iPad apps for event planners

My original iPad is now in my wife’s hands, and my Tumi Alpha man purse (je t’adore, read the reviews!) contains these days an AT&T iPad 3 (fits in the Tumi perfectly), a Verizon iPhone 5s, and a second generation iPod touch holding music and podcasts which, with the addition of an $8 SODIAL FM radio transmitter, I use solely to pump audio into my car radio as I drive.

It’s time for an app update. Here are seven more apps that I actively use and enthusiastically recommend to event planners:

BirdbrainBirdbrain iPhone/iPad apps for event planners ($2.99)
If you are active on Twitter (and I’d argue that most event planners should be) Birdbrain is a fantastic way to manage your Twitter network. The app provides an excellent overview and management of your followers and those you follow. Birdbrain handles multiple accounts, makes it easy to investigate anyone on Twitter, allows you to track unfollows as they occur, list people you’re following who don’t follow you, display mentions and retweets, and provides informative statistics showing changes in your Twitter stats over time. The only feature I’d like to see added is the ability to show inactive accounts you’re following. Recommended!

WazeWaze iPhone/iPad apps for event planners (free)
Waze is my favorite traffic and navigation app of the many that I’ve tried. Unlike traditional GPS units with traffic updates that I’ve often found to be woefully out of date, Waze uses information from its own users to detect traffic snarls and reroutes you on the fly when necessary to avoid that accident that happened up ahead five minutes ago or the rush hour traffic jam building up on the interstate you normally drive on to get home. Purchased recently by Google, my only concern is that the company will start using my location in nefarious ways. If I start seeing annoying ads promoting the tattoo parlor I’m passing by I’ll reconsider. Until then, this is an amazing app that has saved me hours of driving and frustration, and shown me countless new neighborhoods as I bypass traffic where other drivers sit fuming.

Flywheelflywheel iPhone/iPad apps for event planners (free app, $1 per trip surcharge)
Flywheel is my latest app love, recommended to me by my fashionable younger daughter when I was visiting her in San Francisco last month. Unlike Lyft, SideCar and Uber, Flywheel uses legal licensed taxi services to get you where you want to go. Currently, the app allows you to effortlessly hail cabs in San Francisco, Los Angeles, San Diego, Daytona Beach, Miami, Naples, Atlanta, Louisville, Lexington, Lansing, Cleveland, Oklahoma City, Dallas, San Antonio, and Seattle (and they say more cities are on the way). Once you’ve set up an account tied to a credit card (this takes just a few minutes), hailing a cab requires just two taps on your phone. You can then view a constantly updating display of the time before the cab arrives (never more than a few minutes in my experience), watch the cab approach on a map, and talk directly to the driver if necessary. You have a couple of minutes to change your mind; if you cancel after that you’re charged a $6 fee. The service costs $1 per trip, and your desired tipping percentage is built into the app. You never need to give cash or a credit card to the driver.

All this beats stepping out into the street in the rain and waving frantically at a cab that blithely drives past you!

foursquare Foursquare (free)
Foursquare started as a game (be the mayor of places, win badges, and have more points than your friends) and a way to see where your friends are and what they’re doing. I live mostly in a rural area and, while I have occasionally discovered and met up with friends I didn’t know were near me, my main use of this service is to store a searchable history of where I’ve been. When did I drop off that luggage to be repaired? What was the name of that great place I ate dinner with Susie in Atlanta? When exactly was I in Anguilla in 2009? Foursquare’s history of my check-ins is often useful in unexpected ways. And, yes, I admit it, it’s fun to triumphantly win back the mayorship of my favorite local restaurant once in a while…

gateguru GateGuru (free)
GateGuru is an airport information app that was purchased by TripAdvisor in June 2013. While it attempts to replicate some of Tripit‘s functionality, I use it to scope out the places to eat (aka amenities) at airports. The traveler’s reviews, while sometimes spotty, usually allow you to pick out the best place to satisfy your current gustatory desires, and I’ve occasionally found a real gem tucked away on Concourse C that I’d otherwise have missed.

googlevoice Google Voice (free app, most but not all services are free)
Google Voice has been around for years and has a bazillion options, many of which I don’t really understand. But that’s OK, because I find it very useful for two things: a) transferring calls made to my cell to my office phone when I’m at home where my cell phone doesn’t work (ah, the joys of living in rural Vermont) and b) texting. Now let’s be clear: I hate texting and refuse to pay the inflated rates that carriers charge for it on my cell phone, but sometimes it’s the only way to communicate with some people (especially my two younger kids). Google Voice to the rescue! I can text for free from my free Google Voice number, which works with strangers as long as I let them know in the message that it’s me, Adrian Segar, texting them.

Incidentally, though I haven’t yet used this feature, calls made using Google Voice from outside the U.S. to U.S. numbers cost just 1¢/minute; a pretty good rate!

opentable OpenTable (free)
OpenTable allows you to make free reservations at ~30,000 restaurants in the United States, Canada, Germany, Japan, Mexico, and the UK. No more phone calls to a restaurant only to get an answering machine, having to leave a message, and wondering whether you’ll get the reservation you wanted or not. The app works quickly and many reservations give you OpenTable points which can eventually be redeemed for a discount off your meal.

Well, these are some of my favorite iPhone/iPad apps for event planners that make it a little easier to travel, communicate, and eat while I’m on the road. What apps have I missed that are especially useful to event planners that you think should be added to this list? Let us know in the comments below!