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The 4 stages to running productive virtual team meetings like a great dinner party

Half of any executive’s day is spent conversing with other people. Even talking to another person is considered a meeting. When in the presence of another individual, the opportunity for deep productive work is fundamentally limited. It makes great demands on their time.

We cannot avoid meetings. In a pandemic where employees of all levels, including the CEO, are working from home, meetings are the glue that holds organizational alignment together. In an ideal world, there would be no meetings at all. Everyone would know what jobs they need to do and be equipped with the knowledge and resources required to do those jobs. Unfortunately, in the current environment of distributed workforces, remote work and the mass misalignment that comes with it, we need meetings.

The key is to make these meetings work sessions rather than fluff-around sessions where nothing gets done. They can either be largely successful or a colossal waste of time…much like a dinner party. To have a successful dinner party where your guests walk away from your house feeling fulfilled and satisfied about the evening they have just experienced, you have to nail four key stages: (1) The pre-work, (2) The small talk, (3) The deep talk and (4) The wrap-up and goodbyes. Let’s dive into each one of these.

The pre-work

The pre-work is probably the most crucial stage of any dinner party. Your decisions and preparation at this stage determine what sort of dinner party you’re going to have, and if it’ll be a success or an utter failure. What food should we prepare? How long after dinner should we serve dessert? How should we organize the table? Should we leave the kids at my sisters?

The same principles apply to virtual meetings. What information or document needs to be prepared, updated or disseminated so that the meeting can be productive? In what order should we discuss our topics? Without the pre-work, the meeting will have no purposeful direction, agenda or format. If it were a dinner party, no food would be served, and your guests will probably end up stopping at McDonalds on the way home.

The small talk

The small talk is the period of time where you welcome your guests, outline what is for dinner, catch up about life, and lay the social groundwork for the deeper conversations that are to come later in the evening. You may hand your guests a beer or a glass of wine to ease them into the evening, setting their expectations for what kind of evening it’s going to be.

In virtual meetings, executives should have small talk with the team by setting expectations for what you want the team to achieve by the end of this meeting. Saying things like “By the end of this call, let’s aim to have a complete draft of our marketing plan completed and ready to send off to the CMO by Thursday” helps to lay the groundwork for what is expected of the participants and what outcome we aim to achieve by the end of the meeting. At a dinner party, you can’t jump into discussing your deepest secrets without first discussing what you’ve watched on Netflix recently.

The deep talk

Now the fun begins in the deep talk stage. This is where the conversation gets a little deeper and you really start to get to know your dinner guests – the ultimate goal of inviting someone over for dinner. Maybe you’ve had a few drinks at this point and have started discussing their most embarrassing moments. Or maybe you whip out Pictionary where the real social bonding starts to take its form.

The deep talk is the crux of the virtual meeting. This is where real productivity occurs, and the wheels of the plane start to take off. It’s where the team puts their brains together and get down to business in order to achieve what they initially set out to achieve in the small-talk stage. It’s the co-authoring of a document, the updates given by the team to executives, the arrival to a key decision, or the important announcement made from top-level managers to the rest of the team.

Recommended: Zoom — for video conferencing

The wrap-up

The final stage is the wrap up-and goodbyes. At this point, your dinner guests are finishing off their final bite of chocolate mud cake and their last drop of Shiraz, thanking the hosts for a fun evening and all the work they put into making it a success.

In a virtual meeting, the wrap-up and goodbyes involve congratulating everyone on a productive meeting and ensuring that the next steps and action items are confirmed. Reference should be made back to the opening statement in order to relate the final conclusions to the original intent. Setting the next steps is pivotal to ensuring that the talk is solidified into action—that the discussion converts into doing. In order to be effective, they need to have the following characteristics:

  • The name of the person accountable.
  • The action, document or information to be completed, communicated or disseminated.
  • The deadline.
  • The names of the people or team that can assist with ensuring that the action item is completed.

So let’s make sure that when someone at the dinner party says, “We absolutely have to do this again soon,” we actually do it again soon.

It’s also important to end the meeting as soon as the goal has been achieved. Good executives don’t raise another point of discussion; they sum up and adjourn. No one likes the over-stayers at dinner parties.

Of course, we all have our fair share of disastrous dinner parties where we walk away from the host’s front door questioning the last few hours of your life that you will never get back. Especially in the current reality of remote work, the inevitable and unavoidable hiccups, like internet drop-outs and microphone feedback, can ruin the virtual meeting’s momentum and affect productivity. Regardless, I can assure you that if these four stages are completed effectively, you’ll walk away from your dinner party feeling fulfilled and ready to organize the next one.

Written by Paul Strasser


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