Meetings are an unfortunate fact of working life and unfortunately most people view them as a necessary evil, something to be endured. It’s a shame because they can be productive. At first the structure of a meeting seems obvious – people meet to discuss stuff, there might be an agenda, papers to consider, apologies to sent and lots more. But the typical structure of a meeting needs more careful consideration to ensure it is inclusive.
Let’s start before the meeting. The people in charge need to come up with an agenda, make sure any relevant information is available, and tend to catering needs. To allow people to fully consider papers and an agenda, they should be available as long in advance as possible, certainly no later than 3 – 5 working days before the meeting. This allows people who have different working patterns sufficient time to consider the papers. The notion that ‘no one reads the papers’, or ‘everyone reads them an hour before’ is anecdotal at best, and actively harmful to people who, for one reason or another, need longer to access things. Put as much as you can in the papers in a concise and precise manner – let people process complex information and form a balanced opinion with time for reflection. This lets them attend the meeting and make a response rather than an off the cuff reaction, which may reflect a more emotional and stressed response.
Catering for diversity in a meeting means more than ensuring there is tea and coffee. Do people work remotely and need the opportunity to attend via video conferencing? Make the option available as default rather than something ‘special’ that is a ‘hassle’ to set up. Do people need to come and go during the meeting to tend other equally important matters? Put estimated timings on the agenda so people can plan to be there at the right points, then try to stick fairly closely to them. Minute by minute isn’t necessary but try to hit them within 5- 10 minutes. Arrange the agenda to cater to people’s attendance needs. If it’s a long meeting, factor in breaks, and if it’s all day, factor in a proper lunch break that allows people to regroup or spend some time doing their normal lunch stuff. Just because you’re holding a meeting, doesn’t allow you to deny people appropriate breaks throughout the day – some attendees will be relying on them.
Come up with a better way for recording absences than ‘apologies’. Yeah, what could possibly be the problem there? Simply, people who cannot attend due to different working patterns should not have to apologise for having a working pattern that suits their needs. It should be sufficient for people to notify you that they will be absent and have that recorded. If you use a doodle poll or similar method for agreeing a meeting date, automatically record the absence of those who indicated they could not attend. Similarly if you send invites via calendars, automatically record the absence of those who decline the meeting. I utterly despise being marked as AWOL for a meeting where I clearly indicated I could not attend when the date was set. Another decent thing to do would be to automatically record the absence of those who’s duties prevent them attending – do you really expect someone who has teaching contact time during your meeting to send you apologies? You should not expect people to send emails expressing apologies when they never indicated they were available, or could not be available in the first place. To me, an apology should be retained as an expression of regret for being unable to attend for unforeseen circumstances. A part-time contract, working from home day, or scheduled teaching is not unforeseen.
At the meetings. Make sure everyone gets a chance to be heard, and consider leaving contentious topics open for further feedback outside the meeting to allow those who take longer to process information time to come to an opinion. Big debates in meeting only favour those who think fast on their feet. Let the quiet people have a chance. Similarly, leaving a contentious topic open for a few days allows those who could not attend to consider things and offer an opinion. If your goal is to foster a collegiate environment, sending messages after meetings with limited attendance stating, in essence, that those who showed up to the meeting have decided X so that’s what we all must do, does not achieve this and indeed makes those who could not attend feel redundant. There are times when decisions are urgent and must be made by those in the room, but the majority of decisions in meetings just need to be made, they aren’t urgent matters of national security requiring rapid action.
Make sure people listen around the room. There is nothing more distracting in a meeting than one corner of the table talking amongst themselves. And this includes the person chairing it. If you need to talk privately to someone, pause the meeting, don’t talk over your attendees. If people are talking amongst themselves, ask them to share or be quiet. And make sure the conference call people have an easy way to indicate they want to speak.
Make sure you are catering to the diversity that you know about – presentations should be done using best practice for inclusivity, and adaptations for any specific needs of attendees should be catered for.
After the meeting. A summary of the key points, an actions list and minutes are essential to helping people follow the discussions. If you’ve left a topic open for a few days to allow more contributions, summarise the debate so far and send it around people with a clear deadline and format for responses. Don’t rely on gossip to relate the conversation. Make sure there are minutes for all meetings – for the people who could not attend, nothing happened that wasn’t minuted, so if you’re taking decisions that impact people’s working style, have the common decency to produce a summary and circulate it within a few working days of the meeting.
Ask for feedback on how the meeting ran, the room, the length, the agenda structure. It’s easy when chairing to lose sight of how the meeting felt for the participants. If anyone has behaved in a difficult manner, talk to them informally before the next meeting. Consider asking for reports in written format when they convey standard information each time, reserving valuable meeting time for matters than need discussing rather than conveying information. Get those reports in good time, but make sure people are aware they will be required.
I don’t think any of this is difficult, there’s a lot of it, but it’s not hard. It just takes effort to consider many of these things. Feel free to add to this list in the comments.