Fixing the dreaded—but necessary—meeting


We all know them as the thing we hate the most about our jobs on a biweekly or bimonthly basis. Some consider it perhaps the dumbest thing a great number of smart people around the world still do everyday.

It’s remarkable how so many industries, full of supposedly industrious people, still fall back on the same structure of everyone sitting around a big table (or on a big Zoom call) and talking.

No matter what kind of work you do—from building solar panels to making a TV show to ad placements for dog food—you probably need a meeting with your team everyone once in a while.

Because even in the age of instant-reply emails, and a barrage of apps that claim to streamline the communication process, there is still, still no replacement for getting everyone in a room and making sure, through tedium and boredom and pulling teeth if it comes to it, that everyone is on the same page.

Maybe in advance of a big event, like a launch or a shoot or a concrete pour, or in postmortem after that big event happens to break down what went well and what didn’t. Sometimes, real golden insights and helpful progress emerge from those meetings—when we do them right.

And if we really have to do it, which it seems we do, we might as well try to do it right as often as possilbe. Let’s try to pool resources; understand what’s been going wrong—and occasionally right—with them for years. Let’s try to fix meetings.

We need meetings, but not like this


Some meetings are necessary. A company or a group couldn’t truly run at maximum capacity without a few meetings here and there. And meetings can play a crucial role in the workflow of specific industries, serving as valuable opens forums to tackle challenges, leverage diverse perspectives, and make critical decisions. They can be incredibly impactful when used effectively.

However, some meetings fall short of their potential. When they’re used merely to disseminate basic or introductory information, address questions that require minimal input from the rest of the team (read: a boring lecture), or end without any movement on next steps or clear action items, it’s easy for them to feel like a waste time of time at best and a worker-hostile diversion at worst.

Everyone has an opinion on how the process can be improved—probably because everyone has sat through a terrible meeting or ten. (Someone reading this probably has taped that poster proclaiming “this meeting could have been an email” to their break-room wall.) And it’s only gotten worse and more pronounced in the post-pandemic era.

Even as we’ve mostly gotten past their necessity, no one has been able to unring the bell of convenience that Zoom meetings provided us. Have you ever sat in an office where ten people sat at their desks and sat in the same Zoom meeting—all because the eleventh person wasn’t there that day? Happens every day.

And that’s all well and good, but it’s another trade we’ve lost—convenience at the cost of even more boredom.

We’d often like to imagine meetings as they appear sometimes in the movies—like in dramatic “smart people talking about important things” movies like Margin Call: a charisimatic, capable leader holding court, calling upon the voices of his various talented employees

But we know what the reality is,  and that’s more often something much more mundane.

The guy that takes the baton to present something is boring. Or he fumbles his words. Or he takes longer than the average person to make it through the whole, “alright I’m gonna share my screen…can everyone see my screen?” routine. A couple people accidentally talk over each other, and then talk over each other again as they try to exchange “oh no you go ahead” pleasantries. That one guy who always conferences in while walking down the street with his AirPods in and vertical video on forgets to mute his microphone so everyone is stuck hearing construction noise. It goes on and on.

And, yes, it really could have been covered in a few paragraphs in an email.

But the real problem is this: beyond being unproductive, such meetings drain focus, hinder productivity, and dampen motivation. Time spent in unproductive meetings detracts from the time available for focused, creative, and innovative endeavors.

What good meetings do well


Let’s take a look at the dynamics of effective meetings. There are strategies employed by high-performing teams to structure and conduct meetings.

Research on meetings has found the significant impact that meeting scheduling has on concentration and efficiency. But addressing the challenge of optimizing meetings requires direct effort.

Establishing a culture of productive meetings revolves around three key challenges:

  1. Limiting the overall number of meetings. Recently there seems to have been an uptick in meetings that branch into groups of two and three—an intro one, a meat-and-potatoes practical one, maybe even a confirmation one to be safe. That is unnecessary.
  2. Scheduling meetings smartly. The worst thing a meeting can be, after deathly boring, is truly disruptive. Lodging it right in the middle of your day, right when you usually hit your stride—it’s just not prudent. It’s not good business to derail everyone’s productivity to sit and talk for an hour.
  3. Enhancing the effectiveness of meetings. This, obviously, is the white whale. The difficult one. And it starts with being more discerning with what necessitates a meeting in the first place.

What the people prefer


To gain insights into how teams address these challenges, we analyzed data from individuals who feel they have a strong grasp on managing their time. Here’s what they shared:

Prioritize focused work time by reducing the frequency of meetings on your calendar.

Productive teams and leaders prioritize concentrated work time over constant availability. Studies have revealed that 61% of teams schedule meetings only during specific times of the day, often opting for mornings or afternoons and reserving the remainder of the day for undisturbed work.

However, the most productive teams don’t just allocate time for meetings; they also carve out dedicated periods for focused work. More than 50% of individuals proactively block out segments in their schedules for deep work. Here are some popular methods they employ, listed in order of preference:

  1. Time blocking – Dedicating sections of time to specific tasks to ensure strong focus.
  2. Pomodoros – Keep sessions brief and productive and allow for breaks in between
  3. Eat the Frog technique – do the hard things first so everything else is easier.

By limiting meeting time and prioritizing focused work sessions, these teams optimize their schedules, leading to fewer meetings and increased productivity.

Stick to a schedule

If you have the authority to reshape your team’s approach to meetings, implementing a structured schedule can be immensely beneficial. Instead of allowing meetings to be scheduled at any time, establish the expectation that certain times or days are reserved for focused work.

The optimal meeting schedule varies depending on your team’s dynamics. However, research has revealed some common preferences regarding meeting timing:

  • Preferences for the best time of day for meetings vary:
    • Over 60% of individuals prefer meetings either early in the morning or late morning.
  • Preferences for the worst time of day are more distinct:
    • Approximately 37% of respondents dislike early morning meetings, while another 27% find late afternoon meetings unfavorable.
  • Consensus on the best days for meetings:
    • The majority of people prefer scheduling meetings on Mondays or Tuesdays, with over 56% indicating that Fridays are unsuitable for meetings.

Implementing a structured meeting schedule can significantly contribute to team satisfaction and productivity. For instance, sticking to a schedule of late mornings or early afternoons exclusively on Mondays and Tuesdays can foster a conducive work environment.

This approach is particularly beneficial for remote teams operating across various time zones. By accommodating everyone’s preferences regarding meeting times, you ensure that remote colleagues can balance their schedules effectively and avoid disruptions during crucial personal time.

Keep it brief


While timing plays a crucial role in enhancing your meeting culture, there are additional factors to consider for running more effective meetings.

Research indicates that high-performing teams place a premium on purposeful, focused, and well-prepared meetings. Here are the top three strategies these teams employ to run more effective meetings:

  1. Share an agenda in advance: Effective meetings are guided by a clear purpose and actionable plan. Providing an agenda beforehand allows team members to prepare accordingly and decide on their level of involvement.
  2. Maintain focus on the main topic: Derailing from the agenda can hinder productivity and derail discussions. It’s essential to proactively steer the conversation back on track whenever distractions arise.
  3. Ensure preparedness: Preparation is key to a successful meeting. While having a capable leader to facilitate discussions is important, having well-prepared attendees who can contribute meaningfully is equally crucial. Moreover, adequate preparation allows for shorter meeting durations, which is another hallmark of effective meetings.

It doesn’t have to be hard


Running effective meetings doesn’t have to be daunting. By prioritizing preparation, maintaining focus, and equipping your team with the necessary resources beforehand, you can significantly enhance the quality of your meetings.

While meetings are an enduring aspect of organizational dynamics, they can indeed be improved with minor adjustments. Whether you’re a solo entrepreneur seeking to optimize your daily schedule or a manager navigating a large team, mastering the art of effective meetings is essential.

However, achieving this goes beyond the confines of the meeting itself. As research suggests, it requires a holistic approach that encompasses evaluating and reshaping your existing meeting culture, devising strategies to enhance focus, and ensuring that every meeting serves a clear purpose, with designated leadership and defined outcomes. (And maybe a few more emails.)

Robin Copple

Robin Copple is a writer and editor from Los Angeles, California.

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