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Online meetings are an unavoidable part of business life in 2023, no matter if you work in a remote, hybrid, or in-person team. Colleagues, partners and clients regularly schedule online meetings for various discussions, both productive and arguably superfluous.
This post-pandemic proliferation of online meetings swallows up significant amounts of time, especially as many meetings tend to take longer than planned, with various participants monopolizing the conversation. Ultimately, this overload can result in reduced productivity and Zoom fatigue.
But what can you do to safeguard your time during online meetings and avoid these negative impacts on your productive time? Here are six failsafe strategies to efficiently slot online meetings into your day without letting them commandeer it.
1. Set a meeting agenda
To begin with, it’s essential to clarify the meeting agenda in advance. Many virtual meetings are ultimately unproductive because participants have varying communication styles and expectations and because they spontaneously think of points they want to raise. With different people talking over each other and jumping back and forth between topics, such meetings easily careen out of control and infringe upon your time.
A meeting agenda can prevent this. It sets expectations, structures the flow of conversation and allows speaking time to different participants.
To set a meeting agenda, circulate a document in advance where people can log the topics they want to discuss. For instance, you can set up a shared Google Doc with the general structure of the meeting and invite participants to collaborate. To avoid last-minute changes, set a deadline by which participants need to enter the points they want to raise.
Before the meeting, send out the official agenda to all participants.
If you are not the organizer of the meeting, you can still suggest creating an agenda for whoever is in charge. In most instances, it’s enough to send out a quick mail along the lines of, “Hi George, I was wondering where I can find the agenda for our upcoming meeting. I have a few points I’d like to touch on and want to respect everyone’s time.”
2. Clarify roles in advance
Apart from parceling out speaking time and outlining the general structure of a meeting, you should also assign roles in advance — especially if a larger number of people are attending.
Who will be in charge of the meeting and responsible for keeping time? Will someone be a co-host? Who handles the technical side of things and helps participants with individual glitches? And who takes notes or records the meeting and then shares the files with others?
Designating individuals for these roles in advance – for instance, at the top of your shared agenda – eliminates discussions, requests for volunteers and awkward silences at the start of your meeting.
3. Announce hard stop times
At the start of your meeting, make clear when you need to stop — no matter if you are the meeting organizer or a participant. Setting a hard stop time straight off encourages people to be more mindful of their shared time. It also gives the incentive to prioritize the points they want to discuss with you.
In addition, you can also turn the tables and allow your participants to announce any hard stops of their own: “Before we get started, I just wanted to say that I will have to end this meeting at 4 pm to hop on another call. If anyone needs to bow out early, let us know so we can be mindful of your time and discuss the points that directly concern you while we have you here.”
4. Harness rhetoric strategies to manage speaking times or use mute
Is one of your meeting participants monopolizing the conversation, enamored with the sound of their own voice?
You can employ several rhetorical tactics and psychological hacks to break their flow. Wait until they pause for a breath and then jump in with:
- “Thanks for raising this valuable point, Brian. Based on what you just said, …”
- “Thanks, Karen. Before you carry on, let me just remind you that we have a hard stop at 4 pm, so it would be great if you could wrap up your point.”
- “Let me interrupt you there, Alex. In the interest of getting some other perspectives, let’s hear what Katie has to say about this.”
- “I’m going to have to jump in here, Mary. Your point relates to the next item on our agenda, so let’s segue into that.”
If all else fails, you can use the mute button if you control the meeting. In case you know going in that you will have to tightly manage speaking times based on who is participating in the meeting, you can even alter default settings to take away participants’ ability to unmute themselves.
5. Opt for asynchronous meetings or email instead
Finally, there is the ultimate option for safeguarding your time in the face of online meetings – avoiding them in the first place. Since the start of the pandemic and the advent of widespread remote work, we all have sat through meetings thinking, “This could have been an email.”
In many cases, nonessential meetings can be converted to a different format. Asynchronous meetings, where participants harness tools like Loom to exchange views with delayed response times, have become increasingly popular. Additionally, they make it easy to accommodate participants from different time zones who might otherwise have to get up early or stay up far past their regular working hours.
If you are considering converting a virtual meeting to a different format, it’s best to be upfront about it with participants.
For instance, say a deadline for submitting items for a meeting has passed, but the agenda still looks light. Send out a message to people letting them know that you’re cutting the meeting time to free up everyone’s calendar – or that you’ve decided it’s more efficient to discuss the few items that there are via mail.
The bottom line
Your productive time is one of your most valuable resources. Safeguarding it against encroaching virtual meetings is essential in today’s business world. By following the strategies above, you’ll be able to diplomatically cordon off the time you need to get your work done and recharge.
And you’ll be able to embark on your next set of virtual meetings with a ticked-off to-do list and plenty of energy.