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Who doesn’t love a meeting? Well, quite a few of us, actually. Here Loulla-Mae Eleftheriou-Smith asks the experts for their advice on minimizing meeting time while maximizing results, whether that means standing gatherings or curated guest lists
Meetings, scheduled or impromptu, can be something of a minefield when they’re conducted badly. Getting pulled into team discussions, summoned for a company update, or even just grabbed for a quick catch-up that ends up taking 45 minutes is easily done. But let them overrun your day and it can feel as if you have no time left for your actual work.
With research from eShare(1) showing that the average worker attends 4.4 meetings a week – more than half of which are thought to be unnecessary – it’s easy to see why. But when meetings are done well, they benefit everyone in the room. Here we speak to a range of experts about their tips for making meetings more productive.
Unnecessary meetings don’t just waste time, they can genuinely send people to sleep. In a recent European study by Crowne Plaza Hotel and Resorts(2), 34% of people admitted to switching off in meetings that went on for too long, while 23% had seen someone nod off.
Having a day completely free of meetings is a useful way to make people re-evaluate their time, says Abigail Ireland, a high-performance and productivity consultant: “Reducing the time available for meetings by 20% creates a sense of scarcity and encourages people to really make it count in the meetings they do decide to go ahead with.”
Wednesday is an optimal day to make meeting-free as it allows you time to stop, assess and plan ahead. “You can work through actions from the previous two days and then plan ahead for Thursday and Friday,” says Ireland. “It’s a great opportunity to reassess upcoming meetings and be ruthless – dump, delegate or choose to attend.”
Not only do stand-up meetings cut the amount of time spent in a conference room (as people are less likely to settle in and get comfortable), they can also boost employees’ excitement around creative group processes and their sharing of information – even reducing people’s tendency to be territorial, shows research by Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri (3).
Tino Triste, strategic search director at SEO agency Tecmark, says introducing stand-up gatherings has seriously reduced meeting lengths in the office. “Our meetings sometimes took well over 90 minutes when they didn’t need to be longer than 30,” he says. “Now that time has been slashed in half. They’re more concise but just as proactive. Standing up helps the team to reach their point faster and to present it more confidently.”
Don’t get caught in a spiral of unproductive meetings
Do your prep
According to team collaboration platform Attentiv(4), 63% of all meetings in the US are conducted without a pre-planned agenda, which means there are swathes of people walking into group discussions with very little idea of why.
Dr. Clare Collins, associate professor of leadership development and behavior at Henley Business School in the UK, says it’s beneficial for everyone involved to turn up to meetings properly prepared, which means having read any relevant information ahead of time, knowing what’s on the agenda and what people want to achieve.
“Preparation should include a well-reasoned set of desired outcomes. Participants should come to the meeting with their background material and any data that is required – ideally circulated beforehand,” she says. “Long discussions of items rarely produce a more fruitful outcome than a concise presentation of the facts and rational decision-making.”
Curate your guest list
Do you find your meeting guest list becoming bloated? Research cited in the Harvard Business Review(5) could help – it’s been suggested that the perfect number of people to attend a meeting is between five and eight. More attendees than that can lead to tough decisions not being made or there not being enough time for everyone to be heard, among other issues.
“Only invite people who need to attend,” says Louise Lee, an accredited private secretary at administrative consultancy Saunders and Lee. “When you create an agenda, it’s easy to see that there are clear items specific to certain people – so only they need to attend.”
What if an agenda item involves an entire department or staff group? “A team can brief one person who attends the meeting, which means there are fewer voices that need to be heard,” says Lee.
Game your seating plan
Research conducted in the 1960s by environmental psychologist Robert Sommer into classroom set-ups and how students engage in them has been applied to behavior in meeting rooms ever since(6).
“One simple trick is to use a seating arrangement that cultivates the mind-set required for a meeting,” says personal and corporate coach Richard Harris. “For instance, if the desired outcome is for a team to reach an agreement, seating them all on the same side of a table will facilitate that.
“If you want someone in charge, place them at the head of a table and, if you want a more egalitarian attitude in a room, put them on a round table. If you want a lively discussion to take place, seating teams on opposite ends of the table will suggest a subtle sense of opposition. Think of two opponents sitting opposite each other in a chess match.”
Embrace the 22-minute meeting
“For some reason, the default length of time for a meeting is usually 30 minutes or an hour,” says Stuart Hearn, CEO at performance management software company Clear Review. “The problem is, businesses often fall victim to ‘Parkinson’s Law,’ which states that the time it takes to complete a task inevitably expands to fill the time allocated to it.”
That’s why his company decided to implement shorter meetings – with both management and employees being strict about keeping time to ensure it is successful for everyone.
Twenty-two minutes is considered something of a magic number when it comes to meetings. Nicole Steinbok, who created the concept of the "22-minute meeting"(7) recommends nine steps for sticking to this timeframe and staying efficient – from having a goal-based agenda to banning phones.
Loulla-Mae Eleftheriou-Smith is UK-based journalist who writes for The Independent, The Huffington Post and others