Regardless of where your company stands on remote versus in-person working, you’ve likely seen the value of in-person interactions. Aside from the very human aspects of looking someone in the eye and shaking their hand, the simple ability to sit down and work on a problem with all the right people in the room can break through a logjam that might take days of Zoom or Teams meetings to resolve.
Time spent together in person usually includes planned or unplanned social time. There’s a great benefit to knowing about someone’s kids or pets or having an understanding of their hobbies. Not only does that turn the flat face on a screen into a rich and multidimensional human, but it can help us understand a unique and non-obvious skill or the nuances of someone’s working style.
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However, merely gathering people from various quarters of the world and dropping them in the same physical space is not a magical recipe for productivity. Too many bosses cite mercurial ideas like “culture” and “innovation” and suggest that the solution to all problems is forcing people to co-locate regularly. Rather than trying to force a tool on everyone, even when it’s not relevant, consider the following tips for creating effective and valuable in-person meetings:
1. Allow meetings to occur naturally
A forcibly scheduled event turns into an obligation rather than a valuable interaction. Similarly, if it’s impossible to get permission to book a flight for a distant collaborator, or use of an office or unconventional meeting space takes a dozen emails and approvals to facilitate, you’ll never get your people together.
Provide simple guidelines, and make it easy for your teams to assemble. Suggest a quarterly in-person “summit,” or if your team is working on a difficult problem, simply letting them know that in-person work is an available option and one that’s easily facilitated can unlock an option they might have unconsciously removed from the table.
Hold a well-executed in-person meeting with your key leaders to jumpstart this process. The simple act of reminding people of the benefits of in-person interactions through one that’s productive and fun is a great way to remind your leaders of the benefits of this tool.
2. Focus the meeting, but not too much
A well-executed in-person meeting is one that’s balanced between a specific set of problems that are being solved but loosely organized enough to allow for ad-hoc collaboration. You might feel compelled to carefully arrange every minute of your first in-person meeting after a long hiatus to justify the value of the meeting.
However, a stifling set of pre-planned interactions will stamp out the opportunities for creativity and spontaneous collaboration that are usually unstated goals of an in-person meeting. Rather than creating a detailed agenda, work with your team to determine the key outcomes you’re hoping to achieve by meeting in person. Capture even the obvious ones, which probably include some variation of “getting to know everyone,” and actively plan simple events like team dinners or tours of company facilities.
Ask the team what kind of interactions might best meet the other objectives. Brainstorming, focused energy on a specific problem or strategy development are all areas where humans in the same space can interact, get on the whiteboard and quickly advance concepts and change direction in a way that’s difficult online.
3. Schedule administrative breaks
One negative of remote work is that many of us are now tethered to devices constantly demanding updates through emails, chats and group messages. Aside from the disruptive nature of these devices, there is a real need to respond to colleagues who might not be present. Schedule regular 30-minute breaks to allow people to refresh themselves and have enough time to focus on responding to critical electronic messages. While it might seem frustrating to watch a room full of people from far-flung locations tapping on keyboards, you’ll allow them to respond to queries and then be able to refocus on the people around them without the nagging sensation that something is burning in their inbox.
4. Wrap up the meeting well
As you reach the end of your time together, in addition to the usual tasks of capturing actions, documenting any outcomes and assigning owners to remaining work items, assess the value of the in-person interaction. Ask participants what went well and whether the in-person interaction was valuable. If you’re the group leader, you might receive some biased feedback, but you should be able to read between the lines and determine if the in-person interaction was effective.
Ask if it’s worth scheduling another in-person meeting. If participants are eager to get something on the calendar, even if it’s months in the future, that’s usually a good indicator that the meeting was worthwhile. Don’t take offense to honest criticism. If the feedback is some variation of “this could have been online,” then try to capture any successful elements or be willing to reconsider the value of in-person interactions for the activities you were focusing on.
As the world returns to in-person interactions, avoid the temptation to mandate or force people into the same space. Making these gatherings focused, highly productive and valuable allows you to get the best of the virtual and in-person worlds.