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We need to avoid replacing a bad meeting with another bad meeting.

Charlie, a colleague and leading expert in organizational transformation, was sharing observations on how he saw people faring throughout dozens of video meetings he had participated in over the past eight weeks; the consequence of a world forever changed by the COVID-19 pandemic. He wryly observed that 40-plus hours of video chat per week was driving a new behaviour where, despite significant effort, he was unable to make eye contact with anyone except himself. Disquieting but also fascinating.

I was also witnessing something. Our team members were working together, remotely from home, across four cities. In the process, they built new cultural dynamics for the entire company. Working remotely was improving team cohesion and, in turn, performance.

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I believe that remote meetings can be a great tool for change, but it’s not a given that the change will be good. So how do we make sure we can work past our default behaviours to enable shared outcomes? How do we take advantage of this opportunity to redesign how we collaborate, for the better? How do we literally look past ourselves on screen to enable collaboration with other people?

Why meeting culture fails

Meetings are too important to be poorly designed. They involve the precious time of participants and they require patient, rigorous co-ordination. At best, a failed meeting wastes everyone’s time. At worst, it leads to incredibly stupid decisions, the likes of which can bring down a government or bring a company to the brink.

Most remote experiences are awful right now because we have not designed them to be great. Meeting hosts are focused on who to invite and what to present, instead of designing a process that enables participants to collaboratively produce the best outcomes. It’s the equivalent of hiring great cooks and buying terrible ingredients. You can hope for the best, but the laws of probability aren’t in your favour.

Too many of us are treating remote meetings as a temporary inconvenience until this is “all over” and we’re back in a room together. This is crazy. Teams will need to solve large complex problems long before it is safe to physically bring people together. And we will be using remote meeting technology for a long time to come.

I think we can generally agree that our in-person meeting culture wasn’t terribly great to begin with. We have a very hard-to-change set of behaviours and underlying assumptions about how we convene that we’re now applying to online spaces. There’s an opportunity now for us to create new meeting norms.

I think most people believe that meetings are perfunctory obligations to onboard many people to an idea despite it being designed by only a few. This comes at the cost of actual collaboration or multilateral problem solving. The outcomes are predetermined, creating winners who implement their ideas and losers who sit through meetings feeling an increased lack of association to the mission at hand. That’s why meeting culture fails.

Good meetings should cede control to enable collaboration

Good leaders know that a successful meeting is called with a purpose and designed to serve that purpose. Good meetings facilitate shared understanding, build cohesion and trust, and create a sense of shared intent. Most importantly, they enable powerful game-changing insights. They require ceding control to enable collaboration.

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A well-designed meeting lets us see past what others want us to see into what we actually need to see so that genuine trust can manifest. Trust allows us to understand people and problems in all their contextual complexity. Meetings that enable trust are the ones worth showing up for. This is what meeting culture will need to be if we are genuinely preparing humanity for the challenges ahead.

There are a lot of crappy behavioural norms that come with traditional meetings that do not need to be emulated. Meetings are institutional by nature – and it’s important to confront an institution that no longer serves its intended purpose. Based on where things are at, what do we have to lose?

The sooner we acknowledge remote meetings as being both our reality and our opportunity, the sooner we will be able to successfully calibrate to our new circumstances. Then we can replace bad meetings with good ones.

Tyl van Toorn is the CEO and co-founder of Watershed Partners, a Toronto-based strategic advisory practice

This column is part of Globe Careers’ Leadership Lab series, where writers, executives and experts share their views and advice about the world of work. Want to contribute? Find details on the relaunched column here.

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