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Not Another Meeting! Ten Tips to Make Work Gatherings Worthwhile

Despite the almost universal distaste for multiple work meetings, they consume large chunks of most employees’ schedules. And beyond being unpopular, unproductive meetings cost organizations money. According to Business Insider, approximately 11 million meetings are held daily in the U.S., and a third of them are ineffective. Meanwhile, other work priorities languish. They estimate that unproductive meetings cost $37 billion a year.

Despite the gloomy statistics, not all meetings are a drain. They can also be sessions to energize, inform, and unify teams. Connecting face-to-face, whether in person or virtually, offers benefits people don’t receive in tech chats or emails. For example, effective meetings can generate innovative new ideas, strengthen work relationships, and boost morale.

The trick is making meetings valuable instead of bad company habits that sap staff members’ time and cognitive capacity.

Tips to Make Meetings Pay Off

The dos and don’ts of work meetings to maximize their effectiveness.

1. DO Establish Ground Rules
Many meetings fall flat because participants are on different wavelengths. Beyond circulating an agenda before gathering, leaders should establish mutual expectations about contributions and outcomes.

University of Nevada organizational development specialist Marlene K. Rebori told Business Insider that meeting leaders should articulate ground rules to help facilitate productive discussions.

Her examples include:

    • Separate people from the problem to eliminate time-consuming and morale-depleting blame games.
    • Respect different viewpoints. Participants should know going in that everyone’s opinion is valid to encourage participation.
    • Once leaders lay out ground rules, everyone shares responsibility for following them.

Meetings are far more productive when participants get clear on expectations in advance.

2. DO Listen to Experts vs. the Loudest Voice
Too often, meetings are subverted by people who talk over others but don’t have much to contribute. These strong personalities seldom have the sharpest insight, but they dominate the conversation and waste people’s time. University of Utah Associate Professor Bryan Bonner points out in the Wall Street Journal:

“We rely on these messy proxies for expertise instead of actually listening to the content of what they’re saying. Just because they’re loud doesn't mean they’re right.”

Meeting leaders should identify those who may have the most informed contributions and give them the floor. Mandating respectful listening and making meetings safe for people to speak up pays off in several ways. It saves time and increases engagement. And according to a University of Utah study, teams that take the time to discern valuable input are more efficient in solving problems.

3. DO Stay on Task

Often meeting planners set a timeframe for gatherings and then feel compelled to fill the time block. They’ll stretch topics longer than they need to be discussed or allow unplanned subjects to take over once agenda items are complete. But belaboring a discussion or straying from the agenda frustrates most attendees and eats into everyone’s workday.

Meeting leaders should target what they want to accomplish with each agenda item and move things forward when the objective is met. Conversations about unrelated topics should be tabled until formally on the agenda at a later date. The leader should close the meeting early if attendees successfully cover every planned topic short of the scheduled end time.

4. DO Mandate Punctuality and Efficiency

The Wall Street Journal reports that approximately 37 percent of meetings start late by an average of nearly fifteen minutes. Tardy attendees are a primary factor, but meeting leaders often fail to have everything in place for the meeting to run efficiently.

Leaders often encourage socializing while they wait for stragglers to arrive after meetings are scheduled to begin. But then they often make up for lost time by letting the meeting go long, which has a ripple effect on everyone’s schedule and stress level. Instead meeting leaders should encourage people to arrive early to socialize and begin and end sessions on time. Latecomers will learn they are missing out instead of being missed.

Poor planning is another reason meetings drag on. Leaders should require the distribution of needed materials (reports, projections, etc.) ahead of time and trial runs on technical presentations to prevent glitch delays. Meetings that don’t run smoothly are frustrating and perceived as unprofessional and a waste of time.

5. DON’T Invite People Who Don’t Need to Attend

“Why am I here?” Almost everyone has had this thought in meetings that seem irrelevant to their roles. And yet, managers often mandate meetings for entire teams or departments to be inclusive or demonstrate authority. Consequently, people often tune out at all-hands meetings, and the dead weight can drag the whole session down.

The simple solution is to require attendance from people who should participate and let others know it isn’t mandatory. Leaders can subsequently distribute meeting minutes to those who didn’t take part but may benefit from the information.

But this tactic isn’t effective in a work culture that rewards non-essential personnel for showing up anyway. In such environments, people who aren’t key players attend to get recognition, and those who choose to work instead are seen as non-team players. To counter this trend, leaders should stress that people spend their time where it counts the most.

6. DO Develop and Share a Strong Agenda

Written agendas are critical to meetings’ success, but leaders must be thoughtful about using this tool. To be most effective, they should follow two practices:

  1. Send the agenda out in advance
  2. Develop relevant, timely agenda items

Attendees should have the opportunity to review the agenda before the meeting so they can consider how to contribute and formulate questions. If the first time they see the agenda is at the beginning of a meeting, they spend time processing the information instead of acting on it.

Meeting leaders often prolong meetings by creating a “laundry list” of too many topics that overlap or are unnecessary. Instead, they should reflect on the goal of each agenda item and only add it if it will be productive. And routinely adding old business that doesn’t need rehashing is a habit to break.

7. DO Identify Clear Goals

Leaders should ensure that participants can connect the dots between the content of the meeting and their responsibilities. Even if the meeting topics impact the whole organization, people often tune out because they fail to see how the subject matter relates to them.

Leaders should engage attendees at the outset of each meeting by explaining how it will contribute to and support their work and team goals. When participants understand that the content will enhance their performance, they’ll be more focused and participate at a higher level.

8. DON’T Condone Multitasking

We’ve all attended virtual meetings where everyone seems focused on something else. That’s because it’s tempting to dash off emails or texts when the discussion doesn’t seem particularly relevant. People have even mastered this kind of covert activity in on-site meetings.

But multitasking is bad for the meeting and those who engage in it. People who intermittently pay attention to a meeting’s content unintentionally disrespect those who remain engaged. And often, their distraction makes others repeat what they’ve said. There’s also a domino effect; if one person effectively multitasks, others follow suit, and the meeting is derailed.

Leaders should require meeting attendees to remain “present” and not divide their time between listening and multitasking. This may require a rule outlawing or silencing unnecessary devices or, at minimum, an explanation when one is in use.

9. DO Be Flexible

Sometimes scheduled meetings aren’t necessary. Leaders should seriously consider the need for each gathering and be forward-thinking and flexible enough to consider canceling or rescheduling it for a more appropriate time. Don’t meet just because it’s on the calendar. Employees will welcome this honest approach and valuation of their time.

Meeting leaders should also set meeting times that align with attendees’ schedules. For example, if a standing meeting interferes with a deadline, they should change the date or cancel it. And they should coordinate with participants to schedule meetings when they will be the most effective and least disruptive.

10. DO Provide Documentation and Action Items

Meetings are boiler rooms where ideas spark action. The key to most meetings’ success is what happens afterward. Leaders can ensure that meetings take root in two important ways:

  • Designating someone to take meeting minutes or recording the meeting
  • Assigning follow-up tasks

Meeting minutes provide an official record of the proceedings to help people remember decisions, plans, and discussions. Without them, people will remember things differently and won’t be in alignment with next steps. Alternatively, leaders can record meetings on video. There are even AI extensions, such as Fireflies, that automatically take meeting notes.

When leaders assign and circulate action items after each meeting, they give attendees direction about moving things forward. Each action item should be clearly defined with a description and a deadline.

Good Meetings Are Grounded in Good Culture

As with all operational areas, productive meetings are rooted in a healthy organizational culture. Leaders will be much more successful following the above recommendations if they’ve already developed a culture that nourishes collaborative behaviors.

Each tip requires meeting attendees to be open to engaging in conduct found in high-performing workplace cultures. Without that framework, meetings will continue to be negative instead of positive events.

Schedule a call with a CultureWise specialist to learn more about creating a flourishing work culture and making the most of your staff’s time and energy.