We’ve all been there: a meeting that should’ve been an email or a slack message or really nothing at all. There are few things that frustrate me more than wasted time. I’ve said this before, moms are great employees because we don’t have any time to waste. Not every second of the day has to be “productive” but when you have an activity that has a primary purpose of being productive, you better make sure that it is.
And yet, here we are, many of us living in a remote-work world settling for meetings that decrease productivity, motivation, and increase frustration. Why have we let it get to this point? And why do we ignore the fact that we’re wasting company money by holding a bunch of bad meetings? Because it’s easy. Because planning a meeting should be just as important as the meeting itself. Let’s stop having bad meetings and dive into ways to make our meetings better.
This Meeting Should’ve Been…Not a Meeting
Let’s think of meetings as speedbumps. When you intersperse them throughout people’s days, you slow down their momentum. If there’s a meeting every other hour, you can’t expect the same productivity from your employee as you should if they have a solid block of time to work on projects, research, etc.
I think it’s worth noting that meetings should not be a remote-first company’s first response to a question or issue that comes up, especially if you’re working with an international team. I don’t know if I’m ready to say they should be a last resort, but I’m close to making that assertion.
Sending a slack message or an email rather than having a meeting allows employees to choose when the read the message and builds flexibility into the schedule.
We should also recognize that meetings do not utilize the strengths of everyone. Extroverts and external processors are more likely to benefit from meetings, whereas introverts often benefit from having time to think through ideas, process, and return to a discussion–written or verbal–later. If you’re relying on meetings, you’re not taking into consideration the introverts in your group.
What does it mean to plan a meeting? Don’t you just throw some calendar invites out to everyone that you think could or should be interested? This is what often happens and this is one of the reasons meetings are so wasteful. Planning meetings should take time, consideration, and more effort than spelling someone’s email correctly.
Who needs to be there?
This is not a dump-it cake. We don’t need everyone who touches the topic to be there. I’ve always loved the idea of calculating the cost of every meeting as a deterrent for inviting everyone. You can do that by calculating the hourly wage of everyone there and adding it up based on the time the meeting takes. That doesn’t mean that you should get rid of all meetings or slash and burn the invite list. It means that you need to take the time to determine who should be there. How do you do that?
Start with your long list of people and let’s narrow it down together by answering the following questions:
- What’s the purpose of the meeting?
- Who makes decisions about this topic?
- Is their input an essential part of the conversation? I want to note here that there’s conversational input and there’s input that can come as part of a slack message or email. Not everyone has to be part of the conversation.
- Who is a subject matter expert?
- Who has institutional knowledge that would benefit from being there to share or to listen?
You should not ask yourself “who will get upset if I don’t invite them?” Although this is a common part of the thought process, it shouldn’t influence the invite list. What it should influence is clear communication. Why do you think this person’s feelings will be hurt? How can you communicate to them that it’s not a good use of their time or part of their job?
- Don’t just throw meetings on someone’s calendar without context.
- Don’t move or cancel meetings on someone’s calendar without touching base with those invited.
- Provide an agenda.
- If you expect work to be done beforehand, put it in the invite.
- Don’t put an invite on someone’s calendar for a time outside of their work hours.
Pre-meeting best practices
To make the meeting most efficient and a good use of people’s time, it’s important to:
- Establish a clear purpose. For example, to finalize strategy for a new campaign.
- Define expectations both of the meeting and of the participants. Do you want the participants to share what they think are important tasks that need to be completed before launching a campaign? Do you want to discuss strengths and weaknesses?
- Ask the participants what they want to include as part of the agenda.
- Clearly explain any pre-work that needs to be done as well as expectations for the day.
Meeting best practices
Please, please do not start a meeting with “I just thought we could chat about X” and then stare blankly at the zoom screen. What about X? Having an agenda is having an outline for a meeting. Use it. Other things that are important:
- Stick to the agenda, but don’t be so rigid to not allow any other discussion.
- Be respectful of people’s time. If you say the meeting is going to be an hour, it shouldn’t end after two hours.
- Have an agenda enforcer. You might feel some scope creep in your meeting. It happens. Sometimes it’s productive. Most times it impedes the ability to have a productive meeting. Generally, the meeting leader should be the agenda enforcer who makes sure this doesn’t happen. “That’s a really great insight, Sam. This doesn’t quite fit into the scope of today’s meeting, but we should talk about this in slack after the meeting.”
- Have a time keeper. If you want to accomplish everything on your agenda, you need to have a sense of how long everything will take. This might mean limiting discussion time. If you’ve scheduled 5 minutes to talk about the strengths of the team, and one person has talked for the last four minutes, you’re not utilizing your time as you planned. Having a person who can say, “James, let’s give someone else time to share” or “We’re getting close to time on this. Let’s summarize the main points and determine if this part of the conversation needs to happen in slack afterward.” Leave time to answer questions and determine next steps at the end.
- Make space for everyone. Often the loudest people in the room are the ones who have the opportunity to share. To ensure everyone has an opportunity to be heard, utilize support features like the handraise function and the chat to allow people to participate in ways that work for them.
Running a good meeting is a lot like writing a good paper. You start with a purpose–a thesis if you’re a English nerd like me–and then you create an outline of the main points of the meeting. The meeting becomes the step of the process where you fill in the outline. You have the discussion, collect the evidence, make your arguments, and by the end you should have a conclusion. At the very least, you should be able to end a chapter that will lead into the next one. The reader/participant will feel satisfied at the end of the meeting if it’s a good use of their time. They’ll be motivated to work on the next chapter. They’ll feel appreciated for accomplishing their work and meeting expectations. And if you’re not sure if you’ve hit the mark, all you have to do is ask for feedback. If you’ve cultivated a culture of honesty and sharing, this shouldn’t be a problem. If you haven’t…well, that’s a different blog post.