Beyond the Bored Room

Make Staff Meetings More Productive With These Helpful Tips.

Staff meetings have been known to trigger apathetic sighs and muffled yawns among company employees. In fact, some staff members view them as a mundane ritual, holding out hope that doughnuts and coffee might be offered as compensation for wasting their valuable time.

However, commercial real estate companies don't have to resort to edible incentives to increase participation in staff meetings. By implementing a few key strategies, managers can create environments that enhance company-wide communication and help employees carry forward the organization's objectives. 

The Value of Face Time
Using new technologies such as videoconferencing and Webcasting, individuals can connect in real time via the Internet. With these high-tech options just a few keystrokes away, are face-to-face meetings quickly becoming a practice of the past?

“Not necessarily,” says J. Jeffrey Castell, CCIM, SIOR, a principal and manager of industrial sales and leasing for Colliers Turley Martin Tucker in Indianapolis. “Our first priority is always face-to-face participation. Personal relationships are important both internally and with clients,” he says.

Steven N. Pearson, CCIM, executive vice president of Daum Commercial Real Estate Services in Newport Beach, Calif., agrees. “We put a premium on face-to-face meetings to keep everyone [in the company] connected and communicating,” he says.

While technology provides an effective means of communication among colleagues, many commercial real estate professionals prefer to use it only as a backup to traditional meetings. “E-mail, phone, and fax work on a day-to-day basis, [but] it's important to get everyone face to face at least once a month to keep them on the same page and build collaboration,” says Pearson, who uses meetings to implement his company's strategic plan.

However, technology provides an ideal solution for commercial real estate professionals who travel frequently or who are located in different offices. “I have used videoconferences, Webcasts, and conference calls effectively across multiple time zones and geographies,” says Roger Blomgren, a broker at Stephens Commercial Real Estate in Aurora, Ill. “While face to face is better, the more practical application and availability of technology is providing an acceptable alternative.”

Make Meetings Meaningful Careful planning, strong leadership, and diligent employee participation are essential aspects of effective meetings. The following strategies build on these fundamentals and can help transform mundane meetings into interactive exchanges.

Establish an Agenda. Most commercial real estate professionals agree that creating a concise agenda and distributing it to participants in advance is an essential first step to successful meetings. The agenda should state the meeting's objectives and provide a framework to keep it on target, according to

BizMove.com (http://www.bizmove.com/), an online educational resource for business owners. “The agenda for a staff meeting serves as the roadmap for the most important issues driving the business,” Blomgren says.

Some additional tips to consider when developing an agenda include the following.

  • Cover items relating to one common topic. For example, if a meeting's objective is to discuss sales, include recent transaction highlights, weekly or monthly sales goals, new strategies, and incentives. “The agenda should have input from the sales force so that members attending take some ownership,” says John A. Shaw, CCIM, a broker with Nomad Investments in Menlo Park, Calif.
  • Keep agendas concise. If the meeting's discussion topics are varied, a short and simple agenda is most effective.
  • Attach background materials on agenda items to ensure that employees are briefed on topics in advance. “We want everyone to come to each meeting prepared to contribute and move the agenda forward,” Pearson says.
  • Include a time limit and priority ranking for each item on the agenda, taking into consideration whether the group is revisiting an idea or discussing a new subject or if the topic is controversial or complex.

Stick to a Schedule. To increase employee preparedness and participation, most real estate professionals suggest holding meetings at regularly scheduled times, usually in the morning. Generally, people are more alert and their schedules are more open early in the day, Castell says. “We usually start at seven o'clock to minimize the time impact on regular business hours.”

To avoid coinciding with employees' personal commitments, weekend trips, and holidays, holding meetings on Tuesdays or Wednesdays is a safe bet, says William T. Adams, CCIM, the president of W.T. Adams & Co. in Atlanta. In addition, scheduling meetings during the middle of the week “allows you to remind people about them the day before,” Castell adds. Above all, no matter which day of the week meetings are held, consistency in scheduling and start time are critical to building attendance and participation.

Punctuality also is important. “Start on time, end on time — no matter who is there or not,” Shaw advises. Sticking to the allotted timeframe makes the most effective use of everyone's time, Castell says. Meetings that routinely run long discourage employee attendance and enthusiasm.

Meeting length depends on the size of the company. At Daum Commercial Real Estate, which has more than 150 staff members, many decisions are made on a collaborative basis and require more meeting time. “With 12 individuals in our meetings, we typically run three to four hours to really get in-depth on the six or eight key issues we cover,” Pearson says.

Smaller brokerages can cover more ground in less time because fewer people are involved. Routine staff meetings should be “no more than two hours if held weekly,” Blomgren recommends.

Meeting frequency also depends upon a company's type and size. With one office and five commercial agents at W.T. Adams & Co., meetings are easy to schedule and manage. “I like to check in once a week to find out what's going on,” Adams says.

However, for larger firms, meeting on a weekly basis may not be feasible or necessary. Castell says that since most of his industrial sales and leasing team meetings are tied to the market's activity, he only meets as often as the market dictates. “Because of the slowdown in the fourth quarter of last year, we restructured our meetings to be held only once a month, instead of every other week,” he says. He may increase the frequency in the future, depending upon market conditions.

Other scheduling strategies are tied directly to company activities. For example, Pearson schedules meetings to coincide with his company's monthly financial report cycle, “which always is the first topic of discussion during our meetings,” he says.

Follow the Leader. A meeting's success hinges primarily on the skills of its leader. In large groups, leaders set the tone for meetings by clearly stating the objectives at the beginning and opening up the dialogue among participants. “Communication is vital,” Castell says. “During meetings, management has to get feedback from associates in the field and, in turn, management has to communicate the company's vision.”

Generally, the most senior-level employees who regularly attend meetings run them, although some companies delegate meeting responsibilities. “Meeting leaders can be rotated to ensure that everyone gets involved with the pulse of the business, but the most senior-level executive in attendance should be willing to take control if necessary,” Blomgren notes.

In addition, employees who feel put on the spot by the meeting's leader or judged in front of the group may be reluctant to share their views. It is essential “for employees to know that [the leader] is providing a non-hostile environment for information acquisition and sharing,” he says.

Foster Participation. Assembling staff in a common location sometimes is the easiest task in planning a meeting; getting them to participate can be a challenge.

Skillful leaders encourage employees to share their ideas and opinions and create a two-way exchange of information. Adams says contributing usually isn't a problem at his company — his employees value meeting time. “Some agents will make every meeting, some won't,” he says. “But they all benefit from that group interaction where they can talk about problems and challenges they're facing and get input from other agents.”

Adding variety to the routine also may boost employee participation and attendance. “About once a month I try to bring in an outside person — an environmental specialist or attorney, for example — to discuss what's going on in the local real estate market,” Adams says. In addition, he occasionally holds “social” meetings, which might include a catered brunch or lunch, to give employees a chance to talk casually.

Pearson says that his company soon will use incentive packages to enhance overall employee performance, which includes participation at meetings. In addition, he also believes that the competitive nature of commercial real estate professionals motivates them to contribute. “Peer pressure keeps everyone focused” during meetings, he says.

Reinforce Objectives at Close. Facilitators should use the end of a meeting to review the conclusions reached and reiterate the various action steps each objective requires. “Creating accountability and following up are important,” Castell says. “For the most part, everyone on my team pulls their own weight, but it's important to leave a meeting knowing who is being held accountable for what responsibilities.”

Recording minutes and using them as follow-up tools for tracking group decisions and participants' commitments also can be effective. “Minutes establish a record for future reference,” Blomgren notes.

Avoiding Pitfalls In theory, strategies for creating efficient and effective meetings are helpful. However, commercial real estate professionals should consider other issues that may contribute to a meeting's downfall.

Before scheduling, key participants should ask themselves if a face-to-face meeting really is necessary. “The meeting that is essential on Monday sometimes loses its urgency by Thursday,” says David Wiggins, author of Time Management for Busy People: The Crash Course . For example, Wiggins suggests that if a task can be accomplished through other means, such as a conference call or even via e-mail, a face-to-face gathering may not be the best use of everyone's time.

Shaw agrees. “Everyone, including the person holding the meeting, has to benefit, or maybe there shouldn't be a meeting,” he says.

Another pitfall to avoid is losing sight of the meeting's purpose. For example, employees addressing controversial topics may become so involved in discussing the problem that they forget the meeting's objective. “I work with a veteran group of managers, but when the discussion gets off track, it's not tough to ask the two or three managers who are interested in a different topic to get together afterward and resume their discussion,” Castell says.

An overflowing agenda also might detract from a meeting's objectives. “Sometimes we might try to cram too much into our agenda,” Pearson says. “It's usually better to stay focused on four to five critical issues, like business development, recruiting, and operations.”

Inconsistent scheduling, lack of management participation and accountability, and undefined objectives are other common problems that detract from a productive meeting, Blomgren says.

Despite the communication technologies available today, face-to-face employee meetings still add value to many businesses. Not only are meetings effective methods for encouraging employee interaction and dialogue, but “in this day of team-building sales, it is important to meet and plan just to compete,” Shaw says.

When commercial real estate professionals structure meaningful, interactive employee exchanges, “incentive gimmicks are not needed,” Blomgren notes. “Build [the meeting] right and they will come — with or without coffee and Krispy Kreme doughnuts.”

Jennifer Norbut

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