When I tell people I spend an average of 30 hours a week — roughly six hours a day — meeting with my team members, the response I receive is usually some form of condolences, tagged by, “How do you get anything done?” The pervasive negative attitudes toward meetings in the business world, however, usually are symptoms of ineffective meeting strategies.
I think meetings for the most part are great. They provide interaction among people to achieve an objective and can be very productive if participants have a chance to exercise their strengths. Some individuals on a team may be exceptionally efficient at carrying out assigned tasks, while others are best at brainstorming or setting directions. I fall in the latter category, which is why I spend more time meeting than executing, but both jobs are critical to productivity.
Most of my meetings are by phone, since my team of 17 direct reports is spread out among our offices. I meet weekly one-to-one with each of them and weekly with the whole team. I also have separate team meetings with departmental groups. When work cycles become more intense, I’ll spend 40 hours a week in meetings.
I know that people generally feel they spend too much time in meetings—and that too many meetings are on their schedules — but these sessions can be effective if they help you make progress toward a goal. They can be a good investment of your time.
When meetings are ineffective, it’s often because they have no defined objective. People show up unprepared and, most critical, the meeting is not clearly facilitated. For a meeting to be productive the facilitator must provide conclusions around next steps and document the meeting’s main points to ensure everyone remains on the same page later on; failure to do so can make meetings a waste of time. Frequently as well, a meeting will be dominated by one or two people, while the viewpoints of others are not represented because they didn’t speak up or time ran out. Good facilitation ensures that all participants have a chance to offer their perspectives and that, at the end of the meeting, everyone is aligned on actions to be pursued.
For me, nothing’s more effective than face-to-face meetings, but so many people work remotely these days that in-person meetings often require some help from technology. The best offerings are those that most successfully simulate face-to-face interaction, such as Cisco’s Telepresence, which produces nearly life-size images on 60-inch screens. Next best are video applications like WebEx or Skype, with phone conferences ranking as less effective. It’s important to understand the body language and tone of interactions, which likely will not come across on just a phone connection. But no technology replaces the ability to shake someone’s hand or to join in the hallway chatter during a break and after a meeting.
If you’re looking for ways to help your meetings contribute more to your productivity, consider these seven tips:
- Decide if you really need a meeting or if an email will do the job instead. Meetings should be held when face-to-face interaction is required.
- Be clear with what you’re trying to achieve, the purpose of your meeting, and be clear on the expected outcomes. Confused meetings lead to confused outcomes and you’re worse off than when you started.
- Set a mood and tone for the meeting that is not so serious that people feel totally buttoned up from the start. Encourage conversation and creativity with techniques like the “joke of the day” of the simple check-in question when people can talk about what they’ve been doing at home or with their hobbies.
- Distribute a meeting agenda a day before the session — not two minutes before — and clearly state the meeting’s goal.
- Set a “Be here now” policy. Check phones at the door and require laptops to be closed (except for those documenting the meeting) so that everyone can focus on the discussion without diversion.
- Avoid grandstanding and politics at meetings. The facilitator should keep everyone attentive to the core issue, a common goal and a good conversation that defines an outcome. Focus on the common agenda, not your own.
- Listen more than you talk so that, when you do speak up, your comments are relevant and add to the meeting’s progress.
The overall objective is not to have longer or more numerous meetings, but rather to make them more compact and valuable. On any given day, I may be on phone and video calls from 8 in the morning to 5:30 in the afternoon and then take another call at 8 p.m. After that, I tackle my email. Anything that can be done to reduce the time I spend in meetings allows me to spend time with my family in the evening. That’s a great goal to have and should inspire all of us to work smarter in our meetings so that we can enjoy what counts most in life.