Meet me in … a Meeting Workspace: Tips and Best Practices

In my consulting practice, I’ve found that Meeting Workspaces are one of the least understood (and therefore, least used) features of SharePoint.  When users are introduced to them, however, they often become a favorite feature that can help drive solution success, especially when you add a few modifications to the “out of the box” template.  Here are some of the most successful practices I’ve seen.Objectives: The “out of the box” meeting workspace template has a placeholder for meeting objectives.  Pretty much every organization I’ve worked with deletes this web part in their custom meeting template.  I don’t think it’s because their meetings have no objective, it’s more because the objective is often implied in the title or clearly stated in the description.  The web part is just redundant for regular, recurring meetings so I usually take it out.Agenda: While some project teams insist on having an agenda they can print (and, therefore, use a Word document to enter agenda items), project teams that try using the Agenda list usually come to love it.  One really useful idea that several teams are using at one client is adding a Standing Agenda list (series) to their template in addition to the out of the box Agenda so that they can have some Agenda items appear in every instance of a meeting – for example, Review Action Items, Review Project Schedule, etc. – and some “local” agenda items for individual instances of the meeting.Links: One of the biggest weaknesses of the out of the box meeting workspace template is that there is no Links list (and web part).  This is something I always add for several reasons.  First, if there is a document that you want to review in the meeting but the document was not created just for the meeting, you don’t want to store a second copy of it in the meeting workspace (which creates a version management issue); you really just want to create a link to it in the meeting workspace.  Adding a link to the document is the best way to do this.  (The exception to this rule is if you want to have a permanent record of the instance of the document or presentation reviewed during the meeting.  In this case, I recommend uploading the version of the document reviewed during the meeting directly in the meeting workspace document library.)  Second, not every team likes to have their Task or Action Item list in a meeting workspace, even if the list is reviewed at every meeting.  In this scenario, I usually recommend adding a series Links list for “permanent” links used in every instance of the meeting and a second Links list for “links for this meeting.”: Adding a series action item list to meeting workspaces for project teams is a great addition, but not every team likes to have their action items inside the meeting workspace.  If your team doesn’t want to embed Action Items (or Tasks or Decisions) directly in the meeting workspace, you can create a link to your project task list in a series Links list as described above.  I almost always add a series Action Items list to the meeting workspace template because if the team doesn’t want to use it, it’s easier to take it out than it is to add it in later on.  Plus, I’ve worked on way too many project teams where the Project Manager doesn’t keep track of action items in a consistent way.  Adding an Action Items or Task list to the meeting workspace template is a good way to embed some project management best practices into your environment.Text: There are two easy ways to add blocks of text to a meeting workspace.  I’ve seen them used for two equally valuable but different purposes.  To add a standard set of text information that shows up in every meeting, for example, to list Live Meeting/Web Ex or other dial in information for the meeting, use a Content Editor Web Part, which will show up consistently in each instance of the workspace.  To add text for “just this meeting,” use a Text box, where the content is entered uniquely for each instance of the meeting.  I’ve got one client using a Text box to enter the name of the Facilitator for each instance of a meeting and another actually using the text box to record key decisions made during the meeting (instead of recording formal meeting minutes or tracking decisions in a series list).Attendees:  My clients seem to have very strong opinions about the Attendees list – good and bad.  If they are Outlook/Exchange users, they tend to like it.  If they use Lotus Notes for e-mail and calendaring, they may leave the list in the template but don’t always use it.  One “feature” that users have told me they find surprising is that if you add someone to the Attendees list they are automatically assigned to the Members group for the Meeting Workspace site, which gives them permission to view and contribute to the site.  It’s worth noting this in any documentation you create for your Meeting Workspace or at least mentioning it in conversations with potential Meeting Workspace “owners.”  If you use an Instant Messaging program compatible with Windows SharePoint Services, such as Microsoft Windows Messenger, Microsoft MSN Messenger, or the Microsoft Exchange Instant Messaging Service, you can use that program from within the Attendees list in the workspace to communicate with other attendees. If an attendee is online, you can ask him or her to go to the workspace so you can work together, which is a cool feature and doesn’t necessarily mean that the users need to be using Outlook/Exchange for e-mail and calendaring in order to enjoy some of the benefits of tracking attendees in the Attendees list.Document Library: I encourage clients to store at least one type of document in the document library in their meeting workspaces – Meeting Minutes.  Assuming that meeting minutes are captured for meetings, storing them in the workspace document library keeps all meeting minutes together in one place, making it very easy for people who couldn’t come to the meeting to understand what happened that day.  Moreover, storing meeting minutes in the Meeting Workspace document library (as opposed to another library on the team or project site) provides an “instant” search scope that allows users to search just the meeting document library(ies) for the topic that that was discussed even if they don’t remember on which date of the meeting the topic was discussed – creating a restricted search set and thus, returning more relevant results.  In one scenario, this single feature created the “ah hah” moment that resulted in the team leader insisting that all meetings would be managed with a meeting workspace and all meeting minutes stored within the workspace in the instance of the meeting.Recurring vs. Non-Recurring Meetings: I almost always get asked how to deal with “regular monthly meetings that have a few exceptions to the regular meeting schedule.”  The answer, of course, is “it depends.”  If you have a single instance meeting and create a Meeting Workspace for that meeting, you can add subsequent “one time” calendar events to the same meeting workspace by checking the box “Use a meeting workspace for this meeting” and then selecting an existing meeting workspace instead of creating a new one.  You cannot, however, add a single calendar event to an existing recurring meeting workspace, so this can be confusing for users.  I usually recommend that if you have a regular weekly or monthly meeting with only a few exceptions to the pattern, create a recurring calendar event and a meeting workspace for that recurring event.  If you have a date change to the pattern, change the event date in the calendar and the meeting recurrence will automatically be updated.  If you need to add an extra event to the meeting on a one-off basis, you can create a one-time event on the calendar and create a manual link to the meeting workspace in the calendar event and store the minutes for that “one-off” extra meeting in the recurrence date closest to the date of the one-off event.  It’s not perfect, but it will work.

Action Items

If, however, you have a regular meeting with no predictable recurring pattern or the meeting is quarterly but not on a specific date or day, create the first meeting as a single event with a Meeting Workspace that includes your custom meeting template and then “attach” subsequent single events to that initial meeting workspace.Dealing with history – converting from file shares with folders for Meeting Minutes into a new Meeting Workspaces: This almost always comes up when users are converting from an existing file share or eRoom or other collaboration tool to SharePoint meeting workspaces – the question is part of general content migration but it’s of particular concern for meeting workspaces. There are several options I recommend.  Before I recommend anything, I ask content owners to consider if they still need the historical information.  Migrating to a new environment is good opportunity to clean house so I always say “clean first, migrate second.”  If the information needs to be retained, you need to also consider if it is really “active” information that is worth keeping in SharePoint or whether it can be moved to long term, archival storage.  If you decide you need to move it to SharePoint, you can move all of “last year’s” information to the first instance of the meeting workspace – the date at which you start using the meeting workspace or you can create “historical” meeting events on your calendar and add the meeting minutes to the appropriate instance of the workspace (a much more time consuming event).  Another possibility is to create a single calendar instance and meeting workspace for “Prior Meetings.” With this approach, you lose the benefit of the “instant search scope” you get when all meeting content is in a single meeting workspace but you get the advantage of “starting fresh.”

There are all kinds of other really cool techniques that I’ve seen people deploy to get great value with Meeting Workspaces and I’ll write about them on a future post.  This should help get you started with a set of lists that add appeal to the out of the box template.  Hopefully, by trying a few of these tips, you’ll get the feedback I got last week, where a client told me, “I never understood what a meeting workspace was or how I can use it but now that you showed me what you can do with it, it’s my favorite part of SharePoint!”

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