Workplace Communication Tips for More Effective Status Meetings

by Marcus Varner
, 7 min read
workplace communication for more effective status meetings

Why do status meetings have such a bad rap? The reasons are many, but primary among them is the fact that most team members are juggling more than one project at any given time. If each of those projects requires a weekly status meeting, and each of those status meetings lasts for 2 hours, you can quickly lose a full day of productivity per employee, per week.

One software developer made the problem painfully clear in a post titled, "Please Stop Holding Project Status Meetings" on codeproject.com:

"What makes these meetings so dreadful for me is that I'm only an active participant for two or three minutes. For the rest of the time (an hour and a half, or more, once a week, on my last project), I don't have any real involvement with what's being discussed. I'm a captive. I can neither provide any useful commentary on the discussion nor gain any useful insight from it."

Luckily, there is a better way. Read on for six simple tips that will help team leaders and project managers ease the pain of status meetings and reap the rewards of increased productivity. And while you're at it, see if you can uncover our not-so-hidden agenda.

1. Choose the Right Frequency

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"There is a myth that because a project exists, a status meeting must exist. The problem with this thinking is that it conditions people to not be productive during the week," write Rick A. Morris and Brette McWhorter Sember on amanet.org.

If you get too routine and predictable with your status meetings, team members often adjust their momentum to the pace of the meeting schedule—only accomplishing what is necessary to have something to report on, and then forgetting about the project until the next meeting.

"The goal is to create a sense of alignment and collaboration, so the time interval needs to accomplish that," says Patrice Embry, a senior project manager for large scale pharmaceutical and healthcare projects in Philadelphia. And the time interval should be both fluid and flexible. She continues:

"For me, it really comes down to how often we need to meet in order to make sure we're aligned—and both sides feel like they have a good handle on what's going on. Most likely, that will change as the project moves through its cycles. We may start at bi-weekly, but toward the end, we may be touching on hot items daily."

Note that "touching on hot items daily" does not require all hands on deck, and it doesn't have to be in person.

2. Communicate Between Meetings

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"I am a big believer in over-communication. Not ridiculously so, but I like to make sure the information is available for anyone who needs it," says Embry. She starts by finding out how her clients prefer to be communicated with—whether that's by email, a phone call, or a project management software solution—and then she leverages that system to keep everyone in the loop.

On teams that don't have a dedicated project manager, not to mention the luxury of allowing individuals to declare their personal communication preferences, today's software solutions can be a lifeline. If every member of the team is regularly logging in to the same online environment to track time, collaborate, post updates, review deliverables, and assign and accept tasks—project status will rarely be in question. And if stakeholders are given the proper access, they can pop in to see how things are going any time they want. No need to wait for the next meeting or send out a "How are things coming along?" email.

But for these systems to be successful, team leaders must ensure that everyone uses the chosen tool regularly, consistently and according to established company protocols.

3. Be Prepared

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Preparation isn't just for Boy Scouts. According to Michael Sisco on techrepublic.com, "An astute project manager uses a status meeting to go beyond simply learning about how the project is progressing. A good project manager already knows that before the meeting. The meeting is actually a tool to help the project manager move the project along and coach team members on key issues that can affect deliverables."

If a work management software solution is in place, everyone on the team will have a fairly good grasp on status before the meeting. But this doesn't make project managers or status meetings irrelevant; it simply means the meeting time can be used for more than a simple round-robin of "here's what I did this week!" declarations. Instead, team members can get aligned around vision and goals, identify and remove bottlenecks, and make course corrections as needed.

"A clear time duration, an agenda that has more than sparse bullet points, and a statement about what should be decided or settled by the end of the meeting (clear next steps, a decision on design A or B, etc.) sent out well before the meeting can be super helpful," says Embry. "Starting off the discussion by saying, ‘Okay, we have until 3:00 p.m., and we have five things to work on today, so let's get right into it' helps too."

4. Stick to the Agenda

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If you were paying attention to tip 3, you will at least have an agenda, which alone will make your status meeting stand out from most other status meetings. But that's not enough. You also need to manage participants to the agenda. Don't allow team members to hijack the time for off-topic brainstorming, reviewing or revising deliverables, or solving conflicts that only involve one or two of the people in the room. Those topics should be handled offline or in a different meeting.

"When someone starts getting off topic or we start running out of time," says Embry, "I put on my self-deprecating project manager hat on and say, ‘As PM, it's my legal obligation to let you know that we only have 5 minutes left.' This usually gets both a chuckle and a renewed sense of urgency."

5. Take Notes

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"Status should never happen without some sort of means of recording information," says Embry, "whether that's in a spreadsheet, a document, a list in your project management system—whatever gets the job done. Being able to reference previous decisions is super helpful, and it keeps everyone on task."

Of course, there are limitations to spreadsheets and documents, especially if they are only accessible to the person who created them. Shared online documents like Google docs go one step further, allowing the entire team to view, contribute to, print, and share the information easily. Even better is a work management system that can not only store information, but can also:

  • send automatic reminders
  • reflect the percentage of the project that's complete to date
  • calculate by percentage how much work is left to be done
  • generate reports
  • make it easy to assign follow-up tasks to different individuals
  • integrate seamlessly with other systems, like email and Google docs

Embry also advocates for a "running status sheet" that lists every new decision that has been made, again captured in whatever central system your team uses to communicate and collaborate. This kind of list can be especially useful when you have stakeholders whose engagement with your project fluctuates widely, and yet they have the power to bring everything to a screeching halt seemingly at will.

We're talking about the C-suite manager who leaves you alone for weeks, then sporadically storms in asking questions he's already asked and questioning decisions he already made. For stakeholders like this, regularly delivering the "running status sheet" in his or her preferred communication method can keep the interruptions at bay.

6. Stop Calling Them Status Meetings

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This may seem like a strange tip in an article that's expressly about improving the effectiveness of status meetings, but it can be a surprisingly powerful way to readjust team members' expectations. Patrick Theam of rhythmsystems.com said it best:

"There is so much power in what you choose to call this meeting. What you call it sets the tone and expectations of everyone that's coming. If you don't do anything else, at least change the name of your meeting to a Weekly Adjustment Meeting. We don't need ‘death by status' anymore. We need to discuss solutions, and make the necessary and often critical adjustments in our execution so that we can achieve the objectives for the quarter. So let's call it that!"

Unless your goal for the meeting really is about achieving a common understanding of where the project currently stands—instead of making strategic decisions and using the time to collaborate and refine—it makes more sense to call it something other than a "status meeting." Even the slight shift to "synch up meeting" can create a different expectation in your participants' minds.

Secret Agenda Revealed

If you made it to the end of this article, you've probably discovered our hidden agenda: the complete annihilation of all corporate status meetings! Well, not quite.

The truth is, we would like to see status meetings (or whatever you chose to call them in tip #6) occupy a more elevated, respected, and yes, rare, place in corporate life. Times have changed. There are so many more convenient ways to update each other on project status—email, work management software, shared Google docs and spreadsheets, instant messaging, even texts. And these methods are also archivable and searchable, which is something you can't say about updates that are verbally volleyed around a conference room table.

By refocusing the purpose of status meetings and reducing their number, you can use your precious face-to-face time to collaborate about where you want to go—instead of merely explaining where you are right now (yawn) or describing where you've already been.

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