Meetings with Meat

This article was written for the American Library Association Learning Round Table (LearnRT) newsletter.

When my nephew was 3 or 4 years old, one of the games he liked to coenplay was “meeting”. I’m sure he’d heard his parents refer to meetings they needed to attend and so, as children do, he was mimicking that. His meetings were very short, there was no agenda, and no one needed to take notes. I don’t really remember what we talked about, but I do clearly remember him once asking, “Do people eat meat at meetings?” His question made us smile, but I have found myself referring to it over the years. As I schedule or attend meetings, I ask myself, “Does this meeting have meat?” I’m not looking for charcuterie platters, but I am cognizant of not meeting just for the sake of meeting.

Since the start of 2020, our world has changed in so many ways. I recently conducted a small, informal survey, asking people about their experiences with time management as we are dealing with COVID-19. Not surprisingly, most people said their stress levels are higher than normal. Working from home more has presented some challenges. One of the things survey respondents mentioned over and over again is meetings:

“With nearly all of my meetings and work moving online, I feel like the pace of my
work has increased, and that people expect instantaneous responses.”

“I’ve had to limit the number of meetings I schedule, or I’d be doing
nothing but attending meetings.”

When dealing with stress and anxiety, it’s often useful to ask ourselves, “What can I control?” One of the things we can do to take control of our time is to be more thoughtful and intentional about meetings. While meetings are often essential for continuing our work and can help with the sense of social isolation that many are experiencing, they can also dominate our days. zoom image

8 Meeting Considerations

We’re all unique and our work situations are, too, but here are a few things to think about as you consider meetings and what’s working (and NOT working) for you.

  1. Make sure your meetings have “meat”. Before you schedule a meeting, decide if it’s really needed. Would the time be better spent actually working on the project? Could the meeting topics be quickly and effectively covered in an email? Does everyone who is at the meeting need to be at the meeting? Or is it really about a couple of people needing to talk something over and work something out? Could those people meet and then send an email update, looping everyone else in?
  2. Consider scheduling shorter meeting times. Like goldfish, meetings tend to grow to the size of the space we have given them. Do you currently always schedule one-hour meetings? Or thirty-minute meetings? Could a fifteen-minute meeting work instead? Meetings are very rarely where the work gets done. They’re a good time for defining the work, assigning the work, and talking over priorities and goals for the work, but then we need to sign off and actually go do the work.
  3. Limit the number of meetings you schedule per day. It’s easy to overbook ourselves. If we only include meetings in our calendars and then plan to do everything else in the space around those meetings, we may end up with too much to do and not enough time. Consider not only scheduling meetings, but also putting the other work you want and need to do in your calendar, too.
  4. People are different and have different perspectives on meetings. Pat and Chris work at the same organization. Pat has developed a lot of close friendships with other co-workers and pre-COVID19 times, went out for happy hours with coworkers at least once per week. Chris is friendly and easy-going but never goes to happy hour and doesn’t mix work-life and personal-life much. Both Pat and Chris are great at their jobs. During virtual meetings, Pat likes to chat and check in to discover how everyone is doing. Chris prefers to quickly move from greetings to agenda items. How can a meeting work for both Chris and Pat? Again, the specific solution will depend upon the context, but it’s likely there is a middle ground. Chris is probably OK with a brief amount of time spent on checking in with how everyone is doing. Pat’s social needs may be better met by an optional virtual book club or online happy hour.
  5. To use cameras or not to use cameras; that is the question. Many of us meet using technologies that include webcam capability. There’s been a lot of debate and discussion about cameras and whether or not to use them. On one hand, it provides a sense of social interaction that voice-only does not provide. Knowing that cameras will be on can be the inspiration for showering and wearing something other than PJs. On the other hand, it can be distracting (cat sighting!) and it can be awkward and uncomfortable. In addition, it can use more bandwidth. I think we’re still developing standard social norms around this, but my personal preference is to use cameras for small or one-to-one meetings. For larger meetings, I encourage people to have them on at the start of the meeting for some social interaction, but then we turn them off once we get started. Screen sharing a document can be really useful.
  6. Find and use tools to help you stay on top of things. When asked what is challenging about time management and work during COVID-19, one survey respondent said, “managing my own stress about the state of the world while getting work done. It’s very easy to go down the rabbit-hole of looking at the news, getting totally distracted from work.” A few mentioned struggling to keep track of the date or time. Others mentioned “ennui,” “brain fog” and feeling “fuzzy”. We’re, of course, going to feel distracted by a global pandemic. Your calendar, to do list, and other systems may be needed more than ever right now. Getting things out of your head and into a system can help relieve anxiety about forgetting things or missing meetings or deadlines. Doodle (doodle.com) and Calendly (calendly.com) are two tools that can help with scheduling meetings.
  7. Slow down. Breathe deeply. Pay attention to your mental and physical needs. Make sure that you get up from your desk frequently. Step outside. Do some mindfulness exercises. Research has linked sitting for long periods of time with numerous health concerns. Take care of yourself and encourage others to do so, too.
  8. Go easy on yourself. Go easy on others. People are dealing with a lot right now. You could be in a meeting that is focused on a specific topic yet meeting participants may be feeling stress and worry about their own health and the health of their loved ones. Feelings of isolation, depression, anxiety, and other emotional and financial stresses are common. Many of us are not sleeping well. Systemic racism and inequities mean that many people of color are facing greater risks and suffering disproportionally right now. Many of us in the library world have been working to adopt a trauma-informed approach to our work, which is a good fit for what is needed right now. Compassion. Flexibility.

Meetings are ultimately about connection, which is something we’ll never take for granted again. We’re not yet seeing the light at the end of the tunnel and a return to “normal” is not yet visible. I’m hopeful, however, that there are things we will learn and take away from this, even after COVID-19 is not a shadow over all that we do.

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