To attend meetings is to resent most of them. The ones that run too long and could have been handled by email. The ones marred by technological mishaps. The ones dominated by that loudmouth colleague who talks over everyone else. And the ones that fill your schedule to the point that you don’t have any time to actually, you know, work.

Meetings are “the largest single cost that goes unevaluated and undiscussed on an organization’s balance sheet,” said Steven Rogelberg, a chancellor’s professor at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte and author of “The Surprising Science of Meetings.”

Poorly run meetings waste attendees’ time and “result in immediate frustration,” Rogelberg said. “When we have a bad meeting, it sticks with us, and we ruminate, and it negatively affects our productivity.” Plus, he said, employees constantly subjected to bad meetings have lower engagement overall, and sometimes wind up quitting.

The coronavirus pandemic, during which many employees have transitioned to working remotely, has increased the number of workers’ meetings per day, according to Harvard Business School. And many employees have complained of “Zoom fatigue,” or video-call-induced exhaustion.

But even in the best of times, meetings can create a strange dynamic: “When we attend a meeting, we relinquish our personal power and agency, and we give it to the meeting leader,” Rogelberg said. “And that’s a big deal, to literally give agency to someone else.”

If you’re the one with that agency, there are ways to make meetings less fraught and more efficient. Here are tips for hosting better meetings, whether in person or virtually:

Adopt a “stewardship mindset.” As the steward of the meeting, it’s your job to facilitate it to the best of your ability — which includes how you prepare for it, how you manage people during it, and how you conclude it.

Think about how you might prepare for and run a meeting with someone you want to impress, such as a key customer or your company’s CEO. As Rogelberg puts it: “We would never want those people to leave our meetings saying that was a waste of time, right? But we tend to put that discipline and intentionality and thoughtfulness aside when we’re meeting with our team or our peers.”

Create and distribute a detailed agenda before the meeting. Typical agenda items include tracking and following up on goals and projects; resolving problems, and discussing complex issues, said Paul Axtell, a corporate trainer and author of “Meetings Matter.” “You should only put something on the agenda that you need the group's input on,” he added. And make sure the number of items is appropriate for the time you have available. Otherwise, the meeting could run long, which is one of meeting attendees’ biggest complaints.

Rogelberg suggests organizing the agenda as a set of questions. You’ll know if the meeting has been successful because all the questions will have been answered. And if you can’t think of any questions to put on the agenda? Easy solution: Skip the meeting.

Control the discussion. It’s your job to steer the conversation and interject if it’s drifting off track, Axtell said. You also need to ensure that everyone has an opportunity to speak. If someone is repeatedly cutting off another attendee, Axtell suggests saying: “Do you mind if I just hold you back for a moment? I want to make sure that Janine has finished what she’s got, and then I’ll come back to you.”

Don’t over-invite. It’s best to keep meetings small — around six people, Rogelberg said. The larger the group, the more likely something will go wrong, and each attendee will have less opportunity to contribute. A tip for this virtual era: Record your meeting on Zoom, then make it available for nonessential attendees to watch at a convenient time.

Keep meetings short, especially when they’re virtual. We all have shorter attention spans these days, so do your best to reduce meeting length, Rogelberg said. Scheduling just 15 or 20 minutes can be as effective as reserving a full hour: “When you dial meeting times back, you tend to creative, positive pressure,” he said. “That leads to more focus.”

Keep in mind that attendees probably have another meeting right after yours, said Erica Keswin, a workplace strategist and author of “Rituals Roadmap: The Human Way to Transform Everyday Routines into Workplace Magic.” If you schedule a meeting from, say, 10 to 11 a.m., “how is somebody going to have time to take a minute to breathe or stand up between that and the next meeting?” Ending at a less typical time, such as 10:45, is an easy way to show respect for your colleagues’ busy schedules, she said.

Open virtual meetings early. Humans crave connection, especially while working from different places. Axtell always opens meeting rooms 10 to 15 minutes early, “so you can say hello and chat with people.” It’s a great way to foster connections and bonds with your team. Plus, it prevents casual banter from eating up a meeting time.

Establish the rules at the start. At the beginning of a meeting, ensure everyone is on the same page about expectations. For example, let attendees know whether you’ll be calling on participants, so they’re not caught off guard. Or you might ask them to put away their devices and not do other work.

It’s also a good idea to address how you’ll handle questions. Saving them until the end rarely works well, Axtell said, because you’ve lost the context. In a virtual meeting, encourage folks to enter their questions on the platform’s chat feature and designate one attendee to monitor it and alert you. This way, you can continue hosting the meeting without distractedly watching the chat.

Break up large meetings into smaller ones. If you must host a large meeting, you can increase engagement by using your virtual platform’s breakout room feature (or, if you’re in the office, by sending subgroups to separate conference rooms). Assign each subgroup a task to discuss for, say, 15 minutes, then reconvene the larger group. “It primes the pump,” Rogelberg said. “When people come back, there tends to be a lot more communication.”

Check-in with your colleagues. In the pandemic’s early days, there was an emphasis on checking in with each other and making sure everyone was coping well. That’s still important, Keswin said. One suggestion: During the first few minutes of a meeting, “have everyone go around and share one adjective that describes how they’re showing up today.” A colleague might say she’s exhausted or overwhelmed or perfectly content. The exercise is “very inclusive,” Keswin said and helps team members feel connected. Plus, if you’re a manager, it can indicate who you need to check in with later, one-on-one.

Be mindful of the pitfalls of a hybrid workplace. In this new era of work, some team members will remain remote, dialing into meetings, while others will join in person. It’s important for everyone to feel included, Keswin said. She’s heard from employees who call into meetings only to find their colleagues already chatting in a way that made them feel like outsiders. There’s a risk for remote employees to “feel like second-class citizens,” Keswin said. She suggested that to “democratize” the situation, perhaps each person in the office could call in from their desk, rather than join from the same conference room.

End the meeting well. When there are just a few minutes left, start wrapping up. Axtell suggests asking: “Is there anything else anybody would like to add? Is everybody okay with where we are?”

Rogelberg said a good conclusion is an opportunity to recap what the group discussed and to identify the responsible individual for each task. Ending a meeting well “takes this investment everyone just made and says, ‘It was a good one because here’s where we’re at, and here’s how we advanced the ball,’ ” he said. “People leave your meeting knowing what was accomplished.”

Collect feedback. This is the most surefire way to improve your meetings, Rogelberg said: “It’s really, in many regards, the ultimate act of stewardship.” If you host regular meetings with the same group of people, periodically distribute a survey that attendees can complete anonymously. Ask your team to indicate what’s going well and what’s not working, and to share ideas for improvement. “What you’re trying to do, as a meeting leader, is create positive conversations around meetings,” he said. “Right now, the only conversations we have tend to be grousing. What I want to do is change that, and make constructive conversations around meetings more normative.” 

On July 22, 2021, the US Bureau of Labor Statistics released the results of the 2020 American Time Use Survey (ATUS), an annual study of how the people of the U.S. spend their time. While the study was paused for several months between March and May of 2020, it is our first real look at what changed inside our lives during the COVID pandemic.

Those of us who work towards gender equity and/or equality (I use both words to try and avoid immediately raising flags for any particular group) have long used the ATUS as documentation about how different working women’s lives can be from those of men. We know that women consistently spend more time on household and caregiving activities than do men. Our questions are now about what really changed during COVID, particularly for working women and their families.

On average, we all did a little more sleeping and a little less grooming. Men did increase their time spent on household activities, particularly around housework and childcare. The challenges for working women, however, continue in that their time spent on these household activities also increased, sometimes less than for men, but sometimes more. Not surprisingly, the largest changes had to do with caregiving. For women, the average hours per day spent caring for and helping household members went from 1.99 in 2019 to 2.41 in 2020. For men, their care activities went from 1.38 to 1.73 hours. And we all expected that homeschooling was going to make a big difference. Dads helped, yet not as much. For moms, the time spent doing education-related activities with their children more than doubled between 2019 and 2020 (from 1.01 hours per day to 2.41). The increase for men was .96 to 1.65 average hours per day. While a difference of minutes here and there may not sound substantial, it adds up quickly. These numbers help us consider what happened over the past year. The question currently is, what happens now?

COVID was brutal and changed most of our lives. Times of turmoil and change are times of opportunity. Times of radical turmoil are also times for radical opportunities. And one place that definitely needs radical change is the world of work for women. This world has evolved, to some degree, over many generations. Corporate life has changed some over the past few decades, but not as much or in ways that are needed. The world of work still substantially relies on a model that William Whyte described in his 1956 sociological classic, The Organization Man. In his foreword to the 2002 reissue of that book, Joe Nocera wrote about Whyte’s view that corporations had it “exactly backward” in trying to eliminate “the messiness of human interaction.” Whyte emphatically reports Work as Dominant: no compartmentalization of life. Everything else is subordinate to work and ultimately evaluated in terms of how it fits in with work. Although the title of the book is The Organization Man, women are certainly included. They are the wives. (But that’s a different op-ed.)

The challenge that remains is to recraft an approach to working that recognizes—and connects with—the other areas of our lives in a positive way. Our lives, including work, are messy. Not only messy, but different, particularly in the ways in which women enter the professional workforce, their experiences while there, and the rewards they take away. And not only different but also often lesser than those of many men in the workforce.

In fact, during my term in the Women’s Bureau of the Department of Labor, we identified 15 potential influences that could drive those differences. We made a wall-size graphic of it to continually keep these key issues front and center. However, the number 15 is not meant to be definitive or set in stone. As a team, the Women’s Bureau staff occasionally proposed additions or combinations. We also looked at how they intersected with each other. Five of them applied to the pipeline regarding how women enter the workforce. Another five focused on labor force attachment mostly concerning household and family. The remaining five centered on wages and benefits.

Given these existing differences, I’ve always been puzzled by conclusions drawn by some that attention is no longer needed on workforce issues for women. For instance, the Heritage Foundation has at least twice concluded that the Women’s Bureau had become redundant and obsolete because the challenges that women face in working are the same challenges faced by all workers (read men). That is a head-scratcher to think that mere similar participation numbers meant similar experiences and outcomes.

Women’s lives are often driven by trying to fit the various milestones of their personal lives (marriage, children, aging parents, etc.) into organizational work that has been structured to support types of lives for women, and men, that no longer exist. Having and then raising children is complicated, demanding, and expensive. And women’s financial lives, including their earnings potential, are generally considered a private matter, with discussions scarcely recognizing the complexity of their lives. Yet the financial dimension is an integral part of who women are and what they are trying to achieve both personally and professionally. In other words, each of these areas, professional, personal and financial, has some degree of research behind it as a single topic, yet almost nothing exists today to recognize and help us better understand this trichotomy of female lives as a whole.

Take, for example, a professional woman who is reconsidering her future post COVID and decides on a career pivot that allows her more home/work coherency. She has two children in pre-school and an infant. She is extremely fortunate in that she can currently afford in-home childcare, and that added expense has to play into her employment decisions. She knows that she will have to earn compensation that will continue to contribute to the support of her family. She also knows that given the arrival of the baby; they are going to need more room, requiring a new house near schooling for their other children.

None of these decisions can stand separate from the others. Again, this is an exceptional case given the ability to even afford and find childcare. Her current employer’s perspective may be that they are seeing a talented employee bailing because she doesn’t see her life fitting with their company’s approach to work. But they also recognize the cost of recruiting and training a new employee. Another employer may see the possibility of acquiring new talent, yet only if they can structure a work role that meets the needs of an actual, real, woman with a complex life.

The conversations about working women are too often homogenized or make assumptions that all working women have similar needs, experiences, and expectations. This is far from true. My example above was very narrow, intentionally focusing on a corporate professional woman. But I certainly recognize that not all working women have the same situation or needs. Certainly, the myriad ways in which those 15 women’s work-life influences intersect result in a wide range of outcomes.

As a military spouse, when my husband was on active duty, I was fortunate enough to be able to go to school, more than once. For many military spouses (92% of which are women), perhaps especially women in the professions, the moving that goes along with military life can be devasting to building a resume, let alone a career.

There are a number of reports, white papers, ponderings, and pontifications coming out on the challenges of returning to a world of work. Yet most of them, with the exception of the virtual versus brick-and-mortar question, are thinking of it in terms of returning to the pre-COVID status quo. This would be a missed opportunity of epic proportions.

With the exception of the workforce challenges in the food and hospitality industry, much of the rest of the focus is addressed to women working for large corporations. Let’s remember that of the slightly more than 6 million employer businesses in the United States, only about 20,000 or less than 1% of all U.S. businesses are what we’d consider “big businesses” with 500 or more employees. True, they do employ slightly more than half of the workforce. But there is almost half that they do not employ.

Yet these large corporations have the leading role in defining what constitutes a “good job” in three main ways. Why? First, and probably foremost, they have the motivation to get back to a system that largely works for them. Who wouldn’t want employees who always considered work first? Second, they have the resources to have it their way. And third, they have the loudest voice. We largely see and hear the stories of “big business” in the media. As such, they become the role model for the other 99% of U.S. businesses that are looking for guidance on how to attract and retain talent.

It’s about time to reconsider how we work together inside and across companies in a way that works well for women and their families, yet also well for employers. After all, businesses need to thrive to support these new ways of working. Yet, it’s not just businesses that need to be concerned. Our multi-layered governments are looking at lives and labor in several different ways through a variety of proposals, yet the challenge remains to see how all our efforts work together for the needed change. This is a call to action for everyone at all levels to pay attention, think about what would make a difference in your own life, and get vocal.

And by the way, all this is better for men, too. On a personal note, our youngest son, a recent new dad, is emphatic that he was going to craft his work to fit his life, not the other way around. Onward.