Meetings are the uncomfortable fact of corporate life that we all love to hate. They are so often maligned because they are perceived to be a waste of time—nothing seems to get accomplished, they run too long, the right people are not present, there is no clear agenda, and most importantly, meetings interrupt the normal flow of work for everyone involved. It does not have to be like this. If executed with efficiency and respect for everyone’s time, meetings can actually be the productive problem-solving gatherings they are supposed to be. This can only work, however, if you help foster a strong organizational culture to ensure that meetings do what they intend with as little collateral damage as possible.
If I am ever put in charge of a benevolent—or not so benevolent—dictatorship, or happen to be promoted into a position, a la the Peter Principle, that can really let my incompetence shine, then there would be a few simple rules I would impose regarding meetings to make them run as efficiently as possible.
A typology of meetings
Before we can devise rules for effective meetings, we first need to understand what types of meetings exist. This typology of meetings will help us understand the various motivations and goals of different types of meetings. Here is a basic list that can help guide us.
The brainstorming session.
The team check-in.
The gripe session.
The project planning session.
The post mortem.
The fact-finding mission.
The training session.
The client call.
How to Instill an Efficient Meeting Culture in Your Org
Most organizations today have precious little work space and even more limited space dedicated to meetings. If your work location has any more than a score of employees on site, then hopefully you have at least one meeting room that can be reserved using a standard agreed-upon calendaring system. A good meeting room will have all of the following attributes:
A door that can be closed while meetings are in progress.
A large conference table.
Enough comfortable chairs to accomodate the meeting size you have planned.
A supply of multi-colored dry erase markers that actually work and erasers that haven’t been stolen by the next meeting room.
That last requirement is probably the most important, for reasons I will explain below. The meeting organizer should always be watching the clock, and mentally comparing the progress of the meeting to the amount of designated time remaining.
Designing a Meeting
Before calling a meeting, first decide which type of meeting yours belongs to. If it doesn’t seem to fit any of the above, then perhaps you do not really need a meeting at all. Could your goals be accomplished using simpler, less obtrusive, less disruptive methods such as an email or—gasp!—actually going around and talking with people in person? The next question you need to ask yourself is how many levels of hierarchy do the necessary invitees represent? The craze these days is to have a “flat” corporate hierarchy, but the reality is that different levels of management do exist and people behave differently in meetings that involve multiple levels of management. If you want things to go smoothly, and minimize the political machinations that result from having higher-ups present, then be aware of hierarchy level that is required to accomplish your meeting’s goals.
Scheduling a Meeting
Once you’ve decided that a meeting is truly necessary, and you’ve identified the people who should be involved, the next task is to actually schedule the meeting. Unfortunately, most people don’t give much thought to this step, but it can be the most important determinant of whether your meeting will be a success or an abject failure for which everyone will resent you—and be reluctant to accept your meeting invitations in the future.
Here are the rules that should be followed when scheduling a meeting:
Check everyone’s calendars and choose a time when everyone is free. This seems like a no-brainer, but I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been invited to meetings when my calendar clearly has me marked as busy. Your organizational culture must involve a publicly available calendaring system for this very reason. It should also be an accepted part of the culture that everyone be expected to manage their own calendars. If your calendar is open at a certain time, and I invite you to a meeting, don’t complain later that you actually had some other plan for that time. Put it on your calendar so that people know when you’re free and when you’re not.
Ensure that the room you book is of appropriate size. Try not to monopolize large meeting spaces when only two or three people will be invited. Likewise, don’t try to jam a dozen people in a space meant for five—otherwise, fifteen minutes into the meeting people will be passing out due to lack of oxygen.
Meetings should be scheduled no earlier than 10am and no later than 4pm. Just because you get to work every day at 7am, don’t expect everyone else to be available at early hours. Most people need some time to get moving in the morning, get caught up on emails, plan their day, and actually prepare for the meeting. In my experience, early meetings tend to get cancelled more often due to things like unforeseen transit delays, kids not getting off to school on time, a long line at Starbucks, and so on. You want people to be fully prepared for and engaged during a meeting, so be respectful of the diversity of work/life schedules. The same goes for late meetings. By late afternoon, many people are already closing up shop, and should be afforded the time to do so without having to sit through a meeting worrying about the queue at the bus stop. Furthermore, most people’s mental energy will be well spent by this time, and the thought of dinner will gradually come to block out all other topics of attention.
People should feel free to decline meeting invitations. Don’t expect everyone to agree with your assessment that they are “Required” for a particular meeting. Everyone should feel empowered enough to decline if they have other priorities.
If someone is optional, make them optional. The “Optional” status of a meeting invitation is, in my experience, far under-utilized. Not everyone needs to be Required, so think carefully about the invitee list and if someone is a “nice to have” in the meeting, then respect their time by inviting them as Optional.
If someone is required but declines, then cancel or reschedule the meeting. Don’t go ahead with a meeting if a critical person can’t make it. If you do, more often than not, this means the meeting will fail and you’ll have to schedule another meeting anyway. Congratulations on wasting everyone else’s time.
Do not schedule a meeting on the same day as the invitation. This is definitely a controversial rule, but should be respected if you want to engender a positive meeting culture. Be aware of the fact that meetings are disruptive. If you want people to be productive, they need to be able to plan their day with as much flexibility and ownership over their time as possible. Throwing a meeting in someone’s face with two hours notice is going to have serious consequences for their ability to execute the tasks they’ve set for themselves for the remainder of the day. Sometimes it’s unavoidable, and emergency meetings need to happen. In those cases, treat them like emergencies. Emergencies should be rare.
Do not schedule a standing meeting on a Monday or a Friday. This is another controversial rule, but experience dictates that these are the worst possible days for recurring meetings. Despite the temptation to start the week with a 9am staff meeting every Monday morning, or get everyone together for a debrief every Friday at 4 (except, of course, if proper refreshments are supplied), these are exactly the reason why meetings have been given a bad name. On Monday morning, nobody will be prepared, there will not have been sufficient time for people to plan their schedules, and nobody will have had time to accomplish anything worth discussing at the meeting. Let people actually do some work on Monday, then hold the staff meeting first thing Tuesday.
Another important consideration regarding that last rule is that Mondays and Fridays are the most common days on which people prefer to work from home. Unless you’re a draconian tyrant, you must have realized by now that flexible work schedules make people more productive. Encouraging people to use their time effectively means allowing them to stay away from the office when they need to do so. The reasons are various: errands need to be run during workdays, working couples need to juggle child care or elderly care, hangovers need to be cured, those who worked over the weekend need time off, and some people just get more done when they don’t have the distraction of a compulsory meeting hanging over their heads. If this isn’t convincing enough, then also realize that Mondays are the most common days for company holidays and Fridays are the most common days people will take PTO. If you hold your standing meetings on those days, then many weeks your meeting will end up cancelled anyway.
Conducting a Meeting
Now that we’ve established some decent etiquette for scheduling of meetings, let’s see what we can do to improve the efficiency of meetings as they occur.
The meeting organizer should have and follow a clear agenda. An aimless meeting is a waste of everyone’s time and the organization’s money. Every minute that passes is one that could have been contributing towards something else more productive, and it is the meeting organizer’s responsibility to ensure that a meeting stays on track.
All meetings should start on time. In the grand scheme of things, punctuality may seem like one of the lesser virtues, but when it comes to meetings, it is one of the key reasons why meetings can be efficient or counter-productive. What is the point of a 30 minute meeting if people don’t show up until 10 after? People should show up to meetings on time, they should apologize if they are late, and your organization’s culture should encourage the shaming of tardiness until people get the message. Being late to a meeting is disrespectful of your co-workers. You are not any busier and your time is not more valuable than anyone else’s. Start acting like it.
All meetings should end with 5 minutes to spare. One way to help meetings start on time is by making sure that previous meetings are wrapped up in a timely manner. If meeting times bump up against one another, there’s no time for bio breaks, snacks, message checking, or any of a number of tasks people need to squeeze in between meetings. It’s no wonder people are late. Give everyone a fighting chance of making it on time to the next meeting by making meetings end at 25 or 55 minutes after the hour. Make this part of your organization’s culture and meetings will be much more efficient.
Don’t book a meeting room if you don’t have a meeting. People often reserve meeting rooms and then fail to show up, this creates an “arms race” of sorts where meeting rooms are often booked as a preemptive strike. This is wasteful and can cause important meetings to be delayed simply trying to find an open room.
If a meeting room is empty, it is fair game for squatters. After all, it’s only fair, and this helps make effective use of valuable space. At the same time, however, realize that if you didn’t book a room, it’s not really yours. So if you are squatting while the room holders show up, be polite enough to yield.
If a meeting runs over time, the participants of the next meeting must feel empowered to remove the offenders. Hovering outside a meeting that has run over time usually works well enough to make people wrap it up, but it shouldn’t be considered rude to actually physically interrupt and insist that they make way. It’s not personal, it’s just business. If your meeting is out of time, clear out of the room. However, it is also sensible to be somewhat flexible with this rule, especially if the meeting involves a client, a conference call, or an interview. Clients and interview candidates typically warrant special treatment and you generally do not want to do anything to make them feel unwelcome. With conference calls, it’s acceptable to give them a little extra time to finish. With everyone physically present, a meeting that has overrun its time limit can often be continued out in the hall but this isn’t an option if one or more of the participants are remote. In general, however, be aware that running a meeting over time is as disrespectful as showing up late.
No powerpoint. Peter Norvig has a wonderful illustration of how utterly brain dead Powerpoint is for communicating anything of value. The main problem is that Powerpoint cannot stand on its own. Let’s say someone misses a meeting, or hears about a presentation you made and wants to know more. Will the slides make any sense to them? Without the context provided by the presenter, the slides are mere highlights of key phrases. There’s no actual information there. Nobody can learn from them. You probably won’t even remember what it means a month later. Do everything in your power to resist Powerpoint because it effectively flushes your institutional knowledge down the toilet. If you have something to present, write a document. Circulate it before hand if people have time to review before the meeting, or follow Amazon’s lead and reserve the first half of the meeting for everyone to read the document together. Documents actually do transmit and preserve information. People who didn’t attend the meeting can still learn and participate by reading the document, instead of getting a useless glimpse from highlights on a set of Powerpoint slides. I have also found that it actually takes less time to write a document than make a Powerpoint presentation. It takes a great deal of awkward mental gymnastics to build a Powerpoint presentation—deciding what to highlight, how to compress complex arguments into a bulleted list, cutting more and more so as not to distract or “clutter” the slides—whereas writing up the material in document form is far more natural, straight-forward, and ultimately more efficient at communicating your ideas.
Optional rule: No laptops (and limit the use of any other devices). The intent of this rule is to ensure that everyone is paying attention and fully engaged during the meeting. However, it is not always practical since many people use their laptops for note-taking, or may need to refer to some documents, emails, or websites during the meeting. Be sensible when applying this rule, but if someone is clearly doing other work during a meeting, that behavior should not be tolerated. If you really have more important things to do, then just leave the room instead of distracting everyone else.