Research shows that most of us spend more time in meetings than on annual leave. It pays, then, to look at ways to reduce this drain on precious time while maximising the benefit of every meeting we chair, be it in person or online.
Meetings – a chairperson’s cheatsheet
That’s an awful lot. And we’re assuming that, as an in-house lawyer, you’ll be chairing your fair share of these events. So, whether you’re running meetings in person or online, keep this chairperson’s cheatsheet handy.
The what. The most productive meetings begin with the best advance planning. Start by setting out the agenda with the key participants to your meeting. Allow everyone the chance to suggest items and submit any supporting documents for consideration either at or before the meeting. If applicable, pull out the minutes from the previous meeting, ready to circulate with the invite.
The why. Apply DID to your agenda and mark it up accordingly. This means highlighting each item according to whether it’s for:
- Information; or
The who. Next, draw up a list of everyone you want at the meeting and decide who you’ll delegate to introduce or present each item on the agenda. This should also include nominating a minute taker.
The where. Book a room / venue and get the invite to your meeting out in plenty of time to allow attendees to prepare. Send the invite by email using the .ics file attachment (if applicable). This allows attendees to add the details of the meeting directly into their calendars. Include the projected duration of the meeting in the invite.
When the meeting is online: At the time of writing (April 2020), almost all business meetings are being conducted online, due to Covid-19. If you’re new to running meetings online, state clearly what app you’ll be using (Zoom, Bluejeans, Google Hangout, etc). Include any dial-in codes and passwords people will need to access the meeting. And, as a courtesy, let attendees know if screensharing is planned and whether it’ll be necessary for them to enable their video cameras.
The meeting itself
Once the attendees have arrived (or logged in), greet everyone by name and make a point of welcoming any new members to the group or introducing guest attendees.
Typically, the first four items on an agenda are:
- Apologies for absence – read out by the chair;
- Minutes of last meeting – agreed verbally by the meeting, then signed by the chair;
- Conflicts of interest – where attendees are asked to declare any vested interest or relationships with any party to be discussed or affected by any decisions taken in the meeting; and
- Matters arising – any issue that has arisen since the agenda was circulated.
Once these items are taken care of, your role as the chair is to set the tone of the meeting and communicate what you want it to achieve. Reiterate how long you expect the meeting to take and aim to stick to it by allotting a time limit where possible to the remaining items. Factor in comfort breaks if appropriate.
Be concise when you speak and encourage others to be the same.
Once the meeting is in full swing, see yourself more as a referee than the boss. Try to avoid letting any one individual take over the meeting to the detriment of other people’s contributions. Not all people are demonstrative - some may be intimidated by the overly extrovert. It’s the chair’s role to ensure the meeting benefits from everyone’s input – and this may involve some gentle coaxing with some and some temporing of others.
Equally, you may have to play devil’s advocate occasionally and be the one to ask the awkward questions.
Either way, as each agenda item is discussed, make it your job to clarify and summarise what’s been said and weigh up people’s arguments impartially. Ensure everyone fully understands what’s been presented and decided – even if they don’t agree with it.
Where an agenda item requires a decision to be made, ensure that decision is aligned to your organisation’s strategy and make it clear who will implement it and by when.
When the meeting is online: follow the same structure and adopt the same approach to the agenda as above. However, remember many people will be attending the meeting from home, most likely out of circumstance as opposed to choice. Be sensitive to the fact that they’ll have distractions. Children, pets, postmen and next door’s builders are all part of the background noise in the modern workplace. Also, expect variance in the equipment online attendees use to connect to the meeting. Some will be on laptops, others tablets or mobile phones. Some will use headsets, others will talk directly to their device’s microphones, meaning some attendees will come across louder than others. If you can, aim for consistency across the hardware being used to minimise these disparities. Finally, most video conferencing apps include instant messaging/chat facilities. If you have to use these, make sure you do so for technical reasons only, not to conduct an alternative, parallel meeting.
Closing the meeting
How you close a meeting has a great influence on how well people remember what was discussed, shared and decided. So, briefly yet clearly, summarise what the meeting DID by:
- Recapping on the discussions that took place and any action points arising from them;
- Reminding attendees about the information shared at the meeting and how to access further resources; and
- Reviewing the decisions the meeting arrived at and the actions that will follow.
Finally, agree an approximate interval between this and the next meeting, or if possible, even set a date for it.
When the meeting is online: as the chair of the meeting, you’ll usually be the ‘host’ in video conferencing parlance. This means you alone have the facility to ‘close’ the meeting and disconnect all the attendees from each other. A good idea is to leave it on until the last person departs. This allows for informal discussions to continue between attendees – in much the same way as people chat as they leave the meeting room and head for the lift, rest room, etc.
After the meeting
Your only formal duty after an official meeting is to oversee the preparation and distribution of the minutes. You will of course, also be keen to follow up on the post-meeting actions, oversee their implementation and fulfil any promises you made during the meeting.
If you felt that any individual went the extra mile in their preparation for the meeting, or committed themselves to work beyond their normal call of duty, now is a good time to drop them a personal note to thank them.
Love them or hate them, meetings – in person or online - are a fact of life. We cannot take important decisions or share and discuss important information effectively without them. We can, however, maximise their effectiveness by planning for them, running them efficiently and following up on agreed outcomes in the days and weeks following them. The Covid-19 outbreak has caused a huge migration from the meeting room to the video conferencing app and this is unlikely to change back any time soon, so plan your online meetings with the needs of online participants accordingly.