“This needs to be a time of deep experimentation and bets,” gathering expert Priya Parker told us in June 2021, as many organizations were beginning to figure out their office returns.
Two years—and many hybrid gatherings, return-to-office battles, and meeting resets and reckonings—later, we went back to Parker, author of the book The Art of Gathering and a digital course of the same name, for her thoughts on how that experimentation has played out. Here are excerpts from our conversation, edited for length and clarity:
Last time you spoke to us about workplace gathering, it was 2021. What do we know now that we didn’t then about gathering, and where are organizations still struggling to get it right?
What we’re starting to realize is that gathering well is a learnable skill. What the pandemic did in many workplaces was introduce a foundational question, which is, where and why and how and when and for what should we meet? But one of the biggest mistakes we still make is thinking that a hybrid gathering is one gathering. A hybrid gathering is three simultaneous meetings. If you’re in the room, there’s all of the dynamics of the people next to you chatting or passing each other pieces of paper or looking at you or wondering when to speak, and then trying to listen in or look at the screen. And then similarly in the online room, there’s the chat box. They’re different simultaneous worlds. And then there’s the third choice of whether or not to connect the two.
What does it mean to connect the two?
For example, I’m on stage and I ask the people in the room to raise their hands. If the majority of their meetings are hybrid and the people on the Zoom can’t see that and I don’t tell them what I’m seeing, it’s not a connected experience. If I say, ‘Pop into the chat a one’—if you are responsible for hybrid meetings, then everyone in the chat can actually see the context of the chat, but it’s not connected to the room. To connect it to the room—which is a choice and adds a layer of complexity—you would then have a screen up so that the people in the room could also see the number of ones.
When you describe gatherings as a learnable skill, does that apply to attendees as well as the people planning them? Are there skills or capabilities that managers can be teaching their teams, or workers can be teaching themselves, about how to make the most of gatherings?
Absolutely. My work isn’t called ‘The Art of Hosting.’ It’s called ‘The Art of Gathering’ in part because I believe guests have power, and really good hosts are usually really good guests. So what does it mean to be a good guest? The first thing—and in the workplace this sometimes is a bit harder—is, as an invitation comes in, to say a committed yes or an intentional no. If you want to change the meeting culture of your workplace, make it not a taboo to ask every time, what’s the purpose of this meeting? And guests can help us get there.
The second thing is, some of the best managers I know are very clear on what the purpose of their meeting is, communicate it well, and then find ways to rotate hosting a piece of the meeting. I know one manager who, for their weekly all-team staff meeting, spends the first five minutes on some kind of icebreaker or warmup or game for the group. But instead of the head of the organization and CEO running the connection exercise every time, they slowly rotate and they invite people to sign up for running those five minutes. What does that do? It gives people a small moment to practice holding a group, figuring out the right activity that is going to connect this group in a way that isn’t going to get eye rolls, practicing the physicality of presence, whether online or in person. And building the empathy to actually realize, ‘Oh, it’s kind of hard to coordinate and to be in front of a large group, but let me practice in this small five-minute pocket.’
What are some core principles that should apply for every workplace gathering, whether hybrid, remote, or in person?
Number one, don’t assume that the purpose of the gathering is obvious or shared. The biggest mistake we make when we gather is, we assume that we know what the purpose or the need is, and so does everyone else.
First of all, many of the meetings that exist in an organization are often inherited from other people and from a previous time. I write about The New York Times page-one meeting in my book, The Art of Gathering, and how this 70-year-old meeting was created years ago to determine what seven pieces went on the front page of the paper before the internet existed. In 2018, the most important meeting at The New York Times was still called the ‘page-one’ meeting. [Former executive editor] Dean Baquet at the time had to basically rethink, what is the purpose of that meeting when the majority of their readers don’t access news from a physical paper? Most of us have meetings that have passed their shelf life, and the pandemic allowed us to ask a question that was previously taboo, which is, do we actually need this meeting?
The second is to say, given the purpose, who needs to be there? We tend to back into a purpose based on who’s in the room: ‘Huh, I guess that’s what the purpose of this meeting is, legal is here,’ or what have you. Ask who needs to be there and why.
Third, particularly for larger meetings and particularly meetings that are cultural meetings in the organization, is to know that not everybody in a meeting has to play the same role. One of the things that the norm of online meetings has done is make it so technically, there’s no limitation to how many people can join, which makes it really hard to defend a smaller group. But a choice point people have, depending on the purpose, is who actually needs to be part of this conversation and who would benefit from either listening to it or culturally being a sponge to understand how this place works.
Is everybody’s individual role within a meeting something that should be communicated at the outset, along with the purpose?
It depends on the meeting, and it depends on the context and it depends on the culture. I’m a conflict resolution facilitator. A lot of my meetings are with people from either different teams or different stakeholders. And so I’ll often say, ‘The purpose of this meeting is to get alignment on blah blah blah,’ whatever it is, ‘and I want to tell you why I’ve invited each of you here. We’ve invited these two people, because you currently have your finger closest to the customer pulse. We’ve invited these two people because you two are really good at finding errors in our thinking. And I actually don’t want or need you to speak for the first 40 minutes of this. I really want you to listen to our core assumptions as we’re talking and then reflect back to us at the end of that conversation what you hear.’
It’s honoring each person, telling them why they’re there, in part for them and in part for everyone else, but then also making it okay to stop assuming that the only way to participate is to all try to get in there. It’s starting to lay out this infrastructure to say, given what we need to do, what is the right conversation to have? How do we have it, and at what moment do different people play the role?
You’ve written about the importance of the ‘artful rule’ for gatherings. Can you explain that?
I think of gatherings as temporary alternative worlds, whether that’s a wedding or a mosh pit or a board meeting or protest. People in most workplaces are bopping around from world to world, particularly now that it’s remote. Every meeting you go into at some level is a different cultural code based on who’s running it, what the purpose is. Rules are a way to help people understand how the group can coordinate better together, often hopefully in a slightly fun way, and how to be successful there.
One of the recent newsletters I wrote was about the power of a good rule in digital communities. If we think of every gathering as a temporary world, these worlds are defined by, what is the purpose and then how do we understand how to be there? There’s a global online community called We Are Child Free, in which one of the rules that caught my eye was, ‘We are not a dating site, and We Are Child Free was not intended to be a place to find a partner.’ The organizers believed that if the space morphed into a dating site, the dynamics would affect what and how people post and whether or not they felt safe doing so, so they drew a line to help protect what this space is for.
With rules, whether for meetings or for digital communities or for a retreat, the really good ones aren’t there for control. They’re actually there for connection.
What would be an example of an artful rule for workplace gathering?
Maybe everyone working in person meets at the same time in the same place, in the coffee shop or whatever, and there’s only one rule, which is: Tea and coffee are in the back, but you can’t make yourself a drink. You can make anyone else a drink, but you can’t make yourself a drink. It’s a prosocial rule. Or let’s say you’re getting a team together for lunch and you serve family-style, and the only rule is you can’t serve yourself. It’s a small shift that invites people to at some level pay attention to each other. Rules get a bad rap, but doing one well can make sure that you can separate the signal from the noise.
Read a full transcript of our conversation, including tactics for designing for virtual connection and what to prioritize for in-person gathering.