“I sure wish I had more meetings,” said no one ever. Business meetings are notorious for wasting time and discouraging productivity. Are they really necessary to keep your company running smoothly? Sometimes, yes. The key is to learn how to run an effective meeting — and to cut out those that aren’t.

What makes a bad meeting?

Certainly not all meetings are superfluous, but they can quickly feel that way. One problem? There are just too many. Research by Charlotte Organizational Science shows that executives today spend more than half of their work week in meetings — nearly 23 hours. Not only that, workers attending meetings feel that only 50% of their time is well-spent. 

How can you eliminate this meeting bloat? Think about why you’re meeting. Don’t:

  • Meet just share information; getting together to go over the latest numbers or review a report isn’t productive — send an email and people can read it themselves
  • Hold a regular meeting just because you always do; if there’s nothing to discuss, skip it
  • Meet before you’re ready; if you didn’t get a chance to put your slide deck together, wait until you do; if you need final stats before you can go forward with plans, hold off
  • Get off track; avoid getting pulled into non-pertinent topics (how do you pronounce Hurricane, Utah?), especially when you can find the information elsewhere
  • Consider it your personal stage; no one wants to be talked at for an hour. Meetings are for discussion and collaboration

What makes a good meeting?

If meetings suck the life out of your employees, it’s safe to say it’s time for a change. The question now is, how to structure team meetings that are meaningful all the time? Consider their purpose. Organizational psychologist Adam Grant said there are four basic reasons to hold a meeting:

  • To do something
  • To decide on something
  • To learn something
  • To bond

If you’re not trying to achieve one of those goals, Grant said, you don’t need one. So consider, is it something that could be done via email or Slack? Remember, meetings should provide input that you couldn’t get otherwise.

Guests are prepared

Effective meetings should be collaborative — each attendee wants to participate because they have something useful to share. To be able to do that, they need time to formulate their thoughts. If you need to gather for planning or brainstorming, for example, send a message telling participants what to expect.

You might say, “We’ll be discussing ways to implement a new incentive program. Please come prepared with reward ideas and costs.” Having preparation time is also helpful for generating fresh ideas.

Staying on topic

Most people rely on an agenda to keep the meeting on track, but you can do one better. Rather than having a list of items to discuss, consider making a list of questions you want answered or examined. If your agenda reads “discuss snacks in the break room,” conversation could easily go in circles.

Instead, try “How can we make the switch from sugary snacks in the breakroom to healthy ones, without creating a riot?” This will keep you moving forward to an ultimate destination rather than meandering through meaningless discussions. 

Watching the clock

Who says all meetings must start at the top (or bottom) of the hour? There’s no reason you can’t start the morning scrum at 8:48 a.m. — or any other unusual time. It might also break you out of the need for time limits; there’s no rule that meetings must be a full half hour, or hour. Ask team members how long they realistically think it should last. Only 12 minutes? Done.

Getting to the point

You all know the manager who thinks they are a master of team building. They start with questions such as “What’s your favorite cookie?” and require everyone to answer. It’s quirky and fun, they say. But unless you’re planning a birthday party, it’s pretty pointless. Does knowing Bob likes pink wafer cookies make you more interested in working with him? Maybe, but probably not.

People are more likely to be engaged when you direct a relevant question to them individually. Asking John, “What problems do you foresee if we discontinue free lunch Friday?” lets him know you appreciate his input. “Sara, how would you gauge employee reaction?” tells her she has valuable insight. That camaraderie you’re seeking happens naturally as team members feel valued and work toward a goal together.

If you have hybrid meetings — some people in the office and some checking in online — consider asking the remote workers to speak first. This can help them feel included and involved from the start, instead of feeling like they’re on the sidelines.

No screens allowed

At the risk of feeling like a high school teacher, have attendees check their phones at the door if they aren’t necessary. This can help keep people stay focused on the task at hand instead of scrolling through emails or other distractions.

Admittedly, this can be difficult to monitor during hybrid meetings, particularly larger ones. You’ll have more success when you keep your online presentations not only interesting, but also interactive. A quick Q and A, a game or direct questions can help keep everyone alert.

Who to invite?

As many of today’s companies strive to be more inclusive and employee-conscious, it can seem logical to invite an entire department so no one feels left out. Team members, however, likely won’t benefit from a meeting where they don’t have any input. It’s like sitting in a lecture for a class you’re not taking, just because your friend is in the class. Nice to be invited, but you have your own homework to do.

You’ll have better success by inviting only those who may contribute in some way. Look at what you want to accomplish — questions you need answered, plans you will make. Who is needed to do those things? Put them on the list. Everyone else? Ask if they have any input beforehand, then promise a wrap-up to keep them up-to-date.

Great expectations

From an employee’s perspective, they may feel obligated to attend because they don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings, or they’re worried about getting unofficial demerits. Let invitees know it's OK to decline. And get comfortable with the idea that saying no doesn’t mean they don’t care about your project — they may feel they don’t have anything significant to contribute, or they’re just plain busy.

Quick fixes

In a survey by Harvard Business Review of nearly 200 senior managers, 65% said meetings keep them from finishing work, and 64% felt meetings hurt opportunities for deep thinking. In addition, 71% called meetings inefficient and unproductive. Still, eliminating unimportant meetings may mean a paradigm shift. 

Some people like to see a full calendar — it makes them feel important and/or busy. If you or other managers in your company are addicted to meetings, you don’t need to quit cold turkey. But you can make some simple changes to when and how meetings are held.

  • Hold the chairs: People are more likely to get to the point — and less likely to meander or multitask — in a meeting where they are standing up
  • Shorten meeting times: Is 18 minutes enough? Set a timer or assign a timekeeper to let you know your set time is running out
  • Implement no meeting days: Having a day with no meetings allows employees to fully delve into their work without distraction
  • Email information: If you’ll be discussing statistics or reports, send them via email a few days beforehand. Then you can spend your limited time in business meetings strategizing and reviewing actions, instead of reading

Follow up

Once your meeting is concluded, send out a recap. It should include key points that were covered and assignments that were made, along with due dates. Make note of any relevant items you’ll be circling back to, as well. This will clarify what was discussed and what actions need to be taken.

How will you know if your new and improved business meetings are effective? Ask for feedback soon after or during stay interviews. Find more helpful workplace tips on the KSL Jobs Resource Center.