When Do We Actually Need to Meet in Person?

My latest piece in HBR reframes the in-person/remote/hybrid conundrum that’s consuming leaders’ attention these days. My take: Instead of obsessing over location, we should think critically about the type and complexity of the work we’re engaged in. To move forward instead of “going back,” we need to ask six key questions before deciding whether a meeting should be in-person, online, hybrid—or maybe this shouldn’t even be a meeting.

Given all that we’ve overcome throughout the past 15 months, it would be a shame if we didn’t take advantage of every single hard-earned pearl of wisdom around work, life, and the nexus of the two. Let’s harness our new perspectives on time, technology, and togetherness to rethink how we work — and specifically, how we gather.

Three days in the office, two working from home? Or two weeks in the office, then two at home (or some other, more alluring remote locale)? Everyone in all the time, like in 2019?

These are some of the options leaders are considering as they grapple with what going back to work should look like. Some of these new arrangements are landing uneasily. At Apple, for example, employees are pushing back against a policy requiring them to be in the office three days a week, describing a “disconnect between how the executive team thinks about remote/location-flexible work and the lived experiences of many of Apple’s employees.”

To get beyond this stressful push and pull, we need to reframe the conversation and focus on what we’re actually trying to achieve rather than where, precisely, we’ll be sitting when we achieve it. This involves examining the precise nature of the tasks in front of us, our specific objectives, and the weight we attach to the ones that compete, like efficiency, effectiveness, camaraderie, and mental health. Once we determine which parts of our work should be done in person, which should be virtual, and which can benefit from a mix, we can design toward that ideal.

As Priya Parker notes in The Art of Gathering: How We Meet and Why It Matters, “Gatherings consume our days and help determine the kind of world we live in.” And so, to ensure that we go forward — not back — to the office, it’s critical that we reimagine a cornerstone of the modern workplace: how we meet.

It’s a confusing time. As you plot out your team’s work plan, here are six questions you should be asking.

1. Should this be a meeting?

If there’s anything we’ve learned over the past year, it’s the value of time — and how draining it can be when the vast majority of our time seems to be spent in meetings.

That’s what happened in 2020. Without the ability to bump into one another near the coffee maker or pop by someone’s desk, we had to schedule every interaction. As a result, our transitions between meetings were spent frantically trying to find that next Zoom link.

Now that serendipitous in-person interactions are possible, and now that we know how to do virtual work well, let’s think very carefully about whether time spent meeting might be better spent thinking, writing, or engaging in other projects. Less is more: The fewer meetings we have, the more the ones we have will count. It all comes down to purpose. Ask yourself: Why are you meeting? Make sure the answer really makes sense. Do you really need to meet? Prioritize asynchronous work and use meetings to be creative and do something together, rather than simply share information.

Meetings for team members to provide progress reports, for example, where every individual has their segment but is relatively passive the rest of the time, may not be necessary. Here, the goals may be accomplished more efficiently in writing. On the other hand, brainstorming sessions, where people are building off of one another’s ideas, benefit from the dynamics of a gathering.

2. Are my meeting goals relationship-based or task-based?

Task-based goals might include updating a board, briefing constituents, or planning an event. These goals can often be accomplished in a virtual meeting (if a meeting is deemed necessary at all).

Relationship-based goals, which involve strengthening or repairing connections among team members, are usually accomplished most effectively in person. People should be given difficult feedback face-to-face. Challenging group conversations should also take place in person, where destructive and distracting parallel side chats can’t overshadow the central discussion.

Why do I say “usually”? Because over the past year, I participated in some meaningful virtual meetings where participants bonded and opened up in ways that I doubt they would have in person. For some people, the screen creates a sense of psychological safety, and with it the freedom to share views and take risks.

3. How complex are my objectives?

Sometimes complexity is a more helpful framework for determining what form a meeting should take. This includes emotional complexity and the level of interdependence that certain decisions or outcomes may require.

The chart below plots out goals according to their relative level of complexity. You may notice some correlation between relationship-based goals and complexity, but the overlap is not complete. Meetings to determine capital allocations or significant investments, for example, may land squarely in task-based territory. But if these discussions involve navigating interpersonal and other complexities, or carefully balancing competing priorities, they might best be navigated in person.

At the same time, relationship-based goals can be relatively simple. One of my favorite unexpected pandemic-era success stories was my experience running a large real estate firm’s Zoom holiday party. For the firm, Bernstein Management Corporation, this gathering is an opportunity to celebrate and acknowledge employees — as straightforward a goal as they come.

“If you asked me a year ago whether I would have considered hosting a virtual holiday party, I would have given an unequivocal ‘no’ and questioned the judgment of the person asking,” the firm’s CEO, Joshua Bernstein, told me. “But in many ways, it worked out better. Every single participant was focused on the same conversation. There wasn’t a bad seat in the house. Almost everyone expressed their surprise at how enjoyable the program was, and that element of surprise and newness ended up being part of the success.”

4. Could my meeting take an entirely different shape or form? 

There’s the room, there’s Zoom, and there’s hybrid. But there’s also a world of possibilities that don’t fall into any of those categories. Now that we have so many more tools at our disposal, are there other ways that information could be imparted so that it’s absorbed more effectively?

One of my clients has replaced her monthly all-hands staff meeting with a pre-recorded video that staffers can watch or listen to on their own time — perhaps while they go for a jog or prepare dinner. If they miss something, they can rewind. This approach honors different types of learners; some of us actually retain information better when we’re able to multitask. Companies that go this route can ask employees to watch the video by a certain date, then offer optional Q&A follow-up sessions on a platform like Slack or even WhatsApp.

When I work with clients virtually, we often assign a scribe to each breakout room. The scribe takes notes on the conversation in a Google doc. When we come back together, everyone takes a “gallery walk,” spending several minutes scrolling through the Google doc, reviewing what the other groups came up with, and annotating ideas they like. This circumvents a phenomenon known as “death by report back”: when representatives from each group drone on about the ins and outs of their conversations while others spend the whole time figuring out what they’re going to say when it’s finally their turn to speak.

5. What type of meeting will be most inclusive?

Before Covid, I was very clear that the cohort-based Executive Certificate in Facilitation program that I run at Georgetown University needed to happen in person, once a month, for four months in a row. The participating senior managers and executives would fly in from all over the world for three days at a time. The deep interpersonal connections forged among participants were critical to our success — after all, we were teaching them how to help other groups form trusting bonds. Although I’ve been facilitating remote workshops for over a decade, I doubted that this particular program could pivot.

I was wrong. In fact, one of the most significant advantages of the virtual format is that it’s been more inclusive. People from overseas or the west coast have no jetlag to contend with. Those whose organizations are willing to cover their tuition but not their flights or hotels no longer face those financial obstacles. We had more mothers with young children participating than ever before.

This isn’t to say that we didn’t experience a real sense of loss from our inability to be together in person. But our program has many objectives and encompasses a broad swath of different activities, or “tasks.” Some of them, like those that have a tactical focus on design and team development, can be extremely effective online.

Moving forward, we’re planning to hold two of our four modules in person and two virtually. This is a different and, yes, more inclusive way of doing hybrid: Instead of having some people participate in person and some on screen, everyone will be on equal footing — maximizing each person’s contribution and the benefits of each medium.

6. Does my facilitator have the skills and tech setup to pull off a hybrid gathering?

In the early days of office openings, there’s a strong temptation to hold in-person meetings with a hybrid option for those working remotely. This can be an excellent solution when done well, allowing everyone to show up from the place where they feel most comfortable. But there are special skills involved in facilitating a hybrid meeting. Done incorrectly, you can end up sidelining and even alienating remote participants.

Skilled hybrid facilitators know how to make Zoom participants feel like full participants. They establish clear protocols for all participants to offer input. They make direct eye contact not only with those in the room, but also with the camera.

Technology and preparation are also key. Pre-Covid, one of my colleagues showed up at a New York City hotel, energized for the fully in-person gathering she thought she was about to lead. Only when she arrived did she realize that a handful of participants would be joining online. She tried her best to improvise, but she’d designed a physically active program that involved moving around the room. It didn’t immediately translate to a virtual environment — at least not with the technology available. By the end of the day, the in-person participants were fully engaged, but every single virtual participant’s camera was off.

Until those running your meetings hone their skills in the art of hybrid facilitation and have the technology to support them, consider holding an entirely virtual meeting, even if many participants are Zooming in from the office.

Given all that we’ve overcome throughout the past 15 months, it would be a shame if we didn’t take advantage of every single hard-earned pearl of wisdom around work, life, and the nexus of the two. Let’s harness our new perspectives on time, technology, and togetherness to rethink how we work — and specifically, how we gather.

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