How to make meetings less miserable and more producitve

So, here’s how to make this time less miserable:

Reduce the hours spent in meetings

We asked our LinkedIn followers how many hours they spend in meetings a week and while a lucky 31% said less than five hours a week, the second highest response—at 28%—was more than 15 hours a week. For me, it varies from week to week, but on average I counted about 10-11 hours of meetings on my calendar. I try to keep at least one or two days lighter than others, but I have no meeting-free days. When I was filling in as interim executive editor a few years ago, I had many more, which proves that the more responsibility you get, the more time you spend in meetings.

We’ve covered a few companies, like Shopify, that have instituted a no-meetings or at least very-few-meetings culture. There are various ways to go about it, some more radical than others. Shopify started with what they called “controlled chaos”: canceling all recurring meetings of three or more people, deleting needless Slack channels, and instating a “no meeting Wednesdays” for all staff. 

To make the change less daunting, they set it up as a two-week trial, after which time teams could add meetings they missed back to their calendars. 

Even a two-week trial can feel radical, so there are lots of other ways to go about a meeting audit. You can do it by type of meeting—like looking at just the all-staff meetings, or 1:1 check ins. You can take weekly meetings and make them biweekly, or you can try making every meeting shorter. Recurring meetings are the easiest to tackle first, but once you are in the mindset, you can start turning a critical eye to all sorts of gatherings. 

If you decide to do a similar audit, it’s likely you’ll still end up with at least a handful of meetings still on your calendar. So, then the task becomes ensuring that the ones you have left are worthwhile.

Make your meetings more productive

Aside from the sheer number of meetings, the next most common complaint workers have is the time spent in meetings that could have been an email. Author Claire Hughes Johnson suggests using the acronym “PAL” as a guide to make sure that the meeting isn’t a waste of time:
P= Purpose: Determine the purpose of the meeting and make sure everyone understands it.
A= Agenda: Circulate the topics to be covered in service of that purpose.
L= Limit: Set guidelines for how long the meeting and agenda items will take.

Here are some other steps you can take:

  1. Ask yourself if an email, Slack, or other written check-in could work just as well.
  2. Pay special attention to recurring meetings.
  3. Check in with others after the meeting about how useful it was.

Think carefully about the agenda

It can be tempting to think that if you are taking time from everyone’s day, you should get a lot out of a meeting by covering a broad range of topics. But open-ended meetings can mean diffused conversations, and lack of action. “A common meeting mistake is to try to cover too many topics in too little time, which can make the conversation too surface-level or lead to frustrating cutoffs with no resolution,” Hughes Johnson says.

The most effective meetings have a really narrow focus, and cover something that is best solved from a discussion. Identify the one or two things that everyone must walk away with, and share exactly what you hope will come from this meeting. So, for example, instead of setting a goal like “we will discuss the status of our current marketing strategy,” frame the prompt with concrete, active verbs like “decide” or  “plan.” Perhaps you will decide which parts of the marketing strategy aren’t working.

This helps meeting attendees prepare and contribute meaningfully—as well as enjoy a greater sense of progress, momentum, and achievement.

Our LinkedIn audience agreed: When we asked what makes a successful meeting, 66% of respondents said “a clear agenda,” compared to just 15% that said the most important thing was that a meeting was “less than 30 minutes.” You can have an hour-long meeting so long as it feels like a productive hour.

What about brainstorming?

Brainstorming can be really tricky to get right. It’s very dependent on size of group, power dynamics of group, type of prep you ask people to do before the meeting, and even the how much other work the attendees are have on their plates, which impacts their capacity to do big-picture thinking.

Luckily there are solutions to these problems. Art Markman, a frequent Fast Company contributor and cognitive scientist and vice provost at University of Texas at Austin, wrote about one method to help really explore ideas thoroughly. He writes:

“When groups work together, they tend to converge in the way they are thinking about things. Every time a group member says something, it influences the way every other person in the group is describing the problem and also influences what people are drawing from their memories. Quickly, the group converges on a consensus for how to think about the problem. As a result, groups settle down on a small number of potential solutions before they have adequately explored the entire space.” 

His solution to this problem is the six-three-five method: Six people each come up with three solutions to a problem and write them down on separate sheets of paper. Then you rotate these pieces of paper around, and people add to each of the ideas. 

This helps people think alone first and fully explore a huge range of potential ideas.

Rebecca Greenfield wrote an article for us about a similar technique called  brainwriting, coined by UT Arlington professor Paul Paulus. Basically everyone first brainstorms individually and writes ideas down, and then shares them out loud in the meeting. A facilitator writes them down, without names attached, and then everyone votes on the best ones. This helps people not be influenced by others in the initial brainstorming process. 

How to make meetings more inclusive

If you’ve cut down on the number of meetings and you’ve figured out the best structure, the next element of a good meeting is inclusivity. This can mean a lot of different things in the context of meetings, but the most obvious is who talks and who doesn’t.

According to some experts, one rule is that meeting leaders shouldn’t speak for more than 20% of the time. But beyond that, there are also those attendees who have more authority or are more extroverted, and they may monopolize meetings.

There are lots of ways to address this challenge: The meeting organizer can poll the attendees about a central question in advance. This can help kickstart the conversation and make sure even those who don’t speak up can contribute their opinions.

Similarly, you can encourage participants to send their thoughts in before the meeting so they can be added to the agenda and be sure to be discussed.

Breaking into small groups to work on a problem or brainstorm ideas can also help introverted people engage more, as can pairing introverts with extroverts. This allows the extrovert to make sure other voices and ideas are still presented.

The final piece to consider to make a meeting more inclusive is if you are working in a hybrid office. If some meeting attendees are in-person and some are remote, you should default to a video meeting so everyone is on the same playing field, even if just one person is remote.

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