Want more a-ha’s? Rework your virtual meetings

by | Apr 8, 2020 | Blog | 2 comments

If you can’t fix it, feature it – and benefit from it too!

That last phrase is my added twist on advice from a former boss of mine.

This guidance is particularly useful while we’re all working from home, sheltering in place and holding virtual meetings.

You can easily retrofit team meetings to take advantage of the remote work situation – the “fix and feature it” part.

The “benefit” part comes quickly when you design team meetings to optimize people’s time, energy and brain power.

To do so, review your meeting times, frequency and agenda by meeting type. The latter could be huddles, information sharing, work session, brainstorming, planning, decision-making, team building, one-on-one check-ins, and one-on-one professional development, and whatever.

For example, consider how long you meet by meeting type. Rather than stick with your conventional meeting lengths, cut some or all your meeting time in half, a third or fourth and meet more often. Remember that these days nobody is traveling any distance to your meetings so there’s no need to economize on travel time or costs to get people to attend.

By shortening your meetings to no more than 90 minutes per meeting, you’re making it easier to:

  • Find a meeting time that works well for everyone
  • Keep and maintain everyone’s focus for the course of the meeting (Note it’s hard for some of us to concentrate for even 15 to 20 minutes at a stretch.)
  • Use the meeting time more efficiently and effectively, especially for clarifying roles and responsibilities, identifying any barriers or other problems, and calibrating and coordinating among team members.

And ideally shorter meetings help free up team members’ schedules so they can stop attending back-to-back meetings and do other work during the day.

How often you convene these shorter meetings depends on your team, the type of work you’re doing, the workload, and your team members’ reactions to the covid-19 pandemic situation.

For instance, some of the teams I’m working with are meeting for regular “Zappy hours” on Zoom. The timing varies. Some teams get together on a Friday afternoon. Others eat lunch together a few times a week or take an afternoon coffee with each other.

The goals are similar: an informal opportunity for team members to chat, share experiences, and unwind with co-workers. This social connection is a healthy antidote to the physical distancing with minimal face-to-face interactions now common in real life.

As for your more formal meetings, reimagine your agendas to help people generate insights – those wonderful a-ha’s and eureka moments – which happen inside our brain’s default mode network.

So instead of allocating time on the agenda for team members to brainstorm together, set everyone up to prime their brain to work on their own. For example, you can take five or so minutes at the end of meeting to introduce a new concept or ask an open-ended question. You can ask something like “What do you think our customers will be craving most when our business fully reopens and how will we provide it?”

Then spend a few more minutes (15 minutes, maybe 20 max) discussing your challenging question, and then ask people to mull it over and let it marinate until another meeting time – maybe later that week or the following week. Or if you’re operating under time constraints, reconvene everyone later that or even better the next morning after they’ve had time to sleep.

What you’re doing is creating space for people to daydream on their own, benefitted by the power of sleep, and then pool ideas together. This process is more effective and efficient than group brainstorming because research shows that individual daydreaming generates more creative ideas than group brainstorming.

Here’s what’s going on in your brain. Your default mode network comes to life, so to speak, when you’re daydreaming, tapping into your memory and imagination, or even just chilling. You could be thinking about what you’re going to eat for your next meal, petting the cat, walking the dog, listening to music, folding clothes or tidying up your desk.

When you’re internally focused like this rather than being stimulated by external activity, such as digital screens, your brain is relatively quiet with minimal electrical activity. You also tend to be in a positive mindset. And if you’re also not directly working on any problems, especially work challenges, you now have four conditions that are fertile for your brain to make new neural connections—a-la your self-generated insights, your a-ha’s!

Recent research shows that when your default mode network is active, your brain’s dorsal attention networks go quiet, and vice versa. You use the dorsal attention networks to pay attention to the external world around you as well as to tap into your prefrontal cortex (the brain’s executive function where you do your analytical thinking and problem solving).

In other words, the default mode network and the other two don’t operate simultaneously, although they can switch back and forth extremely quickly and constantly.

By contrast, traditional meeting agendas generally ask everyone to keep tapping into both their default mode network and dorsal attention networks. That can give people a sense of whiplash – even though they may not realize it.

However, by retooling your meeting agendas and playing to the brain’s different strengths with targeted requests, you’re able to help people think better, be more productive, and probably have a better meeting experience.

How’s this for reaping benefits from required virtual meetings?


  1. Penny Schultz

    Love it, Liz. I noticed some of my client’s happy hours don’t have any structure…so there are awkward silences and quiet members. We discovered there are musicians in the group and will be creating “open-mic” times for performances for some of the happy hours. I found some online games that are fun to play with a group of 10-20. One is called Skriblio found at https://kevin.games/skribbl-io. it is like a cool pictionary made of online.

  2. Liz Guthridge

    Thank YOU, Penny, for sharing! What great ideas!!! Yes, informal time for socialization is so important for teams to help members feel psychologically safe. And you’ve discovered one of the challenges of virtual get-togethers — they benefit from more structure than in-person meetings because of the technology between us. If not already, these happy hour meetings are sure to becoming “must-log-on meetups”!

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