Weekly Reads: 5 proven strategies to get more out of your meetings

In a former workplace, every first Wednesday of the month was known as “death by meeting” day.

A conference room would be booked out for an entire afternoon as we’d sit around a long table, taking turns to reel off what each of us had completed over the past month. It was effectively a task update meeting, but with every single team member, and lasting 4 hours…

There was no in-depth discussion. No strategizing. Just a lot of day-dreaming and clock-glancing, wishing for it to end. Updates that could’ve been reviewed in an instant via a shared online tool instead took 4 hours of company time.

Sadly, this experience isn’t that rare.

Did you know the average US worker spends more working hours in meetings than they do on email?

Yet while we moan about email, most people assume meetings are just “part of the job.” However, the British Psychological Society claims that unproductive meetings account for a whopping $37 billion in losses for US companies every single year.

If you’re looking to reclaim this time (and these company resources), you’ll need strategies in place to train your busy meeting schedule, so that:

  1. You only attend necessary meetings, between people with decision-making authority
  2. The meetings you do attend and facilitate are an efficient use of time, every time.

If this sounds like a dream, here are a few simple tips to help you plan and attend more productive meetings.

Olivia Jardine is the Communications Manager at MeisterTask—a powerful task and project management tool for teams. 

First step: Agree to fewer meetings

I’m sure you’ve been in plenty of meetings that felt like a waste of time. Consultant Michael Mankins claims we can usually chalk up to an unhealthy habit of many managers.

Yet it’s not like you’re able to turn these invitations down. Instead, you’re stuck with a calendar clogged full of meetings that you shouldn’t have to attend.

Fortunately, there are a few approaches team members can take to tackling this.

First, you can follow RescueTime CEO Robby Macdonell’s advice and use a tool that uses meeting attendee’s hourly rates to show the true cost of big meetings. While not every meeting has the sole purpose of generating a good ROI (like a company all-hands meeting, for example) sometimes just seeing how much that weekly team meeting costs in hourly wages could make you think twice about holding it.

If you’re still being invited to too many meetings, there are also a few ways to politely agree to attend fewer meetings.

If you don’t feel the topic warrants a meeting: 

“I’m happy to answer your question about [topic]. Actually, it might be quicker and more convenient to tell you in an email—mind giving me [more context, background on X, your actual question] so I can shoot you a reply ASAP?”

If you’re not the right person to attend and you’d rather delegate:

“Excited to see a meeting on the calendar for [purpose]. Looking at the [agenda, focus], I’m probably not the ideal representative for [your role or team]. [Coworker] would likely have more insights to contribute. Would you be open to having [coworker] come in my stead?”

Or if you’d like to only attend for part of the meeting:

“Thanks for the opportunity to [share my progress on X, learn about Y, discuss Z]. I’ve got a lot on my plate at the moment, so I’m going to sit near the door and slip out after the meeting has moved on.”

Not all meetings can (or should) be wriggled out from. However, all meetings should be an effective use of time. So, if you feel the proposed meeting is in fact useful, here are a handful of strategies to ensure you get the most of them.

5 strategies to get more out of your meetings

1. Prepare attendees by sharing questions, not topics

Meetings should be reserved for discussions that are harder to hold online. As a result, everyone should be briefed in advance so they’re ready to give feedback, ask questions, and decide a way forward.

The easiest way to make this happen is to require meeting organizers to provide a clear meeting agenda beforehand. But this agenda shouldn’t just be a topic statement. As organizational psychologist Roger Schwarz explains, to fully prepare attendees, you should give them questions. Not topics.

For example, let’s say you want to brainstorm about how to reduce customer service hold times. Instead of writing, “customer hold times” on your meeting agenda, ask “How do we shorten our customer service hold times and improve our customer experience?”

By framing the meeting as a question, you make it clear what solution you’re looking for. This also helps your meeting to be more inclusive, as team members who are less confident, can prepare their key points in advance.

2. Engage attendees by keeping your meetings to under five people

Crowded meetings won’t only mean crowded calendars. They’ve also been found to lower the productivity of meeting attendees present.

Francesca Gino, Harvard Professor and author of Sidetracked: Why Our Decisions Gets Derailed, and How We Can Stick to the Plan, claims that having too many people in a meeting can result in “social loafing”:

“When many hands are available, people work less than they ought to. Social psychology research has shown that when people perform group tasks (such as discussing information in a meeting), they show a sizeable decrease in individual effort than when they perform alone.”

To keep attendees engaged, limit meetings to around five people and ensure everyone is contributing productively.

3. Multitasking is a myth: Ban phones and other devices

Despite what many of us want to believe, it’s been found over and over that multitasking is a myth.

Citing research from the American Psychological Association Gino explains:

“We can do simple tasks like walking and talking at the same time, but the brain can’t handle multitasking. In fact, studies show that a person who is attempting to multitask takes 50% longer to accomplish a task and he or she makes up to 50% more mistakes.”

Meetings are notorious playgrounds for multitasking, with attendees checking emails, sending messages, and trying to squeeze in other work. All while being expected to be productive and engaged in the discussion at hand.

To ensure your meeting remains focused and run on time, ban phones, emails and Slack messages. This means for you as well. As authors at the Harvard Business Review share, if you multitask during a meeting, your team will too.

4. Forget standardized meeting lengths (they’re probably too long)

If a meeting doesn’t need 30 minutes, why schedule it for that long?

Explaining how she manages her time, Facebook’s VP of Product, Fidji Simo, shares that she keeps all one-to-one meetings to a maximum of 15 minutes.

Instead of the standard 30+ minute meeting (that can quickly take over your calendar), Simo’s time limitations mean more gets done in a day. And team members know to come to the meeting prepared to discuss the topic.

There’s a science behind this approach too. One study from the Academy of Management Journal found a direct correlation between time constraints and an ability to find solutions:

“Groups solving problems communicated at a faster rate and used more autocratic decision-making processes under high time pressure than they did when time pressure was low.”

The responsibility of keeping meetings on-time lies with the meeting facilitator.

If you feel someone is rambling in your meeting, try saying “that’s a good point [name] and I’m glad you brought it up. Let’s talk about that further outside of the meeting”. If the person does have more to say, they can approach you later to reopen the discussion.

5. Use collaborative tools that keep everyone updated

Too many meetings are set for updating and tracking progress. Yet there are lots of online collaboration tools that teams can use to do this automatically, without needing to meet in person.

At MeisterLabs, we use Slack to make quick internal decisions that don’t require extensive discussions. Often we’ll get a voting system going with emojis, meaning a decision can be made in seconds.

For keeping everyone updated on project, sprint, and task progress, we use our own tools.

We begin by brainstorming, adding ideas and developing plans in the integrated online mind mapping tool, MindMeister. Next, we turn these plans into actionable, assigned tasks in MeisterTask, eliminating the need for update meetings.

Meetings are an essential part of effective teamwork. But that doesn’t mean that there isn’t a better alternative.

Before agreeing to attend a meeting, ask if you could relay information in a more productive way. If not, then keep your meetings limited in length, attendees, and focus. With a few strategies in place, you can make sure your meetings are a good use of time, every time.

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