How much of people’s work lives are lost to meetings? According to the National Statistics Council, 37 percent of an employee’s time is spent in meetings. And they hate it. Resentment about over-talkers, lack of an agenda, latecomers, and rehashing old topics leads to a general malaise—and even anger—about meetings. In fact, coming up with an excuse, even a far-fetched one, to skip a scheduled office meeting occupies as much time in many employees’ thoughts as actually sitting through the awful meeting itself.
Classic “better meeting” advice hasn’t changed much over the years. Create an agenda, distribute it ahead of time, stick to it, and end the meeting when you said you would. All solid, if conventional, tips. Missing from this standard advice is the most important question a manager (“facilitator”) should ask: “Why are we having this meeting?” Successful meetings, those that aren’t a waste of people’s time, fulfill at least one of three simple purposes: They 1) give information to the participants; 2) gather information from the participants; or 3) ask the participants to make a decision. A great meeting facilitator should be able to accomplish all three “purposes” in one meeting, but only if the right people are in the room.
The tendency to overpopulate meetings with employees who have little interest and even less expertise in the actual agenda sets a bad precedent. “Extraneous” employees would rather be working, not sullenly listening to those better suited to tackling the meeting’s purpose. Rather than feeling excluded, the employee left out of the conference room is most likely relieved and willing to bring energy to a future meeting she actually wants to attend.
Management experts like to quote Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos on the “ideal” meeting size. Bezos apparently follows the “two pizza rule.” If you can’t feed the people present with two pepperoni pies, you’ve invited more employees to the meeting than you need. Less colorful, but more specific, is the general rule that within a one-hour meeting, each participant should ideally speak three times, assuming a talking point or question average one minute, with 18 people present. Few would choose to apply such an admittedly rigid rule to human discourse. As an ultimate goal, however, it serves a purpose: Speak briefly (3–5 minutes) and keep listening (50 minutes).
What about multitaskers? Most good facilitators set a ground rule of no cell phones or laptops, assuming those attending are not being asked to review company data on their screens. The “no screens” rule should include the facilitator, which she can affirm by taking her own notes on paper. Keeping everyone focused is the hardest part of meeting management. It can only happen if everyone present commits to the process and leaves their hands, sans cell phones, on the tabletop.
If this sounds draconian or paternalistic, one need only reference the recent change in Minnesota’s driving laws. If you can’t text or chat on your cell phone when you’re behind the wheel, the same principle should apply when you’re “guiding” the company, if only as a meeting attendee in the confines of a conference room.
Finally, the real secret to good meetings is the work that goes on before and after. When the facilitator sends out the agenda (preferably at least two days ahead of time), employees should be encouraged to email their own questions back before the meeting. Most of these queries will not be fully answered at the meeting, but it is crucial that they are asked at all. Attendees, by reading and actually reflecting on agenda items, start the meeting process early. They’re already engaged in problem-solving, which makes the meeting sound more like an opportunity than an obligation.
After the meeting but on the same day it happened, the facilitator should send out meeting notes that clearly delineate, not just summarize, the results of the meeting, and who’s going to do what, and when. Call it a follow-up, recap, or action plan, the facilitator’s meeting notes tell the employee that his time is important, especially his time just spent in a meeting.
Linda L. Holstein is a Minneapolis writer, trial lawyer, and veteran employment law attorney with her own law firm, Holstein Law Group. She helps individuals and businesses, including MSP Communications, with workplace issues.