Hate Meetings? That’s Because You’re Doing Them Wrong

At least 30 percent of the time spent in meetings is wasted, according to 2,000 managers surveyed by Industry Week. A similar survey of executives by 3M Meeting Network put that number at up to 50 percent. Meetings have become the bane of companies across the country. They’re widely recognized as time sucks, and everyone acknowledges that meetings are usually inefficient.

Meetings aren’t inherently problematic. They’ve gotten a bad reputation because most people don’t think about why they’re meeting and what value they hope to gain. Managers often hold meetings just to get people together, rather than to make decisions. But there are better ways for productive, innovative companies to operate.

If togetherness is the goal, create informal, fluid opportunities for people to connect. Meetings tend to be formal and should be held only when you need to make key decisions or consolidate critical thought processes.

Any time you feel the urge to hold a meeting to connect with your team, go talk to them in their workspaces instead. Work alongside them, or take your team to lunch. Don’t force them to sit through a meeting when you could achieve your objective in more effective — and fun — ways.

When you truly do need to call a meeting, use these guidelines to ensure the gathering is productive and worthwhile:

  1. Don’t let your employees go into a meeting blind. A meeting should not be the first time you introduce a concept or reveal data that’s vital to the decision being made. It’s difficult to share new information at the start of a meeting and expect people to process it and come to a joint conclusion within the allotted 30 or 60 minutes.

Brief everyone on the relevant information before you meet (whether that’s in smaller group forums or via email) so you can collect your thoughts before sitting down to the discussion. Then, keep the meeting focused on decision points.

My company uses WeVue, a cloud-based platform that allows us to capture cultural information. The data we collect there tells us which topics require formal consultation. No one feels unprepared when we meet because we’ve provided access to all of the necessary information ahead of time.

  1. Involve only the most relevant players. Know the circle of influence you’re addressing and who can offer valuable input in that area. When you bring in people who don’t need to be at the meeting, you risk being sidelined by irrelevant commentary about issues you cannot control. Letting the participant list become too broad does everyone a disservice. Once you’ve gathered your key actors, appoint an unbiased facilitator who will keep everyone on task.
  1. Make the best use of your (and your staff’s) time. Identify which agenda items are top priorities. What are the decision points that must be covered in order to make progress? Establishing goals in advance ensures you make the best use of everyone’s time.
  1. Let the meeting take its natural course. Today’s business environment has us thinking all decisions must be made in 30-minute increments. If the conversation moves slower than anticipated, empower the facilitator to table the discussion. If a meeting ends sooner than expected, all the better.
  1. Model the behavior you want to inspire. Be consistent in your criteria for holding meetings, stick to the agenda, and come prepared. Meetings should be powerful: Get to the point, and then get back to work.

Productive meetings spring from productive cultures. If you encourage collaboration and open discussion, you’ll need fewer formal meetings because conversations are happening all the time. When you do call a meeting, you can draw on those dialogues and shared data to make smart, informed decisions.

photo credit: Mistakes via photopin (license)

4 Ways To Cure Meeting Nausea

In terms of talent management, the term “meeting” may be the antidote to all the things we’re trying to improve. I’m talking about engagement, retention, productivity, ownership, collaboration. Is there even one of us who hasn’t been reduced to a state of what a waste of my time in at least one meeting in the past month? An MIT study on meetings found that we hold some 11 million meetings during one typical workday in the U.S. alone. And the next time you’re doing that surreptitious under-the-desk Googling on your smartphone, search for the annual “time wasted at work” survey. In 2014, 24% of respondents said that they felt like they wasted time in too many meetings and conference calls. And we’re all sick of it.

From a talent perspective, the problem is that meetings are doubly terrible when they’re bad. Not only are they a waste of the company’s time, they’re a waste of the employee’s time, and they have a pernicious way of up-ending our sense of shared mission into a sense of shared suffering. Witness the ritual great escape: we’re all sitting there, silently acknowledging our tacit acceptance of the utter lack of productiveness of the hour (or three) when, finally, the facilitator says, Great, so I think we’re done here. Suddenly, everyone in the room lights up. Ergo, stampede.

We have more tools and toys at our fingertips than ever to fix this, but how do we choose a meeting format for this new era that drives engagement and supports mission and transparency? Take a look at these tips:

Make it agile. Whatever platform you’re shopping for, make sure it enables flexibility. If using a mobile or shared network, the design should be informal and friendly in terms of tone, but not saccharine. It should allow for straying from the agenda when necessary — for creative brainstorming, or quick fact-finding or pulse-taking, but still have a way to re-anchor back into the schedule and punchlist. There is nothing more antithetical to spontaneous creativity than the phrase, “we’ll get back to that.”

Make the friendlies count. We’re become a bit brusque in this day and age: we’re used to rushing into conference rooms or chat rooms, hopping from bullet point to bullet point, dispensing with niceties. Particularly in the culture of the new workplace, where we’re working in text-time with lightning fast responses, there’s little time for small talk. But that’s a facet that alienates, not engages: you’re just waiting for your turn to offer your piece, and then when it’s over, you tune back out. Let’s borrow some etiquette from China, where they spend time making small talk deliberately, shifting into business gradually, and only when everyone has gotten the chance to smile and say something trivial.

Prevent collaborative dissonance. The key here: the bigger the symphony, the longer the coda. Make sure there is a substantial wrap-up component in the meeting that reinforces everything that’s been discussed and all strategies and directions. It’s too easy to walk away from a meeting, virtual or not, in which we don’t have a clear sense of tasking and purview. Also, everyone who contributed should be acknowledged so everyone feels ownership. That’s key to maintaining the spirit of collaborative engagement created in the meeting — and channeling it into productive, innovative follow-through.

Make the space safe. Physical space or virtual space, the same conditions apply. This one has enormous ramifications as well: if attendees are sitting on their hands rather than bringing up an issue, it’s not really a meeting. This is a matter of psychology, not technology, but it’s critical — or can be. It also speaks to transparency and the expectations that millennials and the coming younger generations have of their employer. And let’s face it: nothing says, “faking it” more than shutting down dissent or tricky questions in a meeting.

Meetings are certainly the canary in the coalmine: in an authentically transparent company, they reflect everything about that company, including its message and mission. So let’s make them count and we’ll all feel much better.

A version of this post was first published on Forbes on 10/30/15.