By Nina Berman on February 9th, 2021
The Problem Isn't Zoom, It's Meetings
At Fractured Atlas, we’ve extolled the virtues of working remotely since before it was a requirement. We’ve talked about how it has helped us as an arts organization expand beyond New York City as a locus for staff, how it’s provided more flexibility for our staff, and allowed us to work together without some of the pressures of an office.
We’ve spoken highly of the tools we’ve used to make the shift to a fully-distributed workplace, including video conferencing tools like Zoom. But lately we, like a lot of other people, are sick of Zoom. Video conferencing was hard when it was being mass-adopted in March 2020, and it’s only gotten more challenging as time has worn on. There are certainly ways to improve video conferencing and to find more exciting tools and platforms to help us gather.
But really, the problem runs deeper.
The issue isn’t Zoom or video conferencing. It isn’t remote working or even COVID. The problem is meetings. Most workplaces aren’t thoughtful about what meetings we’re having, why we’re having them, or how we’re having them.
Why Are You Having a Meeting?
You might have full team meetings, departmental meetings, recurring meetings about strategy or communications or project management, not to mention 1:1 check-ins on your calendar. These meetings are often unchanged as people come and go from an institution, teams shift, and priorities restructure.
Just because you or your organization have always structured your meeting schedules in a particular way doesn’t mean you have to keep doing it like that, or that you even should. Instead of just continuing on meeting the way you and your org always has, it’s worth considering the purpose and efficacy of each meeting on your calendar. It’s entirely possible that the system you have (and have possibly had in place for a long time) isn’t the most effective to help you accomplish your goals or the most respectful of people’s time and energy. Having meetings out of habit isn’t going to be an effective meeting strategy for you or your team.
Fractured Atlas is not anti-meeting. I can look at my own calendar to see that! There are plenty of times that you have to work with your colleagues to make a decision, to create a shared document or presentation together, plan for the future, or just check in to see how things are rolling along. But, what’s the best way to have that conversation or accomplish that task?
In workplaces, we often default to meetings whenever we have to have a conversation or work on something together. But meetings (either physical or virtual) aren’t always the best way to get done what you need to get done? Instead of taking anywhere from 30 minutes to over an hour to meet, could you use email, Slack, or a shared Google Doc to divide and conquer?
Group discussions or meetings sometimes are the best way to get to where you and your team need to be going. But we encourage you to consider what it is that you need to accomplish and whether a meeting will help you get it done, or if you’re just putting time on people’s calendars by rote.
What Kind of Meeting Are You Having, Anyway?
“Meetings” is actually a broad category. There are stand-up meetings, 1:1’s, strategic meetings, tactical meetings, working meetings, visioning meetings, departmental meetings, and all-staff meetings. Some meetings are centered around the people in the meeting (1:1’s, all-staff meetings, departmental meetings) and some are more goal-oriented (strategic, tactical, working, and visioning meetings). Some meetings are just about how to have meetings! These meetings all serve different purposes, require different kinds of mental input, will work best with different groups of people on a team.
In order to have an effective meeting, you have to figure out what kind of meeting it is that you want to have ahead of time.
Getting clear ahead of time about whether a meeting is going to be a strategic planning meeting where you decide what direction you want to go in around a particular issue or a tactical meeting where you suss out how you’re going to get there will help the attendees come prepared and leave feeling like something has been accomplished.
Sometimes, orgs and teams try to cram too many different kinds of meetings into one. It’s too much to talk strategy, then tactics, and then actually work on a project together. By the time you’re done with the strategy portion of your meeting, you’ll have taken up a great deal of mental space and time in someone’s day. Plus, are the people who are best for a strategy or tactics conversation the same people who need to be in the room executing during a working meeting?
Trying to do too much in a meeting leads to people getting exhausted and feeling frustrated that they’ve had to skip agenda items or rush through them after running too tight on time.
Who Should Be at the Meeting?
I speak from experience, and I bet you can relate, when I say that a lot of the time there are too many people in the meeting.
Many of us have been in the position of having to sit through a physical or virtual meeting, knowing deep in your core that you shouldn’t have to be there. You don’t have anything to add, you aren’t going to take anything away from the meeting that will impact your work in the short- or the long-term. There are too many meetings with too many people in them, which leads to bloat, boredom, and people tuning out.
When thinking about how you are gathering your team, really ask yourself who needs to be involved in a conversation or in a meeting. Who has a perspective that will be valuable and whose work will be impacted by what is decided in a meeting?
This isn’t to say that meetings should only happen when the leadership team needs to decide something or that the most senior people at an organization should be the only ones in the room. In fact, for something like product design, employees who work most closely with end-users or recipients of what it is that you do probably have important information to offer up to people who aren’t as tied to day-to-day operations. We just encourage orgs to be thoughtful and purposeful about who is invited to be a part of the discussion, not to mention how to encourage all voices at a meeting to participate fully and equally.
While we hope that organizations keep their meetings lean enough to be effective, we recognize that sitting in on meetings can be great for junior staffers who want to learn more about how decisions are made and get some kind of face-time with people they work with other than their immediate supervisors and colleagues. These people definitely shouldn’t be boxed out of meetings they want to attend.
There’s no easy fix for right-sizing a meeting or figuring out who should be there but it should be done in such a way that the people who want to and need to be a part of the conversation will be and the people whose time is best used on other things don’t have to spend a portion of their day doing something that isn’t helpful.
A Meeting Needs Next Steps
Plenty of meetings, especially the abstract meetings when you and your coworkers are dreaming big together, are very exciting and in the end, very frustrating.
It can be thrilling to plan for the future together, to cook up big and ambitious plans. These kinds of meetings can reinvigorate you and your colleagues. They can remind you why you do what you do, and help you scope out to see the big picture and the long future. But without any idea of where to go after those big-dreaming sessions, it can feel futile. If your ideas all evaporate into the ether once you’re not in the same room together, what was the point of all of those plans?
Especially when trying to turn those big, brainstorming plans into something tangible, it’s crucial to end your meetings with some kind of next steps. Whatever those next steps are, even if it is just to mull it over and decide which ones to pursue in a few weeks, you need to make them explicit. Too many meetings full of great ideas without any roadmap forward will eventually make your team wonder what’s the point of generating big and ambitious ideas if they never go anywhere.
Social Aspects of Meetings
But meetings aren’t just for business, right? They serve a social function, too. Especially for virtual companies and orgs, you might think that a robust meeting calendar is important to keep your coworkers feeling connected to one another. Scheduled meetings might be the only contact that they have with other people on the team. There are certainly coworkers I have at Fractured Atlas that I only really see during all-staff meetings or white caucus meetings.
An important social function of meetings is getting face-time with someone in management or leadership, or someone on another team if you’re looking to move up or into a different role. Meetings can help people forge relationships with folks that they might not work with every day.
But is this the best way to use everyone’s work time? And if so, how do you fit it into your meeting schedule? We want to affirm that for some people, meeting either in-person or through video conferencing is an important part of helping them feel integrated into a workplace. But others would prefer their work life to be more strictly business.
It’s also worth wondering what the healthiest relationship between work and your social life is. Should you rely on your workplace to give you the social interactions you need?
To accommodate everyone’s needs and preferences, how can you organize your meeting schedule and cadence so that the people who want space to catch up with one another can and the ones who prefer to preserve meeting time for strictly professional responsibilities can do so as well? Are there some meetings that can have a looser feel and others that will be more targeted? Small team meetings or 1:1’s probably lend themselves more to casual socializing, especially virtually. It often feels awkward to try and make small talk with a bunch of people all at once, especially while dealing with video lags.
At least on the External Relations team, we have a daily standup meeting most days where we catch up about our personal lives as well as more focused ad-hocs, tactical meetings, and sprints. If we’re too busy or not feeling like chatting, we skip the daily standup. That won’t work for everyone, but that’s what we do.
To Create Real Change, We Have to Change How We Gather
For some people, meetings are a core function of their jobs. Managers need to check in with the people they manage, teams that work cross-functionally need to connect to discuss new products and programs. But for others, meetings are what happens in between their work.
Meetings, for me at least, are more like bookends to my work than work itself. There are a number of meetings that are directly related to my responsibilities at Fractured Atlas (in particular, I want to shout out my bi-monthly content brainstorming call with Lauren Ruffin, Tim Cynova, and Courtney Harge that actually inspired this article!), but at the end of the day, my core job function is something that doesn’t happen in a meeting. In order to write this blog, I need plenty of long, dedicated chunks of time for me to sit, think, type, and edit.
The most optimal meeting schedule for me will be different from someone with a different role and different responsibilities. And as teams and workplaces figure out how to meet better, they should keep in their heads that meetings mean different things for different people and roles and should schedule accordingly.
Ultimately, the question of how to make meetings better goes beyond our workplaces and the ways we work on the clock. If we’re looking to create big, systemic change (in our work lives, community, wherever), we need to be more purposeful about how we gather with one another. How are we respecting one another’s unique gifts and contributions and acknowledging that we all have a variety of interests, needs, and responsibilities that exist outside of a meeting? How are we remembering that who is in the room matters deeply but that equity means more than just inviting more people into the room?
Creating lasting, institutional change is hard. But it’s not impossible.
About Nina Berman
Nina Berman is an arts industry worker and ceramicist based in New York City, currently working as Associate Director, Communications and Content at Fractured Atlas. She holds an MA in English from Loyola University Chicago. At Fractured Atlas, she shares tips and strategies for navigating the art world, interviews artists, and writes about creating a more equitable arts ecosystem. Before joining Fractured Atlas, she covered the book publishing industry for an audience of publishers at NetGalley. When she's not writing, she's making ceramics at Centerpoint Ceramics in Brooklyn.