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How to Waste Less Time in Meetings

by Hanna Brooks Olsen
money & life

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Photo via Flickr.

There’s a productivity crisis in the corporate world — a silent, widely-hated, yet seemingly-necessary evil that saps our collective resources and burns money like nobody’s business. And yet, few companies actually keep tabs on this important metric. It’s time wasted in meetings, and if you’re in upper management, it’s probably eating up close to half of your days.

According to research done by Fuse, managers spend between 35 and 50% of their time in meetings alone. That contributes to the overall waste of — get this — about 70% of your at-work hours. If you’re a numbers person, that equates to about 28 hours of your work week, assuming you only put in 40 hours. But, of course, you probably spend a lot more than 40 hours at work, ostensibly because of all the time you’re wasting in meetings.

Of course, meetings can also be really useful. Healthy workplaces often have open-door policies, where team members are encouraged to share ideas and concerns with their supervisors and peers. Virgin CEO Richard Branson believes firmly that listening is a necessary key to good leadership, and that teams should be encouraged to collaborate.

“Through discussion and listening, you can stumble on solutions that no one else has thought of – solutions that will help you to create your unique foundation for success,” he explains.

To help foster those discussions, Virgin sets aside time for Google Hangouts, wherein team members can discuss and come up with ideas. However, those sessions are not meetings — and it’s important to draw those distinctions. Too often, a meeting becomes a time to discuss other issues, leaving the actual subject of the meeting to be discussed…in another meeting.

So how do you break the cycle?

First, it’s important to decide whether or not you even need the meetings you’re having — and who needs to attend.

Before you even send out the calendar invite, determine the goal of the meeting. To check in? To launch a new campaign? To address a long-standing issue within the company? If you’re not sure, or it’s something that could be covered with a brief conversation between just a few people, narrow your scope and see if you can minimize the amount of time needed, or the number of people you need there.

“Invite fewer people to the meeting,” writes Ray B. Williams for Psychology Today, noting that “productivity goes down with increasing numbers of participants.” Rather than extending a blanket invitation to an entire team, conduct smaller one-on-ones, or just invite the people who will be leaving with actual marching orders. If your goal when you invite people is just to improve visibility or company-wide education, have someone take notes during the meeting, then circulate those. That way, the conversation stays more on-topic, and allows for higher levels of productivity.

Then, once you’ve established an invite list and the goals for the meeting, draft an agenda and make sure everyone has a copy with plenty of advance notice.

“As meeting organizer, it’s your responsibility to have clarity about objectives,” writes Victor Lipman for Forbes, “Consult with another team member if you need to; a little extra time at the front end will save more time at the back end.” Ideally, he says, you’d spend twice as much time on the agenda as you normally would. This lets your team members prepare, to allow for productive contributions, and to set clear expectations.

In the meeting, be sure to stay on topic — and foster a culture of honest communication. If someone is getting off-topic or eating up too much time with an issue that doesn’t impact every person who’s present in the room, let them know that they can save that for a better, more effective time. Cutting someone off may seem rude, but wasting the time of everyone in the room is just as inconsiderate.

Meetings should also produce some kind of tangible achievement, which is most often an action item for each team member exiting the room. Borrow a tactic from Apple and make everyone accountable for something from the meeting.

“Apple breeds accountability at meetings by having a Directly Responsible Individual whose name appears next to all of the agenda items they are responsible for,” writes 99U’s Sean Blanda, “With every task tagged, there’s rarely any confusion about who should be getting what done.”

Mandating a hard stop is another way to ensure productivity among all meeting attendees, because it ensures that everyone can get on to their next agenda item, whether it be another meeting (which would be delayed if your meeting went long), or whatever else they have planned. If your meeting is scheduled to end, but you don’t feel that enough has been accomplished, send an email out afterward asking what else people might still want to discuss. Then, rather than immediately putting another meeting on the books, you can decide who still needs to talk, and what about.

Another big tip: Use the tools that are available. Skype, Google Hangouts, or other programs which allow for video feeds can help ensure that communications are clear and valuable. In her research, body language expert and Science of People founder Vanessa Van Edwards has found that over 90% of communication occurs non-verbally, which means that meetings which take place over the phone — with no video — are less productive as a communication tool.

And if all else fails, put time wasted in meetings in terms of dollars and cents. Incorporate wasted time into your budget, and you might be surprised just how much it adds up to. According to HubSpot, estimates for the “total salary cost of unnecessary meetings for U.S. business is $37 billion.” Figure out exactly how much of your executive time you’re spending, then see how you can cut that cost.

The most effective meetings are the ones where everyone leaves feeling like they’ve learned something, and that they have clear next-steps. By implementing some discipline into your meeting planning and execution, you can make sure your people — no matter the size of your business — are using their time as effectively as possible.

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Hanna Brooks Olsen

Hanna Brooks Olsen is a writer and editor for CreativeLive, longtime reporter, and the co-founder of Seattlish. Follow her on Twitter at @mshannabrooks or go to her website for more stuff.