If there is a truth that’s almost universally acknowledged in business, it might be this: Meetings are often a waste of time.
In fact, a Harvard Business Review survey of senior managers found 71 percent say meetings are unproductive and inefficient and 65 percent said meetings keep them from completing their own work.
Despite this, Americans spend an average of 26 percent of their workday in meetings.
So meetings aren’t going away. And if we’re being honest, sometimes they *can* be helpful, productive and rewarding. There are a lot of good reasons why we keep having meetings.
So how can you make sure your team’s meetings are more effective than not? Here are 10 easy changes you can implement to make the most of your meetings:
1. Consider your team’s roles and responsibilities
One of the biggest mistakes you may be making is how you’re scheduling your team’s meetings. Take a minute to evaluate the makeup of your team: Are there more makers on your team? Or managers? Or do you have hybrids?
A maker is someone like a writer, designer, or programmer whose job is to, well, make things. These people need long, uninterrupted stretches of time where they can engage in deep thinking and creativity so they can make progress on their projects. Research tells us that it can take up to a half hour to get into a “flow” state with work, and close to another half hour to completely refocus on a task after an interruption. So to a maker, a 30-minute meeting in the middle of the day can be a complete derailment.
For example: If a programmer knows she needs three to four hours of uninterrupted work on a project, but she has a weekly team meeting at 11:00, she may put off starting that project until *after* the meeting just so she won’t have to be pulled out of “the zone” and lose focus. Assuming she starts work at 9, that’s a loss of two hours of valuable work time that she may now dedicate to smaller, lower priority tasks instead of deep, creative work.
Managers, on the other hand, are people whose jobs involve decision-making and delegation. Their days — and their calendars — are frequently divided up into 30-minute or hour-long segments. For this group, the best way to schedule a meeting is simply to find an open time slot on their calendar.
These days, many of our roles are actually maker-manager hybrids. A social media director, for example, may spend a lot of time making decisions or delegating work to her team, but she may also need uninterrupted stretches of time to write copy, lead photo shoots, or edit video.
If your team consists of makers or maker-manager hybrids, here are two ideas to consider to make meetings work better for your employees:
- Incorporate meeting-free days: Try blocking off at least one or two days as meeting-free — maybe Mondays and Fridays to bookend the week, or Tuesdays and Thursdays to break up the work week. Give your team reliable days where they are certain to have stretches of uninterrupted time.
- Cluster your meetings at the end of the workday: By stacking meetings at the end of the day instead of spreading them out, you’re ensuring that your team members won’t be interrupted throughout the day which will allow for those crucial stretches of time for your makers to actually get their work done. Your team will be able to bring more of their full attention when they aren’t thinking about going back to their desks and picking up a task.
2. Decide: Does this need to be a meeting?
Once you’ve identified the makeup of your team and a meeting structure that might work best for them, it’s time to really evaluate the purpose of each of your meetings so we can start trimming the fat of those unproductive, unnecessary calendar invites.
Here are some questions to ask yourself as you look at upcoming meetings, or are deciding whether or not to schedule a future meeting:
- Does this meeting have a specific goal?
- Is it necessary to address this in person?
- Could this be done just as (or more) effectively over email?
- Could this meeting be combined with something else to save time?
It is never a bad idea to consider canceling a meeting and finding a format for discussion that’s better suited to the end goal.
3. Evaluate who needs to be included
Take a look at the invite lists for your meetings and really think about each person: Do they *actually* need to be there?
It can be tempting to try to get everyone who’s remotely involved in a project at the table all at once, but often it’s just not necessary. The only people who should be in the room (or on the phone) are those who are needed to make decisions or do the work right now.
For everyone else — especially those who may have been included just so they’re aware of what’s going on, or just in case it touches their line of work — consider simply sharing the meeting notes with them after-the-fact, or including top-line updates into another scheduled meeting with them.
The more streamlined your invite list is, the more productive your meetings will be. According to research from Bain & Company, meetings with an intent to make a decision should be limited to 7 people — each person beyond that decreases decision effectiveness by 10 percent.
At Google, for example, there is a 10-person limit to meetings, and everyone who’s included should be providing input. If they’re not, it’s probably not necessary for them to be included. Kristen Gil, VP of Business Operations, says “attending a meeting isn’t a badge of honor.” We agree.
4. Set clear (and reasonable) time limits
Your meetings are probably too long. No, really. If you’re scheduling hour-long meetings for your team, really think about why that is.
The reason TED Talks are limited to 18 minutes no matter who’s speaking is because research shows that the average person’s attention span is only 10 to 18 minutes.
Now let’s think about that in the context of why your hour-long meetings may seem to drag on.
Many companies, like Percolate, have a 15-minute limit on all meetings. The reasoning here is that people will tend to fill the time that’s allotted to them, so you’ll fill an hour even if you only have 15 minutes worth of content. Why not push yourself and your team to be truly efficient?
Of course, some meetings will *have* to be longer than that, but by setting a clear and precise agenda along with reasonable time limits, you can maximize (and hopefully decrease!) your overall time spent in meetings.
5. Set an agenda and provide materials in advance
Not only does setting an agenda help you stick to your time limits, but it also helps your attendees prepare, which will allow them to be more productive within the meeting itself.
Take a brainstorming meeting, for example. If you send out a meeting invite with the subject line “Brainstorming,” and then wait until the meeting to share the topic and goals, the first 10 to 15 minutes will be wasted by people mulling over initial reactions in the room.
Here are a few things that you should be sure to include in an effective meeting agenda:
- Meeting attendees
- Objective of the meeting
- Any materials that attendees should read/review in advance
- A schedule of topics to be discussed in priority order
- Time allocations for each discussion
Ideally, an agenda would be shared at least 24 hours in advance, if not a couple days prior to the meeting to allow adequate preparation.
6. Begin your meetings with a statement of purpose
Once everyone’s in the room for the meeting, the best way to open things up is to begin by stating the objective of the meeting. This will help to focus discussion and keep everyone on track — especially if you’re in a weekly or monthly recurring meeting that can frequently devolve into off-topic side conversations.
This statement can be as simple as, “Hi everyone, thanks for joining. Today, our goal is to make a decision on the designs for the fall ad campaign.”
If necessary, you can continue making these purpose statements for each agenda item, or to rein things in if the conversation begins to veer off topic. No hard feelings, just a gentle, “Let’s re-focus on the design decision,” can work wonders *and* help save valuable meeting time.
7. Keep phones and laptops out of the room
To help keep meetings as productive and time-efficient as possible, digital distractions like phones and laptops should be kept to a minimum. If you respect your coworkers’ time, meetings are not the place to be responding to emails or texts.
My team’s staff meetings have a very clear no phones policy, and everyone — from the assistants to the vice presidents — follows it. It’s something I really appreciate because it gives everyone a sense that their time is valued, and it keeps us focused on the conversations at hand.
Laptops are the other big distractor in meetings. How many times have you been distracted by another meeting attendee’s typing or felt like someone wasn’t listening to you because their nose was buried in their computer screen?
Beyond issues of respect, taking notes by hand is far superior to typing them. Writing things long-hand leads to improved focus and memory as well as a better understanding of concepts.
When you can remove digital devices from a meeting room, the quality and efficiency of your meetings can only improve.
8. Don’t stick to one location
If possible, shake things up by meeting in a new location. This can be especially helpful if you have a recurring meeting that takes place in the same location each time. A new environment can help boost stimulation and creativity which can give your meetings a much-needed refresh.
Another way to change things up and increase engagement is by encouraging meeting attendees to stand. We all know the thinking behind the standing meeting: the longer you stand, the more uncomfortable everyone feels, which means the meeting will end faster.
But there are far more benefits to standing than just expediency. A Washington University study showed that standing during meetings boosted creativity and led to greater collaboration.
The same goes for walking while meeting — a favorite of both Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg. Walking boosts circulation, which in turn boosts energy. That jolt of energy leads to improved focus and creativity. Plus, walking together builds feelings of collaboration and companionship that sitting around a table just can’t do.
9. End with next steps
Just as you’ve started your meeting with focus, it’s important to end in the same way. If you’re leading the meeting, be sure to end by recapping the key takeaways and clearly outlining the next steps, complete with deadlines and who’s responsible.
Here’s an example of how I ended a recent meeting to discuss art direction on an upcoming project:
“To recap, we’ve decided that option B is the direction we want to go with the art. Sarah, you’re going to make those changes to all of the pieces by Friday and then send to Jessenia for approval. Jon, you’re going to send over final cost estimates by Thursday so we can get those to finance. Erikka, you’re going to get in touch with the website team to confirm what assets they still need from us. And next week, we’ll regroup to make sure we’re still on track to deliver by the end of the month.”
By wrapping up your meeting with clear takeaways and actionable steps, you’re ensuring that your time spent together has been productive and helpful in propelling your team’s work forward.
10. Invite feedback
As you’re making changes to your meetings, it’s important to get a sense from your team about what’s working for them — and what’s not.
Make time to hold meeting evaluations and ask all of the meeting’s participants how they think the sessions are going. Are they getting what they need out of them? Are they motivating? Is there room for improvement?
Everyone’s work style is different, so keeping an open line of communication like this between you and your team is crucial to making sure no one is being left behind and to continuing to make improvements so that your team’s meetings are as effective and productive as possible.