At a glance
We’ve all spent a workday sitting through one meeting after another, whether virtual or face-to-face. A calendar clogged with unproductive, unnecessary meetings is the bane of corporate life. Now, we are adapting to the challenges of running remote meetings via video platforms such as Zoom.
Executives spend as much as 50 per cent of their day in meetings. Yet, a Harvard Business Review survey of senior managers found that 71 per cent consider meetings unproductive and inefficient, and 64 per cent said meetings compromise deep thinking. Another survey found that over 70 per cent of employees do other work in meetings. In the US, the estimated cost of avoidable and poorly run meetings is US$37 billion (about A$53 billion) a year.
If most of us agree that meetings make it harder for us to get work done, why do we have so many?
“It’s a combination of laziness and entitlement,” says Donna McGeorge, author of The 25-Minute Meeting. A meeting is the default method for communication in many workplaces, even when another mode would be more suitable.
When a leader needs information from five people in her team, the easy option is to pull them all into a meeting room or a video call for an hour – at a cost to the organisation of six hours, and lost productivity for all involved. A more efficient use of resources, McGeorge says, is to skip the meeting and have five separate conversations, whether online or face-to-face.
Meetings are a valuable tool when used in the right setting: to have a debate, problem-solve, bounce ideas off one another or make decisions, says Dr Amantha Imber, an innovation psychologist and founder of consultancy firm Inventium.
However, she says, “a meeting is not the best place to share information”.
A meeting is required when it’s the most effective way to achieve a clearly stated purpose. Everyone present should have a role to play and stand to benefit by attending. If it doesn’t satisfy these criteria, McGeorge says, consider writing a well-crafted email or picking up the phone to have a conversation instead.
1. Be prepared
A lack of planning is one of the most common causes of ineffective meetings, says McGeorge. Send an agenda and background reading before, so that when the meeting starts, no time is wasted in getting people up to speed.
A productive meeting requires a tight structure. “All meetings should have what we call a PAO – purpose, agenda and outcome – which is surprisingly simple, but so many meetings don’t, and as a result get derailed… and don’t deliver the outcomes they need to,” Imber says.
Most meetings should fall into three broad categories: those that inform, align (where decisions are made), or resolve a problem or a conflict.
2. Use breakout groups
Voices are often lost in large virtual meetings. One solution is to use breakout functions in platforms like Zoom to create smaller groups of two or three. Allocate these subgroups specific tasks to facilitate participation from all team members, not just the loudest or those with the best internet connection.
“As an added benefit, this technique can save time if a divide-and-conquer approach is used,” write Liana Kreamer and Steven G. Rogelberg in Harvard Business Review.
3. Evaluate how much time you need to achieve your stated objective
For McGeorge, the magic number is 25 minutes. “Put simply, 25 minutes is practical, easy and achievable.” Having a strict time limit creates the clarity and urgency necessary to complete the task at hand. It also suits the human brain’s tendency to operate best in short, sharp bursts of concentration. “Often, we are more productive and produce higher-quality work when we have less time,” she writes.
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4. Be strategic about when you schedule different types of meetings
“Daily stand-up meetings or work-in-progress meetings… are often scheduled for first thing in the morning, when a lot of people’s brainpower is at its peak,” Imber says.
“This is madness – you don’t want to be wasting people’s peak brainpower sharing updates.”
She suggests scheduling meetings that require “heavy-duty thinking” such as decision-making or problem-solving before lunch when, for most of us, our cognitive function is at its sharpest. Meetings where information and updates are shared are better suited to the afternoon, “particularly after lunch when people’s brains have a dip in energy”.
5. Be punctual, and demand others be on time, too
“So many meetings start five minutes or more late, and if you think about that in the context of a one-hour meeting, that’s 8 per cent wastage of time,” Imber says. “Where else do you get away with 8 per cent wastage in an organisation?
Meetings starting five minutes late cost organisations millions and millions of dollars in lost productivity.”
6. Put your phone away
Devices are a distraction, particularly in online meetings, where we can’t rely on eye contact and body language to keep everyone focused.
“If you’re in the meeting, you have to be present,” Imber says. “In so many meetings now...people get bored and check their emails. Then you’re wasting everyone’s time.”