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Making meetings matter: How to plan and run effective meetings

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Love them or loathe them, meetings are a mainstay of modern working life. We’re attending more meetings than ever. And we’re getting creative with the format, too.

We have formal and informal, traditional or agile, stand-ups, sit-downs, walking meetings, video conferences and roundtable discussions. We’re spoilt for choice in how we plan and deliver our meetings.

The more meetings we have, the more we publicly lament. But studies show that in private we recognise the value of meeting regularly. Most of us see meetings as an essential productivity tool and an effective vehicle for communication.

The newsDesk looked into the data on the impact for employees and businesses. And to share simple steps for you to get the most out of your meetings.


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No meetings are free. We spend an average of 2 months a year in meetings with an estimated cost of US$36 billion.

Meetings matter

It’s in meetings that we can co-create company culture, share a vision, create strategic plans and respond to the challenges our company’s face. Meetings are a critical space in our packed calendars to join with colleagues in brainstorming, building stronger connections and reaching important decisions.

Efficient, well-planned meetings are a foundation stone of productivity. But too often we are dragged into meetings that do little more than waste time and lead to no tangible outcome. We have meetings for the sake of them. We frequently neglect other ways of collaborating, sharing information and making decisions, which may be far more effective.

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How much time do we spend in meetings?

Studies show that an average employee spends around six hours a week in scheduled meetings. For managers, that increases to an estimated 23 hours. But recent data from the USA indicates that almost eight hours of those meetings are unnecessary and poorly managed. Incredibly, that’s equal to more than two months of wasted working time per year.

According to research, the number of meetings has doubled since the 1960s. And worse, business leaders expect that to increase in the future.

Some of this can be explained by deep changes in the organisations. These days, it’s all about teamwork and collaboration. Companies tend to be less hierarchical and make more use of self-directed teams.

The impact of too many inefficient meetings

Meeting for the sake of it waste valuable time to be productive at work. Employees in larger organisations tend to feel the most frustrated. Smaller organisations tend to have fewer meetings. However, as a company grows, the default position of ‘let’s have a meeting to discuss’ rapidly becomes the norm.

The evidence suggests that this brings no significant improvement for employees. In reality, it tends to lead to resentment, stress and disengagement.

Data from Atlassian shows that meetings are a main cause of wasted time at work, along with email and interruptions. So bad is the situation that 91% of us daydream during meetings. And 39% of us sleep. Hardly a productive use of a person’s time in the office.

Some of us try to use the time in a more effective way. 73% of people report doing other work during the meeting.

In a TEDx presentation Software Engineer Jason Fried, co-founder of  37signals and other web-based collaboration tools told the audience “Meetings aren’t work. Meetings are places to go and talk about things you’re supposed to be doing later.”

“You can often predict which meetings will be unproductive from the moment you receive the invitation. There’s the “team update” where you spend two hours listening to a rundown of how everyone spent their week. Or the “planning meeting” where you hash out details that should have been handled elsewhere. Or the “brainstorming session” where extroverts shout out random ideas.”

Meetings cost the business much more than time. According to data, unnecessary meetings cost US businesses an estimated US$36 billion in salaries per year.

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The meeting hell lament

Ask many of us what we feel and we begin the “meeting hell lament”. There are too many meetings. They often lack clear focus. And we’re forced to attend even though our personal involvement is minimal.

But what we say publicly isn’t what we truly feel. The evidence shows that people complain about meetings a lot. But inside we feel less negative about meetings that we sound.

One study asked employees about their overall attitude towards meetings. A significant majority – 59% – responded positively. Only 15% gave meetings a negative score. 25% had no feeling either way.

The positive vibe was even stronger when people were asked about their most recent meeting. Almost 80% of people responded positively or very positive. Only 16% gave a negative reaction. 16% of people rated the meeting as neutral.

A blessing and a curse

The way we respond to meetings relates to our individual levels of “accomplishment striving”. People who have a strong need to accomplish work goals through periods of uninterrupted “deep work” tend to report a higher degree of dissatisfaction with meetings.

For many of us, frequent and pointless meetings reduce ‘desk time’. We are forced to make up for the loss of productivity by staying late at the office or catching up in our own time. Over time, this is a demotivating. We begin to feel resentment at the constant distraction from what is essential: getting our work done.

On the other hand, employees who are less goal-oriented tend to feel more positively. We can speculate that some people welcome the chance to get away from the desk, to do something different and, in some cases, take a break from routine.

In all cases, what affects our opinions most is the quality of the meetings we attend. Research shows that job satisfaction is tightly linked to how a person feels about the effectiveness of the meeting they attend.

Frequent poor quality meetings with no specific goals leave employees stress, dissatisfied with their job and more likely to leave.

Dysfunctional meetings are where participants go off on tangents, where they are unprepared or when the topics are not relevant to everyone. According to organisational psychologist Roger Schwarz, these factors are closely associated with lower levels of market share, innovation, and employment stability.

Given the financial and human impact of too many, badly run meetings we need to take a hard look at how we can improve the focus, structure and timing of meetings. We need to remove the madness and make meetings matter more.

How can we improve meetings in a few simple steps?

So what steps can we take to make our meetings as effective as possible? There’s a lot of advice out there. But here are five key features to keep in mind when you’re planning, running and participating meetings

1) Co-create your agenda

You want people to be engaged in meetings, right? The most effective way to achieve this is to include the whole team when you plan the agenda. This helps ensure the objectives reflect the needs of the team.

Before you meet, ask participants to share their agenda. You can also ask them to give a reason why it needs to be discussed in a group setting. If it doesn’t seem urgent or requiring everyone’s time and attention, you can exclude items. But as the organiser, you should be able to give reasons for your decision.

2) Make it relevant to everyone

This is simple. If an item doesn’t affect everyone, there is no reason to waste everyone’s time. It could be better for people to arrange to meet individually to discuss and decide.

During a meeting, the organiser’s role is to give keep discussion and decision making on track. A weekly team meeting, for example, may not be the right time to go into fine detail over issues that affect only one or two people. Having a clear agenda and stated outcomes is a good way to get meetings back on track and reduce people’s frustration at being away from their desk and meeting their deadlines.

The key word in this is ’empathy. All too often, we plan and run our meetings without giving significant thought to the impact on people’s schedules and responsibilities. To reduce the negative impact on your team, develop empathy by thinking more about how agenda items, and the time allocated for it in team meetings

3) Write your agenda as questions

Another simple way to increase efficiency and engagement is by writing agenda items as questions. Too often, our agendas consist of some vague bullet points or statements. It leaves people wondering what the purpose is and how they should engage. Is the item for sharing information or reaching a decision together?

Writing agenda points as questions is also an effective way to assess the outcome of the meeting. When the team has answered the question, the discussion is complete.

This approach leads to better time management and, research suggests, leads to higher levels of motivation and a more positive attitude towards the meeting.

4) Make the process and expectations clear

It’s not enough to set agenda items without also thinking about the process the team will go through to complete each item. We’ve all been in meetings where discussions lose focus and it becomes difficult to reach any conclusion. Experts tell us that agreeing on a process for completing each agenda item increases the effectiveness of your meetings

The first thing is to be clear about WHY a topic is on your agenda and sharing this with participants before the meeting. You should also share any documents and background information. This gives people a chance to prepare properly.

In your agenda, label each item to show if it’s about sharing information, getting input for making a decision or deciding something together. If you want people to participate effectively, they need to know what is expected.

You’ve probably been in meetings where some participants are trying to define the problem, some are wondering why the topic is on the agenda, and others are identifying and evaluating solutions to the problem. If the team doesn’t agree on processes before, people will participate based on their own expectations.

5) Set a realistic amount of time for each topic

How much time does your team need for each agenda item? But make sure you’re realistic. Most people underestimate the time needed to introduce, answer questions, discuss points of view and generate solutions to a problem.

If you set 15 minutes to discuss and resolve a problem, in reality, people only have a few minutes each to ask, discuss and decide. It may look reasonable on paper. But in the meeting, it’s probably going to stifle meaningful discussion or, perhaps worse, require another meeting to discuss in more detail.

A lot of factors affect timing. But the aim of time management isn’t to cut the conversation. It’s so you get better at allocating enough time for people to answer questions as efficiently as possible. Clearly stating a time limit also lets people adjust their comments to fit, or to suggest that they need more time.

From meeting madness to meeting magic

Meetings are an essential tool in a company’s productivity toolkit. They build connections, develop company culture and support sharing information and reaching decisions.

But too many meetings waste employees’ time. Time wasting has an impact on people’s productivity and their attitudes toward work.

No meeting is free and the financial cost of people’s time is extremely high.

Planning and managing meetings should involve everyone. Create your agenda and share it with any background materials. In your agenda, set clear goals, working processes and time limits.

These can help make the time more effective and efficient. But perhaps most importantly, don’t call a meeting for the sake of it. Develop empathy to understand how the number of meetings and them need to attend don’t lead to frustration or cause a negative impact on the team’s productivity,

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