By Mary Whelan, assistant professor in the Department of Environmental Sciences.
Organizing a creative remote meeting is a delicate maneuver. The resources available to us are limited, with attention being the scarcest commodity. Honestly, I cannot pay attention for a full hour, even when I am invested in the subject matter. Those of us who are lucky enough to work from home can be faced with few unscheduled moments critical to thinking through problems from different angles. To have a more realistic approach of what can be gained out of meeting remotely, I have begun to follow a few structural guidelines.
Break up any meeting into 15 or 20 minute chunks that have a distinct aim. The goal should be doable with the resources available, including the attention span of attendees. Then we have a five-minute break during which people can catch up about non-work related topics, ask questions, check their email, get up and walk around, and so forth. This is a pale replacement of catching up in person, but better than taking up limited meeting time with our shared humanity: that could take all day! It also means that there is space to think through an issue without tuning out the current conversation.
If a meeting requires lots of creative attention, sessions should not to be back-to-back or recorded. I ask attendees to submit two bullet points for an informal email summary that I send out afterwards. This not only requires the group to use a different mode of expression (writing) to move a conversation forward, but it also will not punish anyone for trying out new ideas during a meeting. Nobody is going to waste a bullet point on how dumb a discarded solution was.
Keeping time during a meeting honors the gift of focus. When more than one person needs to present information, I have presenters choose how much time they need, from 2-10 minutes. Everyone gets however much time they ask for, and I do not feel bad about muting a mic to stay on schedule. Never going over time makes it clear that I respect the effort of the individual.
For added efficiencies, I email adjacent presenters when putting together a schedule so that they know that their work will be in context and could coordinate if they wanted. I make up the titles (only 2-3 words each) because that is about as much as anybody can handle reading an agenda.
The last piece is about vulnerability. I love my community. It is important to demonstrate that it is okay to make mistakes and that everyone is welcome in the space. During meetings, I express how thankful I am that each person adds their effort and perspective to the group. Construction of this safe space allows people to be more creative and make more interesting connections.
Unfortunately, the issues we were facing before the COVID-19 pandemic have not gone away. While science is not typically regarded as a creative pursuit, the environmental issues I work with continue to have complicated answers that require many people thinking deeply about the solutions. Running remote meetings well can optimize our collective creative power and make the world we’re coming back to a better place.