How to improve your meeting culture—virtual and in-person

Meeting culture creates a productive and happy workforce—and its impacts extend far beyond meetings themselves. Here's our take on how to improve your meeting culture.

Kimberlee Meier, Writer
4 October 202113 Min Read

Meeting culture creates a productive and happy workforce—and its impacts extend far beyond meetings themselves. Here's our take on how to improve your meeting culture.

Meetings—are they an unnecessary evil or a place where your team can thrive?

Writer Dave Barry thinks the former. 

“If you had to identify, in one word, the reason why the human race has not achieved, and never will achieve, its full potential, that word would be ‘meetings.” 

Harsh. But the reality is that meetings can either be super productive or ruin your team's collaboration and focus. 

How successful your company's meetings are is tied to your meeting culture—and this culture starts from the top down. Setting clear guidelines about why a meeting needs to happen, how often your team should meet, and what those meetings should look like is everything. 

We're nearly two years into the Covid-19 pandemic, and most people are working remotely, but some of us are heading back to the office. So, improving meeting culture needs to focus on more than just the virtual side of collaborating, but the in-person side as well. 

At Front, we try to complete work asynchronously whenever possible. We want to allow people to focus on their work and collaborate when it works for them—including meetings—as we think it makes everyone more productive. So, we want to pass our take on what’s worked on to you. We're doing a deep dive into: 

  • How to improve your meeting culture

  • Why does meeting culture matter? 

  • Symptoms of bad meeting culture to watch out for

  • 6 ways you can improve your meeting culture

How to improve your meeting culture

Improving your meeting culture starts by looking at how you approach meetings right now.

The reality is, you would be hard-pressed to find people in your company who love attending meetings (really, go and ask them). They'll probably say that meetings take up a lot of space on their calendars, or that their Friday marketing meeting always runs late, or that they always talk about stuff that could've just been an email. 

For too long, teams have jumped into meetings without any structure, planning, or post-meeting direction. Harvard Business Review calls this "meeting madness," where employees sacrifice their own time and well-being for meetings because they think they're doing what's best for the business. 

Admitting that meetings in a traditional sense are flawed is the first step to improving your meeting culture. But we must also admit something—we need meetings. They help us stay connected, get organized, and feel like a team. It's how you organize and conduct these meetings that we want to help you improve. 

And you may be surprised to know that a lot of what makes successful meetings aren't the project that's discussed or what platform you use—it's making a deliberate decision about why a meeting is happening at all and planning for it properly.  

Why does meeting culture matter? 

Meeting culture matters like any other part of your company's culture does—if everyone has a mutual understanding and respect of how to approach meetings, it'll keep them aligned and focused. However, there are two aspects to meeting culture that separate top-performing teams from the rest. 

Asynchronous work allows people to get work done 

Asynchronous communication is when your team sends messages to each other without needing an immediate answer. It's completely different from synchronous communication (like phone calls or meetings), where talking happens in real-time. 

This communication culture is becoming more popular now that we're working remotely (or in a hybrid team) as we may be working different hours or from different time zones. But why is it so effective? 

Not only is asynchronous communication more flexible, but it also allows your team to think about ideas or answers to a question in a way that they can't do in real-time meetings. For example, if someone on your team wants some feedback about a project they're working on, they don't have to organize a meeting—they can ping a colleague on a tool like Asana or Front and ask them there instead. Then, they can collaborate over email or a shared task board without somebody giving feedback on the spot. 

High performing teams have deliberate meetings 

The core of creating a good meeting culture is only holding necessary meetings and putting in the planning to make sure that they actually achieve something. 

The reason we know this is because the majority of top-performing teams we talked to for our recent survey, How to build a high-performing team, approached meetings the same way. Most of them always had agendas to follow (instead of just jumping into meetings blindly), and there were often pre-meeting assignments, like reading, that teams did before the meeting to help them prepare.

But that's not all we found—teams are also revolutionizing the reasons they hold meetings. For remote companies, meetings are no longer just a place to discuss projects—35% of top-performing team members have had coffee or tea together, and 65% start meetings with a check-in with their teammates.

Now that you know how top-performing teams hold successful meetings, let's talk about toxic meeting cultures—and how to spot them.  

Symptoms of bad meeting culture to watch out for

1. Agendas are optional (or not used at all)

Meeting agendas are a crucial part of a healthy meeting culture. They help set expectations for the meeting as well as outline what will be discussed and how much time each topic will be given. Without a plan, meetings can go off track, and before you know it—your team has wasted an hour without achieving anything. 

2. There isn't inclusivity or equality

Workplaces are full of people with different personalities and cultures. Some of your team may be shy introverts who love expressing their ideas over a group Slack channel, while others thrive on being opinionated and energetic in Zoom meetings. 

Both of these personalities are the reason why some companies have great conversations and produce amazing work. But meetings also need to be inclusive and equal, and if some team members dominate the conversation or don't leave space for others to voice their opinions, it can be very detrimental to your team’s success and happiness.

3. There's no post-meeting plan

Have you ever left a meeting or ended a Zoom call and immediately thought—what are the next steps? This is a sign that your company's meeting culture needs work. Outlining the expectations and handing out follow-up tasks before the meeting ends gives team members a clear idea of what comes next. If you skip this, your team may feel like the meeting was for nothing. 

So, how do you improve all of this? We're glad you asked 👇and can share a few tips that have worked for us.

6 ways you can improve your meeting culture

1. Focus on inclusivity

Every teammate wants to have their ideas and opinions included in a team discussion, but it's up to you to make sure that happens. In fact, according to research by McKinsey, your employees' happiness and satisfaction at work hinge on how fair they think their workplace is. 

“Across demographic groups, when employees feel they have equal opportunity for advancement and think the system is fair, they are happier with their career, plan to stay at their company longer, and are more likely to recommend it as a great place to work.”

When it comes to meetings, creating an inclusive environment isn't rocket science. First, look at how each individual team member handles themselves in a meeting: 

  • Who is speaking? 

  • Who has the power?

  • How is it being used?

  • Is there equal speaking time for everyone?

And for in-person meetings (and those over Zoom), you can get more clues on how inclusive your meetings actually are by reading your team's body language. Author Jodi Detjen, a professor and co-founder of an inclusivity and development consultancy, says warning signs that someone doesn't feel included can be something as small as a team member rolling their eyes or slouching in their seat. 

However, there are some changes you can make to help people feel more involved, like:  

  • Tell your team that if they want to chime in, they can use a silent indicator like raising their hand or stating in the chat bar that they've got something to add

  • Introduce a "round-robin" into your meetings, so everyone has a dedicated moment to talk

  • When brainstorming, allocate time to give team members a chance to think about what they want to say so they don't feel pressured

Detjen says changing your meeting culture comes down to making an effort to be inclusive—simply having diversity in your headcount isn’t enough. 

"Your team has to be able to leverage the power,” Detjen says. "If you have one woman in the room and she doesn’t feel comfortable sharing her thoughts or gets overlooked, you’re not getting anywhere. You have to observe where the power lies and enable your team to have a voice."

2. Set agendas for every meeting

Agendas are non-negotiable if you want to craft a meeting culture that actually gets results. Meeting agendas should clearly outline why the meeting is happening and what will be discussed. It should also include any documents (like reports or plans), so the team members attending have a chance to prepare. 

Here's a (very quick) example of what an agenda may look like:

Weekly Marketing Roundup

  • Intro/check-in (10 minutes)

  • Review Q2 marketing campaigns and metrics (10 minutes)

  • Discuss campaign wins/challenges and metrics (10 minutes)

  • Unveil and discuss marketing plan for Q3 (15 minutes)

  • End/next steps (5 minutes)

Meeting time: 50 minutes. Plan = clear. 

Here at Front, we include a description of the meeting and an agenda with every invite we send out. Our CEO Mathilde Collin has created a framework for every meeting to help the organizer prepare and outline expectations ahead of time. It looks like this: 

🤔 Purpose: What’s the point of this meeting?

📋 Agenda: Link to any notes here, or briefly explain the schedule you’ll follow

🙅‍♀️ Limits: What you will and will not do during this meeting

✔️ Decision: Are you hoping to reach a decision from this meeting? If so, state it here.

Psssst - feel free to steal the framework; it's made our (meeting) lives easier!

3. Keep meetings small to avoid wasting time—and allow people to be optional

Have you ever attended a meeting with 20 people, and it feels more like a Christmas party instead? There's a reason. When there are too many people in a meeting, the quality of the conversation erodes and… nothing gets done. 

Stanford University studied the ideal group size for a meeting, and they found the most productive were limited to five to eight people. The study says that any more than this will make people feel left out and not give them space to contribute. 

And this makes perfect sense when we think about meetings as real-life interactions. If you go out to dinner with a small group of friends, it gives you a chance to connect and really learn about what's happening in their lives. If you're at a party with 30 people, your conversations may be limited to quick summaries of how each other is going. 

So, small groups can improve your meeting culture as they:

  • Bring enough diversity while allowing everyone to share their ideas and opinions

  • Make planning easier (finding an ideal time to meet with 5 people is easier than with 20)

  • Keeps everyone engaged, which is harder to do the more people are involved

4. Set default meetings to 40 or 50 minutes (instead of 1 hour)

Shorter meetings are more effective. And that's not us saying that—it's science. Neuroscape, the neuroscience center at the University of California, has studied how the length of a meeting as well as devices, screens, apps, phones, and alerts create interference and make it that much harder to have a successful meeting. 

The reason? Simple—virtual meetings are unnatural. Even the smallest lag or latency can break a meeting's collaboration streak, and trying to focus on that as well as what's happening in the meeting requires our brains to work extra hard.

Neuroscientist Adam Gazzaley says although this is the "digital ecosystem" that remote teams need to work with, it's come at a cost. 

"It decreases the quality of communication and empathy between people,” he says. "You are not in control of where you maintain your attention. As wonderful as our brains are, by being aware of its limitations, you can be more thoughtful in how you manage technology." 

The solution may be to make our meetings shorter and let our brains rest afterward. Make the maximum meeting time 50 minutes, and if you need longer, split the meeting into two parts. Gazzaley also recommends taking a break between meetings so your brain can have a mental rest without technology.  

“If your break from a virtual meeting involves going back to emails or texts, you should not consider that a break,” he says. "As a leader, it's helpful to tell your team that it's okay for them to disconnect, especially in this stressful time. I don't think it will lead to less productivity. I think it will lead to higher satisfaction and better productivity."

5. Send a pre-read or enable everyone to digest the same information (like the controversial Bezos approach): 

Preparing everyone for what will be discussed in a meeting doesn't just save time; it makes the meeting more productive. The more time your team has to read through agendas, reports, and discussion topics, the better. And as Amazon figured out early, preparing their team with a memo can fuel a productive, helpful meeting. 

While CEO Jeff Bezos admitted the company's meeting culture may be a little "weird" (the first part of every meeting is spent in silence as everyone attending is busy reading a meeting memo), it works. At Amazon, powerpoints are banned, and teams instead collaborate using stories. These six-page memos shape the entirety of the meeting and force people's sole focus to be on what's about to be discussed. 

“It forces leaders to put away their computers, to put away their phones, to not be dumbed down by PowerPoint,"  Former executive John Rossman explains. "It forces them to read it, to grok it, to deeply understand it so they can have a much better discussion."

Controversial? Yep. But it clearly works for them. 

6. Build an internal communication guide so everyone is on the same page 

An internal communication guide is worth its weight in gold in getting everyone in the same mindset for meetings. Our guide is essentially a set of ground rules for everyone in the company to follow, so every meeting has uniformity. Without it, meetings can get off track and waste everyone's time. 

Here are some examples of meeting ground rules you may want to include in your guide: 

✅ Schedule a meeting when you need a thoughtful, real-time discussion

✅ Ensure every meeting has an agenda and purpose before it's scheduled

✅ If you’re unsure if a certain team member needs to be there, mark the invite as "optional" and let them decide

✅ Always meetings with clear decisions, action items, or topics for follow up

You should also include rules that explain what your team shouldn't do: 

❌ Don't schedule a meeting for something that can be handled over email or chat

❌ Don't automatically block off an hour for every meeting—50 minutes max!

❌ Don't accept every meeting invite. Ask yourself, do I really need to be there?

❌ Don't finish up a meeting without any post-meeting instructions

Remember, improving your meeting culture is about so much more than just meetings. It can trickle down and improve everything from how your team collaborates to their overall job satisfaction and performance. 

Interested in learning more about how to build a high-performing team? Check out our in-depth report here.

Written by Kimberlee Meier
Originally Published: 4 October 2021
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