As businesses adjust to the post-pandemic working world, many leaders are re-evaluating the need for meetings. Here’s how to make the most of them
With the rise of remote working during the pandemic, those chance conversations by the water cooler came to a halt. At the same time, the number of scheduled meetings increased exponentially, often through video conferencing services like Zoom.
But as many businesses return to the office, some leaders are questioning the value of so many meetings and seeking ways to make them more effective – or even do away with them altogether. Here’s how you can ensure your meetings don’t harm productivity or add to employee frustrations.
1. Question whether they’re needed
To start, ask whether a meeting is essential or if the same result could be achieved in a different way. “It’s easy for businesses to get into the routine of undertaking regular processes and this is very much the case when it comes to meetings,” says Caroline Walsh, a marketing and management consultant and director of Solent Business School at Solent University, Southampton.
“Often, businesses continue with recurring meetings because they’re scheduled rather than because they’re worthwhile. Questions to ask yourself when you’re deciding whether or not a meeting is necessary include: What are you trying to achieve from the meeting? What are the actions following the meeting? Is there anything you need to prepare before the meeting?”
In the current climate, there’s a particular risk that what could be quick chats turn into formal meetings, warns Jennifer Dorman, sociolinguist at the language learning app Babbel.
“As we experience less ‘hey, I have a quick question’ interruptions, we are forced to ‘schedule’ our discussions with colleagues via video,” she says. “This often leads to ‘maximising our time syndrome’, characterised by the expectation that meetings must have an agenda, yielding decision and action items. People tend to build out a more expansive agenda, resulting in a greater burden of both participation and follow-up expectations for meetings.”
Phil Perry, head of UK & Ireland at Zoom, says employees should go through the diary a day or a week beforehand to identify what could be cancelled, whether two conversations could be combined, or if a meeting could take place over a coffee or on a walk. “This also helps to ensure that when meetings do take place, they are productive, efficient and employees feel engaged,” he says. Zoom imposes meeting-free Wednesdays, Perry notes, to help avoid meeting fatigue.
2. Make sure attendees need to be there
Ensuring the right people are in the meeting sounds obvious, but it’s often the case that too many people attend meetings who don’t need to be there, adding to everyone’s meeting burden.
“The right people means those who are able to make decisions about the subject and anyone else needed to help make the decision better,” says Martin Wilson, director and cofounder at software business Bright. “We have a clear team hierarchy and role definitions, so everyone knows which team and role has the authority to make a certain decision. People from other teams don’t need to be involved.”
The important step here is to think in advance about who will be invaluable to the discussion, rather than sending out a blanket email invite, says Oona Collins, founder of leadership consultancy Potential Plus International. You want to ensure a mix of voices and opinions, she says, but having too many people with the same perspective can be counterproductive and waste time.
“Often the least obvious people could be the right people to have in a meeting – for example, rather than having four people from the same department you could bring in someone from a different discipline who will contribute fresh ideas and look at a problem from a different angle.”
3. Create firm ground rules
It’s important to know what you want any meeting to achieve: that means being laser-focused on the outcome and meeting process. “It’s vital to have a meeting agenda – even for shorter meetings – and to prioritise the most important items to prevent the trivial points from taking over,” says Sir Cary Cooper, professor of organisational psychology at Alliance Manchester Business School. “Every agenda item should have a time limit too. Make sure each person reads the agenda before the meeting to avoid recapping at the outset as this can waste valuable time.”
It’s important to ensure meetings are held at times that work for attendees, particularly if people are joining from different time zones. Sarah-Jane McQueen, general manager at CoursesOnline, is the firm’s only executive member based in the UK, with most working from the company’s headquarters at Melbourne. “Finding a time to discuss things that works for everyone is tricky given the 10-hour time difference,” she says. “Quite often one half of those participating on the call are getting up in the morning or are shortly going to bed, which is hardly conducive to effective decision-making.”
To overcome this, the company introduced the concept of “blackout hours”, when people can’t be contacted unless in an emergency. “Like many others on the team with young children, I’ve got the school run and the kids’ bedtimes listed as blackout slots,” she says. “Since we introduced this approach around the turn of the year, there’s been a notably more relaxed vibe in our meetings as we aren’t thinking we have to get away by a certain time.”
4. Keep them short
A time limit on meetings can ensure people focus on the topic rather than getting distracted. Irene van der Werf, people and culture manager at Omnipresent, suggests a limit of no more than 25 minutes. “A shorter meeting keeps initial water-cooler chats to a minimum and lets everyone concentrate on the task at hand,” she says. “It also helps keep people from multitasking during meetings because we are all guilty of writing an email or two while ‘listening’ to what is going on.”
This is even more important if people need to attend back-to-back virtual meetings. Ben Clarke, a member of the Hemsley Fraser executive team, says the learning solutions firm has introduced the “45-minute hour”: a strict 45-minute time limit on all virtual meetings, which are still booked in diaries for an hour.
“By booking out an hour of time but saving 15 minutes for participants to do whatever they like, we inject a new level of energy to the call and allow a reset for the next meeting,” he says. “It’s much more reminiscent of the office day we’re used to and protects employees from becoming overwhelmed or burnt out.”
5. Scrap meetings altogether
The nuclear option, of course, is to ban meetings altogether. This is advocated by Barnaby Lashbrooke, founder and CEO of virtual assistant platform Time Etc.
“Most meetings are a complete waste of time,” he says, with minutes lost waiting for people to show up or troubleshoot their audio problems, then the small talk and preamble before getting down to the matter at hand. That’s followed by “pressure to contribute something, anything, just to make the meeting feel worthwhile”, Lashbrooke says.
“Meetings are largely unproductive, yield little value and disrupt the flow of the working day; that’s why we’ve pretty much got rid of them altogether,” he adds. “Of course, some meetings are unavoidable – to discuss sensitive HR matters or to make sense of complex legal or financial matters. For everything else, an email will generally suffice.”