By Sally Percy
Meetings consume a large amount of our working lives, but how much do they actually achieve? Not as much as they could, suggests research by Korn Ferry. In fact, more than 34% of professionals surveyed by the organizational consultancy in 2019 said that they waste between two and five hours per week on calls or meetings that don’t accomplish anything. Furthermore, over two-thirds (67%) said that spending too much time in meetings and on calls distracted them from making an impact at work.
If organizations are to become more effective, it’s clear they need to get better at holding productive meetings. So, what can leaders and managers do to make this happen?
1. View the meeting as the ‘front stage’ – and precede it with hard work on the ‘back stage’
“While many meetings are relatively routine, some involve deliberation with a view to arriving at decisions,” says Dr Shameen Prashantham, professor of international business and strategy at China Europe International Business School and author of Gorillas Can Dance. He argues that decisions taken at a meeting are more likely to be “suitably nuanced and actionable when the actors involved have had a chance, beforehand, to rehearse arguments, gauge and get buy-in from others, and consider the necessary follow-up actions ahead of time”.
2. Allow time to “check in”
“We never kick off a meeting without ‘checking in’,” says Fiona Logan, chief executive of global people development company Insights. “This allows people to bring themselves fully into the meeting – sharing what’s on their mind, how they’re feeling, or what they want to get from the meeting.”
Logan argues that checking in helps people to understand and empathise with their peers, creating connection and trust. It also enables them to shift their mindset from where they were prior to the meeting, to where they need to be for the meeting. “That increases engagement among the participants, which usually results in a positive and productive meeting,” she says. Logan also recommends holding 45-minute meetings, rather than hour-long meetings, since this “keeps everyone focused for the meeting duration”.
3. Focus on outputs, not updates
“Meetings are often held for completely the wrong purpose,” says Sandra Porter, author of How to be an HR Superstar and managing director of HR consultancy The HR Dept. “Meetings should be key opportunities to collaborate, problem-solve and innovate.”
Porter believes that if leaders calculate the cost of having their colleagues together for the duration of the meeting, the meeting needs to create at least twice as much value. “Next time you are chairing a meeting, think about outputs, not updates,” she advises. “Make the meeting as output-focused as possible so that everyone comes to the table with their thinking hat on, not thinking about what to have for dinner.”
4. Circulate reports in advance
“Don’t spend meeting time presenting reports,” says Annelise Ly, associate professor at the Norwegian School of Economics, a member of the CEMS Global Alliance in Management Education. “Ask your collaborators to read them in advance and, when meeting, move straight to the discussion. It engages participants and reduces meeting length.”
5. Take charge of the debate
“Robust debate and disagreement in meetings is a vital attribute for driving innovation, thereby ensuring that teams can flourish and succeed,” says David Liddle, CEO of transformational culture consultancy TCM and author of Transformational Culture. But he warns that it’s all too easy for spirited discussion to become damaging and dysfunctional.
Managers can’t afford to sit back and let debate degenerate. Instead, argues Liddle: “They need to take on the role of facilitator, creating safe spaces where open, honest dialogue can take place and where diversity of thought is embraced and encouraged.”
Healthy debate, says Liddle, is about “helping our people to disagree well”.
6. Plan carefully and communicate in bursts when meeting virtually
“Everyone has experienced ‘Zoom fatigue’,” notes Dr Amanda Nimon-Peters of Hult International Business School in the U.K. and author of the upcoming book Working With Influence. “That’s because virtual meetings are exhausting and stressful when we naively treat them as the equivalent of live meetings.”
Nimon-Peters points out that while our technology has evolved to enable remote meetings, our brains have not evolved in parallel. “The simulated distance between video conference participants would normally be reserved for people we know well, so we experience subconscious stress because of perceived proximity,” she explains.
Successful online teams communicate in bursts, not in back-to-back, conference-length calls, argues Nimon-Peters. “Participants must also prepare carefully in advance, with the specific goal of making their time together effective and engaging.”
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