We have all joked about meetings at work or rather the pointlessness of them. The flak that business meetings receive is not without reason, either. This infographic shows all the various ways people waste their time at work, and ‘workplace meeting’ is right at the top of the ladder. A Harvard business review survey of managers revealed that 71% believe meetings are unproductive and inefficient, and 64% felt that meetings hinder deep thinking.
Don’t get us wrong, meetings are important. They can help keep teams on track, aid quick problem solving, and even take an organization towards agility.
The problem is that a lot of business meetings are not efficient. It does not help that meetings, over the last few decades, have only grown longer and more frequent. On the face of it, an inefficient meeting leads to wastage of time, and hence, resources. However, the problem can run deeper.
What makes an effective meeting?
Before we focus on what makes an effective meeting, it is essential to identify the problem with inefficient business meetings. Companies can pay a stiff price for an ineffective meeting – research suggests that organizations that frequently deal with meandering conversations, complaints, and criticism at meetings have a low market share. Frequently bad meetings can also adversely affect team member satisfaction. Job satisfaction is closely related to good communication and collaboration at work. Even when other factors such as pay and supervision are good, or at least, satisfactory, wasteful hours at meetings can take their toll. Lower job satisfaction is directly related to higher attrition rates, which can be alleviated by active listening and having good meetings to an extent.
And then there is the cost of innovation. When people are frequently distracted by meetings, they can find it hard to focus on higher cognitive tasks, which can hamper their creativity.
Effective Meeting Planning Strategies
Successful meetings can foster collaboration and teamwork. In order to get there, though, managers need to identify where the problem lies. Meetings affect group time as well as individual time. The problem arises when either of those times is adversely affected by meetings.
Not wasting group time
Certain companies might not hold meetings very frequently. However, they could be poorly run, which means people can’t get the most out of group discussions or collaborations. Common causes for this sort of time and opportunity wastage include:
- Lack of a clear agenda
- Last-minute scheduling and rescheduling
- Unclear communication and lack of participation from all participants
- People doing individual tasks, such as answering emails
Not wasting individual time
A lot of times, meetings can be efficiently run, but the sheer volume of meetings can take its toll. It can disrupt people’s work schedules and interrupt deep thinking. Very often, when there are excessive meetings, team members can find it hard to meet individual deadlines. This can snowball into them taking their work home, leading to burnout, and eventually, lower job satisfaction. It can be a vicious cycle.
Not wasting either the group or individual time
This can happen in the worst-case scenario, where some organizations could be conducting too many meetings that are badly run, leading to inefficient use of group and individual time.
How to start an effective meeting?
As a manager, how do you find out if your meetings are a waste of time for the group, individuals, or both? Start by asking people at your organization. Interviews and surveys are the simplest tools available to collect data. You might be surprised how much resentment is building under the surface.
Once you have the information, analyzing it is the next step. It can be tempting to outsource the analysis to a consultant or get the tasks delegated to a small team within the organization. However, it needs to be a group activity that involves all the stakeholders. Team members need to be encouraged to share their thoughts on the collated information and suggest reforms. It is at the analysis stage that you start to see the problems if there are any. For instance, you might find that there are so many meetings during the day that it leaves people with hardly any time for deep, concentrated work. But bringing effective meetings back in company culture isn’t impossible – few skills are all that is required.
What are effective meeting management skills?
Ensuring no meeting domination happens
Effective meetings are democratic. When you have a 30-minute meeting with 6 people, it can be tough to ensure that every participant gets equal time to put forward their views. However, the idea behind this time management is to encourage broader participation. When you see an individual dominating the discussion, ask that one person to hold their views while you get others in on the topic. If someone was cut off before they could complete, come back to them before you move on to the next thought. Ensuring the psychological safety of participants can help them share out-of-the-box ideas more openly, and paying attention to the body language of participants can help in this regard. If you are concerned about certain individuals dominating a meeting too much, talk to them after the meeting. Ask them to encourage people in actively participating in further discussions. When you put the onus on people to lead, they tend to act more responsibly.
Accounting for distractions
Very often, people can be on their phones answering texts, or on their laptops, answering emails. This not only leads to lesser participation from people, but it also sends a message that this particular meeting is not that important. If it happens too frequently, it can be detrimental to collaborative work in the organization. Start with a “no device” policy. If it is challenging to implement the culture throughout the organization, set an example. As the leader of the meeting, leave your phone and laptop outside. Indicating clearly that it is a “no device” meeting is one of the important tenets of effective meetings. For smaller status updates, stand-up meetings can also ensure there aren’t any distractions.
Following up and updating stakeholders
Very often, people can feel like they are attending the same meeting over and over again – to discuss the same issues and nothing gets done in between. To avoid pointless meetings, send out the minutes of a meeting within a couple of hours of it being finished. The minutes should clearly state the issues discussed, the solutions agreed upon and assigned deadlines. Before scheduling the next meeting, check where everyone is on their respective tasks. Ideally, you should aim for a group completion rate of 80-85%. If progress is lagging, have a one-on-one chat with the concerned team members and find out the reasons for the delay.
Effective meeting strategies
It is (almost) impossible to eliminate complaints about business meetings. However, the goal should be to reduce them and make your meetings as efficient as possible. Here are a few strategies to help you achieve conduct great meetings.
Limit the number of meeting participants
To avoid meandering conversations and meeting agendas getting sidestepped, only send a meeting invite to those who are essential to that meeting. For example, Amazon has a two-pizza rule for meetings. Fewer participants also tend to encourage broader participation.
Set the agenda for a successful meeting
This one looks obvious, but very often, it is overlooked. Even before you schedule a meeting, create an agenda. Defining a meeting’s scope helps participants get aligned and contribute their views during the meeting. Also, booking a meeting room and sharing relevant documents with participants beforehand can make your meetings shorter and more efficient.
Identify a leader
Someone should be responsible for running the meeting. They set the agenda, encourage participation, ensure compliance to the general rules, and are responsible for breaking the ice when the situation demands. Without a clear leader, meetings can be a wild goose chase.
Give PowerPoint a break
PowerPoint is banned at Amazon’s business meetings. While that may be a little extreme, if you are using PowerPoint to narrate a presentation verbatim, it is pointless. Use visuals only as a cue for the next part of the meeting, or even to inject a little humor, but that’s about it.
Ditch the boardroom
Conference rooms are convenient for team meetings. However, once in a while, break the monotony. It can inspire creativity. If it is a one-on-one meeting, maybe talk over a walk. Taking your team off-location for a day of meetings can also allow the team to meet face to face, and can be a fun way to get things done.
Keep the meeting time short
To avoid meetings that seem to go on forever, set a clear start and end time. Instituting stand-ups for team huddles where team members have to actually stand, can give an added incentive to keep the meeting short. When you are doing that, make sure the logistics are accounted for. For instance, if the meeting is in another wing of the office, account for the walking time. Similarly, if there is a meeting scheduled before yours, account for the time it will take people from the previous meeting to disperse. Use technology to schedule meetings without the constant back-and-forth emails so that everyone is on the same page.
And keep the duration of meetings towards the lower end of the spectrum. For example, if you think 30 minutes is enough to discuss the action items, keep a time limit of 25 minutes. Let one person speak clearly, and interject if two or more people start talking at the same time. Having a different person ask a question every time can also get the participants talking. When you stipulate a certain duration for a task, people tend to fill that time, even though it might not be necessary. It is Parkinson’s Law at work.
Regularly Take Stock
Improving the efficiency of business meetings is not a one-off task. It is an ongoing process. Even after you have implemented all or some of the ideas listed here, it is important to regularly solicit feedback from team members. Frequently having a person talking about the efficiency of meetings can also foster a more tolerant work atmosphere where people give and receive constructive criticism.
Regular discussions also become important as you start to bring in changes to the work culture. People tend to be slow to adapt to change. Regular debriefing can help them transition to more efficient ways of running and participating in business meetings.