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How to Make the Most of Meetings

6 Sept 2021

Author: Lote Steina

I have long touted the merits of remote working, because, if done correctly, it can have immense positive effects on any level – individual, local, national, or global. Sure, there are some downsides, but overall I don’t see any reason why anywhere from 10% to 30% of the workforce could not continue working remotely post-pandemic.

Alas, a recently published research paper authored by a team of scholars from University of Chicago and University of Essex seems to counter my rosy view. The study shows how productivity – measured as output per working hour – actually decreased by 20% for professionals working remotely.

This premise is quite worrying and will surely serve to bolster the arguments of the anti-remote working crowd. However, explore the study in a bit more detail and the real culprit becomes painfully obvious – meetings.

In the study researchers divided employees’ workdays between “collaboration hours” (various types of meetings) and “focus hours” (uninterrupted time to concentrate on their tasks). They concluded that the total hours worked (collaboration + focus hours) increased by around 30% (including 18% outside regular work hours) while focus hours shrank considerably.

Regardless of the reasons why the time spent on meetings increased, there is no denying that it came at the expense of the time that could have been devoted to far more productive and profitable activities. As the Economist columnist so eloquently put it: “80% of the time of 80% of the people in meetings is wasted.”

This begs the question – how can meetings be made better for everyone involved? How can companies, managers, and employees benefit the most from their meetings without causing a disproportionate drop in overall productivity? This is what we’ll explore in this blog post.

Make meetings short and snappy

No one denies that meetings are a really handy tool for information exchange, brainstorming, and coordination. However, all too often you hear about how long, poorly structured, and vague they end up being.
I myself have been in a handful of meetings that were planned as hour long events, but ended up pushing twice or even three times that. Needless to say neither I nor those involved were too happy about that. What makes matters worse is that whenever meetings turn into these amorphous blobs almost nothing ends being achieved apart from all those involved being at best tired and at worst frustrated.

To make your meetings as no-nonsense as possible follow these steps:

  • Schedule shorter meetings. Aim for anywhere between 15 to 30 minutes. There are two reasons for this. First, the shorter you make your meetings, the more focused and straightforward they will be. Second, if your colleagues see that they don't have to brace for another two hours of insomnia cure, they will be more motivated and attentive.
  • Stick to the allotted time. There is no point in scheduling shorter meetings, if they continue to drag on. Therefore, discipline yourself and try to keep others on schedule too. Of course, it is counterproductive to stop a meeting before all has been discussed and clarified. However, if your meetings continuously exceed the allotted time limit, the scope of future meetings (number of topics or attendees) might have to be adjusted.
  • Set and distribute a clear agenda. We've all attended meetings that have generic titles like “update on sales” or “results of the [insert project name]”. Most attendees may have a slight clue on what is going to be presented, but not much more. Assuming that a meeting is probably intended for interaction and feedback, you should give it both a clear title and send out extra info beforehand. So if a meeting is indeed about sales figures, (1) title it like “Jane will present quarterly sales results from South America and our future plans for expansion. She will answer any questions that may arise.” and (2) send out a one pager or a couple of slides with the most important graphs and figures a few days before.
  • Do not deviate from the agenda. People have a proclivity to hijack meetings for their own purposes. Spontaneously adding an item or two to the agenda may seem harmless enough, but it can disrupt not just your plans, but those of other attendees. If a meeting that was supposed to last 30 minutes goes on and on, it will cut into others' productive or rest time. This in turn will lower productivity of the entire team and may create dislike towards meetings in general.
  • Close with a plan. You might say that not all meetings require a list of to-dos or next steps by the end. My reply is - then why exactly did you need a meeting? In my view, practically any meeting that is informative in nature is redundant and can be dispensed with. Conversely, a worthwhile meeting will end with all of the involved people aware of the current status and the next steps that have to be taken to reach the intended result.

To wrap up – a perfect meeting would be no longer than 30 minutes in length, with a clear topic, and informative materials distributed beforehand. By the end of it all of the involved parties would have a clear understanding of what and when has to be achieved.

Limit the number of attendees

This is a major component of better meeting organization. All too often we see real life or virtual meeting rooms with dozens of yawning attendees scrolling on their phones, or in the case of a virtual room simply snoozing away with their cameras off. I think it’s needless to say that this is awfully inefficient.

Robert Sutton, a professor of organizational behavior at Stanford University, has determined that the most productive meetings contain only five to eight people. To achieve that, I’d suggest keeping in mind and doing two things:

First, invite only the most relevant people to a meeting. There are millions of meetings happening around the world every day and the majority of people attending them would be better off doing something else.

We’ve all been in a meeting that should have had 3 participants, but it ended up having 10 or more. This happens either because of bad organization or a manager’s inflated sense of self-importance. However, regardless of the reason, what ends up happening is that 7 extra people have wasted a good chunk of their time that could have been devoted to creating value.

So if you are calling a meeting, think long and hard if all of the people listed will really benefit from the discussion and be able to contribute to it. If they are only there for FYI purposes, you are better off just sending them the discussion material and the next steps agreed upon in the meeting afterwards.

Conversely, if you personally see that a meeting concerns you only in passing, do not hesitate to let your manager know that your time and energy might be better used on a different task. If he insists on you attending without an adequate reason, that’s what I call a red flag (i.e. not a particularly well run team or company).

Second, don’t forget about the individual touch! The more people you invite to meetings, the more productivity drops. The obvious solution – have more face-to-face meetings with individual team members.

This helps with a number of things:

  • it allows for a more personal, in depth analysis of the person's tasks, giving them a greater insight and depth on what and why has to be achieved;
  • it builds a stronger relationship between a manager and his subordinate, while also allowing the team lead to fully ascertain the strengths, weaknesses, likes, and dislikes of each team member;
  • it allows for the involved parties to remain focused, short, and concise which, in turn, leads the meeting to wrap up sooner;
  • it helps the person you talk to feel more relaxed and speak more freely (unlike speaking in front of a bunch of other people).

Plan for meeting-free, productive time

Predictability and certainty are two things businesses absolutely love. The same goes for most individuals. Imagine going into work and having a bunch of unexpected meeting invitations thrust upon you. It would throw you off balance and interfere with your schedule and to-do list.
To avoid this, I’d suggest doing the following two things.

First, managers should establish that certain days of the week are meeting-free i.e. no meetings should be planned for those days. That will allow their workers to plan their time and resources without worrying about unexpected interruptions.

For example, have Mondays, Tuesdays, and Fridays be meeting-free days with the remaining two days open for meetings – be they group or one on one meetings.

That being said, this doesn’t mean that managers should barrage their employees with countless, impromptu meetings on those two days. Instead, each meeting should be scheduled at least a couple of days beforehand and take into consideration the principles outlined in this blog post.

Second, employees themselves should take an active role in protecting their time by blocking time on their calendar for their primary tasks. This would make it easier both for themselves and the manager to plan time accordingly.

If you implement these few steps in the meetings you plan, there is a good chance that you will improve your and your colleagues’ productivity while also making all your professional lives a bit less tedious. Go ahead – give it a shot!

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Life doesen't have a do-over.
Commit to it! BePrime!
Life doesen't have a do-over.
Commit to it! BePrime!