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How to make meetings suck less (time and productivity)

How to make meetings suck less (time and productivity)

Inefficient, unfocused, directionless — meetings waste valuable time and resources every day. Here’s how to shift your company away from ineffective meetings and toward productive collaboration.

Credit: Travis Isaacs

No self-respecting business wants to advertise itself as inefficient, unfocused, and directionless, regularly wasting tens of thousands of dollars for no tangible reason. Yet, that's exactly what happens every day as businesses around the globe force their workers to spend time in meetings that provide no meaningful return on that investment of time and energy.

"Meetings rarely result in actionable work,” says Carson Tate, founder and principal of Working Simply, and author of Work Simply: Embracing the Power of Your Personal Productivity Style. “Workers spend on average six to seven hours per week in meetings, and are then forced to do the real work they were hired to do on the margins of their day. This leads to burnout, which leads to retention and attrition issues. You're not getting the best work out of your talent."

When your workforce spends the majority of its time in meetings, they're not producing anything — except more meetings, Tate says, and that becomes the entire culture of your business.

Here’s how to ensure your organization’s meetings are effective and productive.

Recognize the problem and make the cultural shift

The first step is to understand the breadth and depth of your meeting problem, Tate says. Start by documenting how much time is spent in meetings versus other work, and determine how much that costs your business both in real dollars and in terms of where employees' time may be better spent.

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"You need real awareness of the impact and the cost of your meeting-centric culture,” Tate says. “Are there constant emails coming in time-stamped 2 a.m.? Are there regular meetings that involve numerous executives whose skills and time could be better used elsewhere? What did the time, energy and money put into these meetings really produce?" she says.

Once you have a sense of your meeting problem, it’s time to initiate change. Whether you go it alone or hire a consultancy like Tate's, implementing new meeting strategies and tactics to replace the old is no easy feat.

"The way meetings are run is a microcosm of your company culture as a whole,” says Tate. “Approaching the problem by scheduling another series of meetings is just ludicrous. You must start at the very core of your business and shift every assumption, from how you interact with technology, to how many people should be involved in business decisions, to where meetings are held, the length, everything. Otherwise, you're just putting a bandage on an injury that really requires a trip to the ER."

Get the technology right

With the right set of collaboration tools, and the right mindset, meetings can be very productive. Here, recognizing the shifts in your workforce is essential.

"The workforce has changed; has become more mobile, more global, more remote," says Rob Bellmar, executive vice president of business operations at West Unified Communications. "It's rare anymore to have the 'luxury' of on-site conferences, or even meetings where whole teams are together in the same room."

That's where technology comes in. But it may be difficult to know where to start. The market for collaboration tools has exploded of late, and use of collaboration tools is further complicated by the rise of BYOD.

"Collaboration is a very personal skill, and each person works differently," Bellmar says. "You like some tools and not others, you prefer video conferencing over audio, or maybe you work best sharing files and communicating via chat and instant messaging. While it's great for the employee that there are so many choices — that they can 'BYO application' — it's not easy for enterprises. But the bottom line is if the tools and applications don't fit their needs and makes their job harder, users are going to find a way around it."

Take a hard look at how employees actually work and which technologies they prefer when collaborating. Once you’ve reassessed your collaboration strategy, you’ll likely find yourself embracing, rather than rejecting, tools like video conferencing, webcasting, live chat, mobile meeting technology as well as traditional conference calling and even SMS and text messaging, says David Lee, vice president of platform products at cloud business communication provider RingCentral.

“Increasing productivity means you have to map the technology to the habits of the modern workforce," Lee says. "Yes, there are initial investment costs, but so many businesses have already tried to save money by outsourcing, allowing employees to work remotely, cutting staff — but what have they really saved if they can't get all these folks to work together and collaborate?"

"Making the most of time spent meeting and collaborating can save money and headaches and spur growth, and that's where the focus should be," he adds.

Assess the value of each meeting invite

Individual employees can help your organization shift away from a meeting-centric culture by taking a few simple actions.

"First and foremost, question the value of every meeting you're asked to attend. Before you hit 'accept,' ask yourself what the return on investment will be. What will you get for your time, your energy? What will you forgo working on to go to this meeting? Ask yourself if your presence will contribute or add value? Will this be a rehash of the last five meetings?" Tate says.

Another crucial question to ask is, "Who will be disappointed if I don't attend?" says Tate.

"You need to be clear about who you are 'letting down' by not attending. And you need to be able to articulate that confidently. What is the best use of your time that will add maximum value to the work that you do?” Tate says. “So many times, meetings are just about politics — who's there, who's not. That's not valuable for businesses. You can decline graciously by saying, 'I don't see where I can add any meaningful value to the conversation. Instead, I'm going to be working on X, Y, Z, and this is why it is more valuable than the actual meeting."

Doing so not only empowers the individual, it empowers their coworkers, managers and direct reports to decline unneeded meetings, forcing the organization to be more streamlined around meetings, Tate says.

That's not to say that meetings can't be useful or produce value; in fact, meetings can be one of the most powerful tools businesses have to get things done and drive success, says Paul Axtell, a management consultant, personal effectiveness trainer, and author of Meetings Matter: 8 Powerful Strategies for Remarkable Conversations, they just have to be done right.

Shift the perception

It’s also essential to change the way meetings are perceived, from a necessary evil that generates a lot of hot air and accomplishes little to a group conversation aimed at solving a problem, says Axtell.

"If you must have meetings, start by shifting the way you talk about them. Instead of the usual dread, fear and boredom, emphasize that meetings are, at their core, a way for multiple people to have a conversation and communicate about solving a problem. That way you are honoring the time and energy your talent invests by focusing on what you can do to support them and their efforts," says Axtell.

Teach communication and speaking skills

One of the biggest stumbling blocks to productive meetings is that, for most attendees, communication isn't their strong suit, Axtell says, especially in IT.

To overcome this obstacle, invest in training and professional development courses aimed at teaching communication skills so workers feel confident expressing themselves and do so concisely and effectively.

"Your people need to be proficient at conversation, and most workers aren't giving any thought to working on core skills: 'How do I start a conversation, make my point, wrap up, be effective and efficient at delivering a message?’" Axtell says.

"Listening, too, is a skill that is almost universally missing from the workforce, but it can be learned and honed," says Axtell.

Keep meetings small and intimate

To facilitate effective communication and ensure every attendee has the chance to be heard, keep meeting size small, says Axtell. A group of four or five people will feel more intimate and personal, allowing for more time to connect, listen and suggest solutions. Moreover, in smaller groups, any disagreement will be handled more gently and tactfully, he says.

"When I talk to clients, they almost always tell me they find it easier to be authentic, open and honest in groups of four or five. When they're forced to be in large group meetings, there's not enough intimacy for them to feel secure, and the chance that good ideas or innovative solutions will get drowned out increases," Axtell says.

Small groups are also more likely to address and resolve core issues, leaving unrelated topics for another time, Axtell says.

Always have an agenda — and stick to it

Even in small groups, it can be easy to get sidetracked. It's important to keep the conversation focused on the issues that must be resolved. That's why planning and sticking to an agenda is important.

"An agenda is nothing more than a path for resolution of an issue. One thing people forget when holding meetings is that these conversations must be designed with a specific outcome in mind, with a set time and a plan for getting to the bottom of whatever issue you're discussing," Axtell says.

The POWER of productive meetings

Tate advocates a strategy based around the acronym POWER: Purpose, Outcomes, Who, Execution, Responsibility.

Purpose

This is the "why" behind the meeting. Before the meeting, this must be clearly stated and put into context for those who must attend. It's also helpful to anchor the meeting's purpose into a larger, strategic business priority.

Outcomes

What will definitively happen at the close of the meeting? If it’s a decision-making meeting, be sure to reach a decision by the end of the allotted time. "The outcome could be to inform my colleagues about the new vacation policy. But the fact is, there must be an outcome, otherwise the meeting hasn't served any practical purpose," says Tate.

Who

This aspect of the meeting dictates not only who attends, but assigns specific tasks to each attendee. "You decide who are the right people in the room to provide the data, the background, the context surrounding the topics and issues that will be addressed. That way, those folks all come prepared with the information needed for the larger group to reach a decision," says Tate.

Execution

This part of the agenda should stay blank until the meeting begins, and is filled in while the meeting takes place to spell out exactly how the participants will get from problem to solution. This ensures that each attendee has specific actions and tasks to attend to after the meeting's over, notes Tate.

Responsibility

Before the meeting ends, make sure that each attendee understands what they're accountable for and that they have the authority to complete the tasks assigned to them in the "execution" stage. "This doesn't necessarily mean they have to do specific tasks themselves — it could mean they follow up on an assignment with their supervisor or another department. But they must take responsibility for their task and accept the associated deadlines and timeframes, too," Tate says.

Final thoughts

Shifting organizational culture away from endless meetings is by no means an easy task, and it certainly won't happen overnight. But it's a worthwhile undertaking, one that can help increase productivity, streamline business process and boost employee engagement, morale and job satisfaction. So, next time you get a meeting request, consider declining and see what happens.

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