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Leadership lessons from returning to in-person meetings

Marine|Health and Benefits|Talent|Total Rewards|Future of Work
COVID 19 Coronavirus

By John M. Bremen | June 2, 2022

As travel restrictions decline in many geographies, in-person meetings are increasing. Future-seeking leaders take six actions to make returning to in-person meetings successful for all participants.

As travel and meeting restrictions decline in many geographies and organizations, in-person meetings are increasing. While their frequency remains far lower than pre-pandemic levels, future-seeking leaders are helping their organizations redefine normalcy.

For those experiencing their first in-person meeting in over two years, the event can be filled with a combination of euphoria and anxiety, with relief at the return of familiar traditions coupled with surprises at how much has changed.

Future-seeking leaders take six actions to make returning to in-person meetings successful for all participants:

  1. 01

    Give people a reason to come in

    While many in-person meetings might be mandatory, future-seeking leaders have learned that giving people a reason to come in (rather than forcing them) creates a more productive and collaborative environment. Reasons can be as fundamental as reminding them of what can be accomplished more effectively in person, including reconnecting with colleagues who they have not seen for a while, meeting new colleagues in-person, checking out newly configured office space, or working through complex topics or innovations. Some leaders also have had success with one-time raffles and giveaways to make the meetings more enticing. Leaders who make meetings about the colleagues rather than themselves increase attendance, participation, engagement and productivity.

  2. 02

    Help people feel safe

    During the pandemic, approximately two-thirds of employees worked remotely. Recent surveys suggest approximately half of workers remain remote which means that, as companies resume in-person meetings, many participants may be traveling or attending meetings for the first or second time in more than two years. Many employees experience fear and anxiety of travel and being around other people following long periods of lockdowns and relative isolation. Future-seeking leaders make meeting participants feel safe by assisting with first-time travel and transportation as well as clearly communicating health precautions such as meeting in larger spaces to allow participants to spread out and reduce density, making masks and hand sanitizer easily visible and accessible, and allowing for breaks and outdoor time (weather and logistics permitting). Leaders also create an environment of psychological safety by sharing the concerns they personally might have had about traveling or meeting for the first time and acknowledging those of others, allowing participants to travel when and how they feel most comfortable, supporting and defending additional health precautions participants may want to take on their own (such as indoor mask wearing), and drawing all participants into the discussion.

  3. 03

    Provide a remote option

    While the whole point of an in-person meeting is to enable people to meet live, future-seeking leaders understand not everyone will be able join in-person due to travel distances or limitations, costs, schedule/workstyle differences or illness. Encouraging participants to attend in person while providing a remote option or accommodation for those unable to attend in person maximizes participation and inclusion.

  4. 04

    Engage both remote and in-person participants

    In order to ensure engagement and contributions from all participants, hybrid in-person/video meetings require different types of facilitation techniques than in-person only meetings. Requirements include ensuring access to the right video equipment in conference rooms with enough microphones for everyone to be heard clearly, ensuring all participants can see each other and the screen, maintaining structured agendas and timing with breaks (making sure breaks are scheduled to allow participants to engage in activities appropriate for their time zones, such as meals), and including each remote person in the discussion. Future-seeking leaders facilitate meetings so all participants feel included regardless of where they sit.

  5. 05

    Be flexible/agile (give up control; roll with it)

    Future-seeking leaders understand that circumstances can change quickly in the current environment. Meeting participants can get sick, test positive for COVID, endure travels delays or cancellations, or have personal or caregiving challenges arise within hours of a meeting. This may cause participants to switch to remote or not be able to attend at all. Today, meeting leaders must be able to receive and process information constantly and pivot to alternative approaches where necessary. Sometimes this means switching meetings to virtual, sometimes this means rescheduling them, sometimes this means changing agendas and speakers, and sometimes it means rethinking the meeting. It is important to establish clear goals for the meeting and be willing to cancel or reschedule if last-minute absences will prevent productive outcomes.

  6. 06

    Engage in check-in/team building

    Especially for a first in-person meeting where participants have either never met in-person or have not seen each other in a long time, it is important to establish (or re-establish) connections and acknowledge that individuals have experienced many changes over the past two years. Simple team building and icebreaker exercises such as discussing individual purpose, role models, aspirations or key learnings from the pandemic can be effective in establishing rapport, as can breakout and small discussion groups. In addition, structured social interaction during meals and breaks can be beneficial for in-person participants (and demonstrate further value for coming in).

    Future-seeking leaders report that in-person meetings reinforce culture, build connections and foster engagement when managed effectively. These leaders also know they need to pivot quickly when circumstances change.

A version of this article originally appeared on Forbes.com on May 12, 2022.

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