My Thoughts on Meetings

Meetings can take up a lot of time and cost companies a fair amount of money. They often distract from real work, and fill up our day. When we have too many of them, it is difficult to remain enthusiastic about participating. Here, I’ll provide my thoughts on meetings. I’ll make the case for why we should seek to reduce the amount of time we spend them, and why we should make the time we do spend in them as productive as possible.

Why (Too Many) Meetings Are Bad

Here are some interesting tidbits:

  • Time spent in meetings keeps rising
    • Meetings often start and end late
  • People don’t pay as much attention during meetings as you’d think:
  • The majority of meetings have no agenda
  • Decision-making during meetings is not all it’s cracked up to be
  • Tracking status is best done other ways
    • Reporting on work is faster in parallel when distributed (i.e., everyone reports their own status updates via tickets)
    • Handling people that haven’t updated their task status can be done individually (or email shamed to a group if necessary)
  • Meeting requires scheduling
    • Often requires delaying decisions because not all participants are available
    • Conflicts or meetings “going over” can cause cascading disruptions
    • People miss meeting reminders or sometimes just can’t show up

Some Goals

  • Spend less time in meetings
  • Focus more on asynchronous methods of decision making
  • Empower decision making through autonomy and a collaborative culture
  • Ensure meetings that survive scrutiny are organized, purposeful, and productive

How To Accomplish Them

Hold fewer meetings

If there is one thing to take away from this entire post, it is this: Before sending a meeting invitation, consider if a decision can be reached another way. Other options include email, chat room, or even pull requests. Many times, a group chat or an email thread could replace a meeting, often with much better results.

Carefully consider attendee lists. Mark only decision stakeholders as required with others as optional. Don’t assume optional attendees will attend.

Cancel ceremonial/repeating meetings unless they are actually valuable. Some helpful questions to ask include:

  • Are decisions made frequently in the meeting?
  • Do most participants leave the meeting feeling like they’ve learned something useful?
  • Follow up with participants (maybe even at the end of the meeting) and ask if they feel the meeting was helpful and worth repeating

Delegate decisions to decision owners. They can prevent analysis paralysis and can still collaborate with others as necessary.

Hold better meetings

Provide an agenda and stick to it. Having an agenda has numerous benefits. Stick to agenda topics and move the conversation along so all agenda topics are covered. Give decision-makers a heads-up about their action items and talking points ahead-of-time.

Keep audiences small and durations short. Short attendee lists and meetings that remain under 90 minutes help keep people interested. Consider smaller discussions if large portions of meetings aren’t useful for everyone invited.

Take notes and take them live and in plain sight. Allowing people to see notes as they’re taken allows for on-the-spot correction/clarification. It also ensures that all talking points are covered and action items can be identified and even assigned during the conversation.

Attend fewer meetings

Decline meetings that you feel provide you no value (or if you won’t add value). Ask for agendas when there aren’t any. Review and report on your action items before accepting invites. For your action items, if they can be answered ahead of time, provide your answers and ask if anything else is required.

Make sure time spent in meetings is at least as valuable as something else you could be doing (i.e., assess opportunity costs).

Block out time on your calendar to get work done and be especially critical of meetings that double-book your time. If a meeting invite doesn’t take into account your schedule, you probably aren’t a required participant.

Be a better attendee

For meetings that survive all of the above, be present or don’t attend. For your time and everyone else’s, be ready to participate and prepared to focus. Humans are not good at context switching; participate in the meeting or excuse yourself.

Be sure to understand any action items and be prepared to follow up in the most appropriate way (almost always something other than a follow-up meeting). Let people know you’ll be following up on something “offline” so they (and anyone else interested in participating) are aware.

In addition, if you’re not adding value (or if you aren’t getting value), leave. If you don’t have any listed action items to speak to, drop off.

Ask questions you have about any action items assigned to you during the meeting. There’s something especially infuriating for meeting organizers about leaving a meeting thinking everyone understands what their tasks are when they don’t.

Conclusion

So are meetings all bad? No, absolutely not. It might not be possible to decrease the number of meetings we have in all cases. Sometimes, a meeting really is the best way to accomplish a goal. That said, there are many opportunities to optimize the number of attendees, the length of their involvement, or how organized meetings are.

Meetings definitely still have their place. They’re perfect for things like one-on-one chats, brainstorming sessions, or just helping develop a sense of community. Seeing coworkers’ faces or hearing their voices can help build meaningful psychological connections. But, we don’t strengthen those connections when we feel bored or dread a day full of meetings. Finding the right balance is absolutely crucial. I’m certain many of us can tell we’ve strayed pretty far from an ideal balance. I believe these steps can help, though I know they won’t be easy. If we ever want to reach Level 5 – “Nirvana” of remote working, we’ll need to put in the effort.

Further Reading