Meetings are feared to be killers to our productivity. When there are more than three or four participants, meetings almost always seem to run over time. Sadly, ineffective and inefficient meetings are run in companies every day. Numerous guides and articles try to help us address the problem, but unfortunately without effect.
In almost 40 years of professional experience, I have participated in many meetings. As an employee it was often difficult for me to go against the grain of my company's meeting culture. As a self-employed person, I work with within the conditions set by each of my clients and partners, but I like to try to incorporate my ideas on how to make meetings better.
I have been using Google G Suite as an office environment for communication and collaboration for about six years. Ideally, all of my customers and partners would also use G Suite, but even in the event that my clients use Office 365, Outlook or other email programs and filing systems, G Suite still manages to offer many useful options for preparing and holding meetings.
In the following post, I'll describe a situation that should sound familiar: in this case, a meeting with a mixed group of participants. After exchanging messages and a telephone conversation over the course of a few days, the customer and I realized that we needed to identify topics and framework conditions in order to better define our project. We needed about two hours of deliberation. The customer (let's call her Marie) and I saw no need to meet again in person. We figured that this way we would save on travel time. During our telephone conversation, Marie and I roughly outlined a few points that still needed to be expanded upon later.
First of all, we needed to define the agenda, including the topics to be covered in the meeting as well as the group of participants who would attend. We knew that we would have to call in a team member from Marketing (Peter) and IT (Sonja) on the customer's side. I was using G Suite, but Marie and her colleagues were using a classic Microsoft environment with Exchange and file servers.
This was a meeting in which design or templates weren't to be discussed, so I simply created a basic text document in Google Docs. I noted the main points from our telephone call, I created a list with the names of the participants, a list of possible topics, and also a list of organizational tasks as well.
Then I generated a shareable link. Anyone who has this link can edit the document. Better yet, the reader or editor doesn't even need a Google account of their own in order to edit the document! A simple click on the link opens the document in the user's web browser, and then they can start editing directly. So I sent the shareable link with a meaningful subject and a short note to Marie via email.
Marie made the first round of edits and then she sent the link to Sonja (IT) and Peter (Marketing). All three took their turns revising and adding to the document, and they also added their comments. In my Google Docs settings, I have it set so that I automatically receive an email when someone adds a comment to the document. This keeps me in the loop. Peter's comments soon made it clear that another person from Marketing (Hari) should be at the meeting, too. After we all agreed, Peter invited Hari to the meeting and he sent him the Google Doc link as well.
After we cleared up the agenda, topics and organizational tasks, I then created a Google form in order to book a time and it only took me a few minutes to do so. I used the Find a Time template, to which I quickly made a few adjustments. After completing the form, everyone received an email with a copy of their attendance preferences and a link to edit their status should they wish to do so. After a little while I received the answers to the Find a Time document and I saw which scheduling options we had to work with.
In the coming months there will be many emails and dates for the this project. I created a rule in Gmail that says that the project label is automatically applied to all emails from this specific client company and the agency. Additionally, I created my own calendar specifically for this specific project, which I use for meetings as well as for times when I want to work on the project.
In the new calendar, I created an appointment for our meeting and have inserted the link to our content document here. I also set it to be a video conference. This gives the meeting a link for Hangouts Meet. When you save, Google sends the appointment invitation. Even if Hari uses a mail client like Thunderbird, he still gets all of the information including the link for the document as well as the link for the hangouts meeting.
After everyone had joined, Peter had an important appointment for another project get in the way. I needed to postpone our meeting until noon and send a short message with the change of date. I let the others know why I had to reschedule. From the calendar overview I can check the dates and times, and access all important information with just one click.
A few minutes before the meeting I opened the shared document and clicked on the link for the video call. Hari said he would be right there. Like the others, he didn't need to register, he simply needed to enter his name and then ask for permission to participate. I received the notification and granted him access to our meeting. The others showed up to the meeting on time. We all have webcams on our notebooks, so no one had to dial in by phone. (In the Enterprise version of Google G Suite, telephone numbers are also available outside the USA for dialing in.)
I can share my entire screen or a single window. The content of that window is then visible to all participants - and in real time. In the beginning I did this with the browser window and I showed our shared document in order to introduce everyone to the meeting. On the right hand side of the screen I can expand the list of participants. Here you can see the participants and there is also a chat function.
Each of us opened the document on his or her own computer. As we went through the topics, we could add or modify information in the document. Everyone could see each other's mouse cursors travelling around the document. This allowed us to work concurrently while ensuring that we don't edit the same phrase at the same time.
Video conferencing is much more effective than conference calls. For one thing, we can see each other's gestures and facial expressions. Another advantage is that we can also chat, which is far more efficient than accidentally interrupting someone while they are explaining a point. After the introduction, I took over as our moderator and I called on people to speak as they asked questions in the chat.
Hari was unsure about a topic and said that he would like to consult with his colleague Eto, despite Eto not being present at or invited to our meeting. Eto was in the office that day and had ten minutes to spare, but he was sitting in the other building. Using the meeting details, Hari sent the link to our meeting to Eto via the agency's messaging software.
As the meeting progressed, the Google Doc continued to grow. When we got to points about software and interfaces, I created a Google Sheet and I shared it so it could be edited. Sonja added the first entries immediately and made a note stating that the table was a task to be worked on later. Several discussion points were already documented, and questions to be answered and tasks to be completed later were also included in the document.
Towards the end of our meeting, we scheduled a follow-up. Our agreed upon goal is to complete the open tasks before the next meeting. During the meeting we took down notes using shorthand, and would expanded upon these during the week. In G Suite, this can be done by anyone who has access and can even be organized into Google Tasks. All in all, we made a lot of headway during our meeting. It was an intense two hour session, and we got a lot done.
Distributed meetings are one of Google G Suite's strong suits. The software is not only good at planning and organizing meetings, but it's also an effective tool for holding the actual meetings as well. Even if the meeting takes place in person and on location, Google's tools are helpful for handling many of the tasks - the agenda, topics, participants and scheduling appointments. I have already revised and adapted meeting documents together with other participants in meeting rooms across multiple different locations. Additional edits to the document can be made at any time, because everyone has the link to edit the document. When all participants agree that a document is final, you can easily file it as 'complete', without the need for long, drawn out email threads which are typical of such review processes.
In this post I've concentrated on the possibilities that G Suite has to offer. For more general tips on how to have better meetings, check out this short list:
- Better meetings with the intranet
- 9 tips for more efficient meetings (workplace 4.0)
- The Seven Imperatives to Keeping Meetings on Track (Harvard Business Review)
- 5 Simple Tricks We Use to Make Meetings Suck Less (Toggl)
- Science Has Some Suggestions for Making Meetings Productive (Entrepreneur Europe)
Frank Hamm is a consultant for communication and collaboration who supports companies in their digital transformation. He has written for INJELEA-Blog about social business, intranets, enterprise 2.0 and company communication practices since 2005. Frank is an avowed nexialist and writes about this at Der Schreibende.
You can find more articles by Frank Hamm in our intranet special.