Workplace meetings can be hit or miss. For one person, a meeting could offer the chance to daydream in the corner for half an hour. For another, it could provide the collaboration needed to solve what seemed like an impossible problem. One thing’s for sure though – an unforgivably large number of meetings are nowhere near as productive as they should be.
An analysis of over 19 million meetings found that, on average, Brits spend two hours per week in pointless meetings, equating to over 140 million days of lost productivity per year at an estimated financial cost of £45.5 billion.
Those may sound like impossibly large numbers, but they make sense when you consider the fact that every meeting is an investment in person-hours. Ten people in a meeting for one hour equals ten "person-hours". Even at minimum wage, that single meeting would cost a business over £80 - now multiply that cost across every inefficient meeting for an entire year.
Unproductive get-togethers are such a bane to businesses that a new field of academic research has emerged to tackle the problem: the science of meetings. To help you get more from your meetings, we’ve distilled findings from two of the most recent and comprehensive reports1 on the subject which draw from more than 200 scientific studies on workplace meetings.
The first question to ask is "Do we really need to have this meeting?". Trimming unnecessary meetings from the calendar is the simplest way to save time. It also has a positive effect on the meetings that remain, as they feel more necessary and focused.
To decide if you need a meeting, think about whether the outcome you desire can be achieved by email or instant messaging. An email cc’d to a select group of people can be better than postponing the issue until you can find an overlap in your schedules. However, research has shown2 that lengthy communications (i.e. more than 50-125 words) are often better delivered through a face-to-face catch-up.
Once you’ve decided a meeting is needed, instruct all participants to do information-gathering before the meeting, not during it. Unpacking problems mid-meeting can waste time and feel arduous.
Next, assign a leader and make an agenda. It’s the meeting leader’s responsibility to make a list of what will be covered (including items not on the public agenda, such as increasing motivation to complete a task or hit a deadline).
The leader establishes the meeting’s tone and focus, including encouraging a positive atmosphere. Research3 has shown that meetings that contain humour and laughter successfully are linked with better team performance.
In contrast, "killer phrases" (e.g. "Nothing can be done about this" and "Nothing works") can start a cycle of negativity that spreads through attendees. Try to avoid blanket negative statements like these and discourage them in others. It’s also wise to limit interruptions, not just when the leader is speaking, but throughout the meeting.
"Could you hold that thought for a moment?" and "Let’s come back to that thought later in the meeting," are gentle ways to bring the focus back to the agenda. The same applies to "off-task behaviour" and multi-tasking, such as checking email or chatting privately.
Try to encourage everyone to participate, as a lack of participation can spread from one employee to another. To nip the problem in the bud, only invite people to the meeting who are likely to make meaningful contributions, even if it’s tempting to invite more on the off-chance that it may help.
If the meeting involves generating ideas, discourage evaluative comments (e.g. "I’m not sure if that will work") during the brainstorming process. Instead, the meeting leader should record and organise ideas as they occur and reinforce solution generation from participants. That means steering conversation back to constructive suggestions and, in the least patronising way, rewarding each contribution with positive comments.
For example, rather than simply saying "Okay, interesting" or something equally generic, try to give a specific reason their comment was useful or insightful. For example: "I like that idea! Doing it like that would probably speed up the process as well."
Research4 suggests that you should allocate roughly 10% of the meeting’s total allotted time to wrapping up and summarising the takeaways (e.g. three minutes for a 30-minute meeting or six for 60 minutes).
Ever had a meeting that’s drifted into the ether like it never even happened? You’re sure you discussed something, but there’s no sign of what. To connect meetings with outcomes (and, ultimately, a return-on-investment for the person-hours they required), send minutes and action items out immediately after the meeting.
In the long-term, incorporate meeting satisfaction as part of your company-wide employee satisfaction and engagement surveys. That way, data can help make meetings more efficient and effective. For instance, you might find that team members feel more productive when meetings are scheduled first thing in the morning rather than in the afternoon. Or that meetings with smaller groups achieve more than those with larger numbers.
76% of professionals said they prefer face-to-face meetings over video calls (5%) and instant messaging/email (4%). This shows that we don’t hate meetings, we hate meetings that are unproductive. Hopefully, the above tips will help you make your next meeting a stepping stone to success, instead of a bore-fest.
1-4 Leblanc, Linda & Nosik, Melissa. (2019). Planning and Leading Effective Meetings. Behavior Analysis in Practice. 12. 10.1007/s40617-019-00330-z.
Mroz, Joseph & Allen, Joseph & Verhoeven, Dana & Shuffler, Marissa. (2018). Do We Really Need Another Meeting? The Science of Workplace Meetings. Current Directions in Psychological Science. 27. 096372141877630. 10.1177/0963721418776307.