I have yet to meet anyone who wants to spend more time in meetings. They are pretty much universally disliked. We all want to spend less time in meetings, and we’d all like the meetings we can’t get out of to be far more productive. But how often does that happen? How often do companies, departments or even small teams figure out a way to cut the time they spend in meetings?
It’s tempting to say “almost never”, but that’s actually not true. Some companies and individuals have pulled off the impossible. Some teams manage to stay in communication and coordinate their work well – without losing a third of their time to the conference room.
Here are some of the ways they’ve done it.
Kill status meetings
As you know, there are different types of meetings. There are big company announcement meetings, department coordination meetings, planning meetings – the list goes on. But of all the different options, status meetings are the most loathed.
Why? It’s simple: They’re time wasters. Gathering everyone together in a room to explain what they’re doing for the week sounds like a great idea, but plenty of things can go wrong:
- People can talk over their allotted time, “hijacking” the meeting while they either get caught up in enthusiasm over their current project, or they see an opportunity to promote their work and make themselves seem more important.
- People get into side conversations, and everyone ends up listening to these digressions, whether it’s related to their work or not. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with these side conversations – they’re important, and should happen. But everyone doesn’t need to hear them.
- Some people tune out during status meetings. They might be physically in the room, but their heads are anywhere but. Often, it’s because they’ve got pressing deadlines or urgent work that needs attention. So they ignore what’s said in the status meeting.
Those are all good reasons to cut status meetings, but they’re not the best reason. The best reason is because status meetings simply aren’t necessary. We have the technology now, you know. So it’s pretty easy to set up a status sheet where everyone can write in their spiel about what they’re working on. Their co-workers can check this status sheet at the start of their day and get the necessary download within 10 minutes, max. That immediately frees up 50 minutes of their time.
To get an idea of how significant it could be to kill your status meetings, consider this: If you’ve got ten employees in a department, each of them would save 50 minutes once a week by cutting the status meeting.
Over the course of a year (48 weeks, giving time for vacations and holidays), that works out to 400 hours. That’s over two months of free time for one person. Just cutting the status meeting means your team could probably handle one large (and high-impact) project every year.
If that calculation got your attention, you’ll love this little tool from The Harvard Business Review. It’s a meeting cost calculator. They’ve even got instructions for how to set it up as an app on your phone.
I wonder… if you or your boss committed to calculating the cost of every meeting before you scheduled it, would that reduce the time spent in wasted meetings? I bet it would.
Reduce the length of meetings
Ever heard of Parkinson’s law? It’s the idea that “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.” And boy, is it true.
Parkinson’s law can apply to more than just meetings, but I’ll let you ponder those other applications on your own. Besides, if you apply this law to your meeting attendance, you’ll have more time available to think about the other ways to use it.
For meetings, applying Parkinson’s law is pretty simple. Just cut how long you’ve scheduled for your meetings. How much you can cut depends on the meeting, but consider starting with 25%. That would trim an hour-long meeting down to 45 minutes. That’s still plenty enough time to get things done, but it sets enough limits that hopefully you’ll see a boost in productivity.
Want even more efficiency from your shortened meetings? Consider making everyone stand for them. If your company is like other companies that have tried this, you’ll cut your meeting time down by about a third again simply by not using chairs. That would trim an hour-long meeting down twice – to half an hour. And voila: You’ve cut your time in meetings by half.
There’s one other benefit to trimming meetings. For those of you with back-to-back meetings (many managers will be familiar with this), it means you’ll have enough time to close out one meeting and get to the next one on time. Who knows, you might even be able to reply to a couple of emails in between.
Start meetings on time
Speaking of getting to meetings on time… it’s good to start them on time, too. Some companies are better about this than others, but if you’re in a firm that has chronically late attendees, it’s time for a culture change.
How to do it? Toughen up: Anybody more than 10 to 15 minutes late to the meeting is not allowed to attend. Some companies tighten this up even further – they lock the doors to the meeting two minutes after the start.
This will definitely cause complaints at first. It may even blow a few meetings up. But after the initial change, people will finally start showing up on time. So the meeting won’t go as long. And so you all will get back to work sooner, and get more actual work done. It’s a highly virtuous circle.
Know why you’re meeting
There’s two parts to this. First, be prepared for the meeting in the first place. That means before the meeting happens:
- Have any reports that need to be run
- Read anything you’ve been assigned
- Make any decisions you need to make for yourself
If everyone you meet with has done their part of this, you’re likely to have an efficient meeting. The problem, of course, is often that you’ll get your part done, but your coworkers won’t have done their part.
This is a sticky situation. If you’ve got the authority, cancel the meeting until everyone has their ducks in a row. If you don’t have the authority, still show up – and still show up prepared.
Consider asking the meeting chair to either let you pass on attending the meeting, or ask them to get more rigorous about having everyone prepare ahead of time. Bust out that Harvard Business Review meeting cost calculator if you have to. Usually the idea of thousands of dollars in lost productivity is enough to get people motivated.
If you just can’t get your fellow meeting attendees motivated enough to prepare, consider canceling the meeting altogether or having it less often.
The second part of this is to have a specific agenda for the meeting. This doesn’t have to be a detailed outline: A three-item list is okay. At Facebook, meetings have very specific focuses, like “By the end of this meeting, we will decide whether or not to do X.“
Maybe your company’s meeting aren’t quite that specific yet. But try to get there. Attempting to cover any more than three items in a brief meeting is likely to be unwieldy. So keep it simple and keep it actionable. And get good at stomping out scope creep where you can.
Assign specific tasks before the meeting ends
This one won’t cut down your time in meetings, but it will definitely make them more efficient. For every item you discuss in the meeting, have a next action step and assign it to someone for ownership. Define the deliverables for the action step, and give it a deadline if at all possible.
Then hold people accountable. This doesn’t mean punishing them or shaming them if they don’t get something done. It does mean challenging them in the meeting if they say they can remake the world by next Tuesday.
Only let people take on realistic tasks and responsibilities. If someone in the meeting is already completely maxed out and about to wrap up a massive, demanding project, don’t kid yourselves that they’re going to be able to do anything significant until that big project is done.
You may find it’s necessary to have a rough status sheet for every meeting. A sheet of notes is okay, too – but there’s got to be a written record of what you decided, what tasks and actions were assigned, and when and how people moved forward. When I was working at ad agencies, we used something like this:
|Project||Task||Assigned to||Due by||Priority (1-5)||Notes|
Take note: a table like this could be kept on Google Drive and shared with team members. As mentioned before, try to avoid having status meetings whenever possible. Don’t do in person what can be done online.
There are plenty of proven tactics for reducing the time you spend in meetings. Trouble is, all of them require a bit of pushback. You’re going to have to stand up for your time – and other peoples’ time. You’re going to have to say no to some things and negotiate others.
The inability to do these things (to speak up for your time and your priorities) is often the underlying reason why some people seem to end up in every meeting. If that’s your true problem, take heart: acquiring some assertiveness is not going to kill you. In fact, it’ll probably improve your life.
Are you losing more than 20% of your time to meetings? How do you manage that – aside from just working longer hours? Share your thoughts in the comments.