If you’ve worked in just about any office lately, this may not come as a big surprise: Meetings can be a colossal productivity drain—they can create a treadmill of a work existence for many, where seemingly little gets done.
In fact, the 2017 American Express OPEN ‘Get Business Done’ survey says that more than one-third of employees spend nearly 1,200 hours a year in meetings they call “pointless.” That’s 150 work days, or 30 work weeks a year. Add to that related pre- and post-meeting time, and you’ve got business moving at a virtual snail’s pace.
Clearly there’s value in information sharing, but no meetings are better than poorly run meetings. Imagine if these 30 weeks per employee were freed up for real work.
So, in a business world that lauds collaboration and cross-functional work teams, how do you limit meetings overall and keep participants to only those who help advance the business?
There are many ways to eliminate “meeting clutter” and become more strategic, to help ensure employees are more invigorated and productive. Here are some tips to consider.
Preparing for Your Business Meeting
A lot of your success depends on: a) Whether you actually need a meeting; b) The rules of engagement; c) How you plan the content; d) Who’s attending; and e) Other factors.
1. Decide who’s invited. Decide who must attend, not who might like to attend. If you think it might be purely informational for some, they may be better off with (or dare I say, thankful for) a summary email.
2. Keep groups to eight to 12 people. Less is more. With a smaller group, you can help engender more engagement, focus and deeper discussion. Larger groups may be a fertile ground for distraction and posturing.
3. Keep an eye on frequency. Weekly staff meetings are fine, if there’s a need. But if you’ve already met privately with your team, are all caught up and have pressing projects, why subject yourself and others to another meeting?
4. Consider alternatives to meetings. There are times when other communications options make more sense: emails, a call or meeting face to face with staff members is ideal. Don’t assemble people who have only five minutes to contribute (or gain) for a slumber-inducing gathering.
5. Watch out for convenience. Here’s a good litmus test to apply against your meeting practices. Ask yourself, “Am I knowingly taking shortcuts?” Whether it’s trying to do too much with too many attendees or sending out verbose email blasts, ask yourself if the list is too large and the information too inconsequential for all recipients, for example.
6. Know your timing. Try to avoid scheduling meetings on Monday mornings and Friday afternoons when colleagues are beginning or wrapping up their week. Aim for 30 to 45 minutes total, or leave a little wiggle room at the end for any urgent matters. Time is a non-renewable resource.
7. Have an agenda and clear goals. Every meeting should have a reason, stated objectives and an agenda. Email the agenda in advance and encourage invitees to be prepared to contribute. Winging it may work for birthday parties, but little else. Even brainstorm sessions, where anything goes creativity-wise, should have a built-in structure.
8. Encourage solutions, not problems. Ask your team to bring solutions, not just issues to share with others. They may not have all the answers, but by having this mindset, problem-solving will advance more quickly.
9. Limit emails about the meeting. Include a cover email that succinctly explains the purpose of the meeting, your agenda and what’s needed for preparation. But keep it short, and only send one—a stream of long-winded emails leading up to a meeting can just exacerbate this rampant office affliction.
10. Have one team leader. The old axiom “too many cooks…” applies to the kitchen and the conference room. The team leader maintains control, guides the pace and helps stay on topic. Also, consider varying your meeting leaders, at least for part of the discussion. That can add interest and build motivation.
During the Meeting
1. Prioritize topics. Agenda items should already be prioritized, but during the meeting, it can be tempting to stray. Don’t. Save it for the next meeting, or limit the topic to a specific time period at the end, if you get through your agenda earlier than expected or you’ve built in wiggle room.
2. Have a timer. Assign someone in advance to monitor timing. If your meeting has three parts, for example, let them give you a nod or signal that you’re close to the end of that section. Get a five-minute warning before the end. This keeps the meeting moving and takes the onus off the meeting’s leader if a participant is exceeding the time constraints.
3. Make it lively. Make meetings interactive and fun, at least to ensure everyone remains lucid! Try icebreakers and ask questions to get them engaged. Use color, such as colorful sticky notes, napkins or a whiteboard with color markers. Be sure the room is well-lit and maybe dress up the table if appropriate with something clever relating to the meeting topic. Encourage participation throughout the session to keep the energy alive.
4. Go easy on technology. There are those who can’t part from their laptops, but in smaller groups, over-reliance on slide presentations and laptop note-taking can detract from recall and engagement. Consider distributing slide decks in advance, conduct group stretches at the start and encourage walking around and standing up for at least part of the meeting. Less physical rigidity invites more innovative thinking.
5. Offer breaks and food. If your meetings go longer than 30 minutes, consider 10-minute breaks. Always have water on hand, and if your meeting is an hour long or more, have snacks available.
6. Discourage stragglers. Not only does this break concentration, but it can zap morale. If this is a pattern, speak privately to the offender. If that doesn’t work, you might have to institute a policy: Repeat stragglers will be asked random questions upon arrival. It might be enough incentive for them to kick the habit if they’re asked to publicly perform a bird call—or recite the alphabet backwards!
7. Have action items. Every meeting should result in specific actions by specific people, ideally with dates attached. This should be summarized at the end of the meeting, but in addition, via email to reinforce the next steps. Just be sure it doesn’t have 15 follow-ups from everyone on the Cc list, or becomes an email blast that shuts down the business server.
8. End on an upbeat note. In keeping with the concept of fun, remember to end on an upbeat note. You don’t have to suddenly toss out a rubber chicken (although that could work), but a few words of thanks, inspiration and levity go a long way.
With some time spent on refining your meeting strategy, you’ll likely gain untold hours of productivity and happy campers. Plus, all bets will be off on boardroom snoozing.
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