Hate Meetings? 5 Ways to Stop Them From Being a Waste of Time
Meetings are infamously the bane of work life. As far as workplace drudgery goes, they’re right up there with checking emails and mandatory fire drills. But no matter whether you work for a Fortune 500 company or one that’s just getting started, meetings are a necessary evil in order to run smoothly and have employees on the same page. If Google and Apple are still holding meetings, chances are your company will need to as well.
The time you actually spend in meetings might depend on how much your boss (or you) actually likes them. The Harvard Business Review found that one large company’s executive meeting led to 300,000 hours per year spent supporting it with smaller meetings (the higher-ups met with their divisional employees in order to be prepared for their weekly executive get-together.) Overall, about 15% of a company’s collective time in spent in a meeting room somewhere. The Wall Street Journal reported that in a sample of 65 CEOs, about 32% of their logged hours were spent in meetings. It’s a small sample, but based on conventional wisdom doesn’t seem far-fetched.
Software creator Atlassian estimates that most employees will have an average of 62 meetings to attend per month, and many people consider at least half of that time to be wasted. While that might seem like a lot, meeting regularly can be a good thing. That’s because if employees are given enough time to have a back-and-forth discussion with the decision-makers, they have the chance to express their opinions on goals or new strategies for the company. “The plan often changes because of the team’s input. And consensus is neither assumed nor achieved with any regularity. In the end, though, everyone feels like they’ve said their bit, and they’re able to back up the decision because of this,” writes Kristine Kern, a consultant for workplace adviser The Table Group.
Whether you’re the executive who’s normally hosting the meetings or if you’re expected to be in charge of one once in a while, there are a few ways to make sure they go off without a hitch, and are actually productive at the same time. Here are five things to keep in mind.
1. Start on time
Yes, your mother’s wisdom about the importance of punctuality really does have a huge impact on setting the right tone for a meeting, right away. If they enter the meeting thinking about the other things they have to get done, and then you wait an extra 10 minutes until you begin, you’re signaling that their other projects aren’t as important as shooting the breeze waiting for the straggler or two to show up. Starting on time — and letting the latecomers realize they’ve inconvenienced the group — will encourage prompt attendance from everyone, writes BFG Communications founder Kevin Meany.
If meetings are known to start on time, at every level of the company, you have fewer chances to derail other productivity throughout the day. “If you can start on time with the first meeting of the day (and respect the end time) you set a culture where the importance of people’s time is highly valued,” writes Entrepreneur contributor Craig Cincotta.
Being punctual also helps you to end on time, as long as you’ve been careful to avoid tangents. This is crucial, because once the time slot for the meeting is over, employees will start to mentally check out whether or not you’ve made it through the agenda. “Their mind isn’t on the meeting at the end, so it’s not productive,” Peter Handal, former CEO and chairman of Dale Carnegie Training, told U.S. News & World Report.
2. Have a concise agenda
You need an agenda if you want a productive meeting, so everyone knows what’s about to be discussed. But how you handle the agenda-setting will likely depend on team dynamics and what you think will work best for that particular atmosphere.
Cincotta, in a piece for Entrepreneur, suggests setting an agenda and emailing it out 24 hours in advance, especially if you’re expecting people to bring ideas to the table to discuss, or if you’ll need to brainstorm solutions to a particular issue. Meany, in the separate Entrepreneur article, warns against creating an agenda so large that it masks the true purpose of the meeting. “Note what it is you hope to decide or accomplish at the beginning,” he writes. “If there is an agenda, keep it short so that the goal isn’t getting through a long, overly detailed agenda.”
Another tactic is to enter the meeting without a pre-set agenda, but have the meeting members develop one based on what’s most important to them. Kern, from The Table Group, wrote in an article for Inc. that the agenda does need to be tightly focused around the general goals for the meeting — this isn’t the time to put tangents on an agenda. But the results can be empowering for the people who attend the meetings. “The meeting script doesn’t result from a circulated email and it’s not based solely on the meeting leaders’ strategic priorities, and that is important. This is a powerful change, because it means that team members are discussing things that are important to them,” Kern explains.
3. Take good notes
Nothing can be more frustrating than spending 30 minutes in a decent meeting, only to realize a day later that no one recorded the details of what was actually discussed. Alexandra Samuel, author of Work Smarter with Social Media, suggests using a collaborative tool like Google Docs. That way, when one person is talking and sharing ideas, another person can be recording what’s said. This is also a way to draw more people into the meeting, as they can share ideas and get them down on paper immediately. Applications like Evernote also allow for searchable functions and provides an easy way to keep track of archived meeting minutes, Samuel writes.
While you’re taking those notes, it’s wise to also keep track of who is taking responsibility for which tasks. Steve Jobs became famous for this, including a “directly responsible individual,” or DRI, next to every task or agenda item. That way, people can be working on a project but know exactly who is responsible for seeing it through to completion. It’s a quick way to streamline questions, follow-ups, and also who will likely update their superiors on progress that’s made.
4. Use technology as an asset
We’re now squarely in the digital age, so technology should begin to be used to our advantage in meetings, not ignored in favor of another Powerpoint presentation. If you’re conducting meetings remotely or have clients who aren’t coming in to your office, Samuel suggests using a screen-sharing app to quickly show drafts or brainstorm topics. Of the several platforms she’s used, Samuel recommends Join.me for quick and reliable sharing.
Also, have an extra screen like a spare iPad or other device ready to display reference material. That way, you won’t have to divert your main screen from taking notes or your prepared presentation, but everyone can still see multiple sets of information relevant to the conversation. If you’re on a conference call, Samuel suggests setting up a backchannel before the call in-house, so that you as a team can stay on the same page during the meeting.
In addition to these things, start basing decisions and conversations around data when possible, not personal preferences. Marissa Mayer, CEO of Yahoo!, approaches design pitches from a scientific viewpoint whenever possible. Carmine Gallo wrote in a piece for Bloomberg Businessweek that Mayer discourages “I like” statements and instead looks for statements backed up by performance measures and metrics. Instead of “I like the way the screen looks,” Mayer expects statements like, “The experimentation on the site shows that his design performed 10% better.” Mayer was still working for Google when the Businessweek article was written, but it’s pretty safe to assume the same logic is happening in Yahoo!’s meetings.
5. Leave with action steps
If employees leave knowing where everyone is going to lunch but not what’s happening for your marketing strategy, your meeting has failed. Figure out who is responsible for heading up certain tasks, and come up with measurable ways to track progress. “The worst thing that can happen is nobody follows up and then you have another meeting to talk about what you already discussed,” Cincotta writes.
For the steps that will need to be carried out with other employees, establish a framework for how it will be explained to colleagues or direct reports. “It’s important that everyone is on the same page about what you will and what you won’t say outside the meeting. Not everything will be ready for prime time, and that’s OK, so long as everyone finds out information within the same time frame,” Kern at The Table Group writes.
One last word about wrapping up a meeting: don’t let people get away with stewing in the corner, just waiting to leave the meeting to tell everyone else about the bad brainstorm ideas. “Nothing is more deadly than silent disagreement that quickly results in a totally dysfunctional meeting after the meeting in which ‘real’ opinions are shared behind closed doors,” Kern explains. If you’re leading the meeting and believe someone strongly disagrees but isn’t speaking up, encourage them to do so or follow up with them immediately after. Disagreements are natural, but should be resolved before it feels like the entire meeting was undermined by a complaint afterward.
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