5 ways to make sure a meeting isn’t a waste of time

5 ways to make sure a meeting isn’t a waste of time

There are those who are openly critical about work meetings. Among them is Dave Barry, writer, columnist and Pulitzer prize-winner, who famously quipped: “If you had to identify, in one word, the reason why the human race has not achieved, and will never achieve, its full potential, that word would be ‘meetings’.”


Witty sarcasm aside, the truth is there’s overwhelming data about meetings turning into time thieves: employees attend an average of 62 meetings per month; nine out of 10 people claim to daydream in them and 25% of the time is usually spent on irrelevant issues. So where is the fine line that separates a meeting that’s productive from one that’s simply a waste of time? If you often think “this meeting could have been an email instead” and you feel frustrated when you get back to your to-do list, here are some tips to manage your meetings and make them truly effective.

1. Analyse the objective of the meeting

The first step towards an effective meeting is to work out the reason why it has been called. This is fundamental and will help you customise the framework of each meeting and ensure that it sticks to the objectives. How complex is the main topic? Is the meeting on a new subject or is it simply the periodic monitoring of an ongoing project? Knowing why a meeting was arranged allows us to evaluate its relevance. For this, we must pay special attention to the following:

Recurrent meetings

Sometimes work routine and the inertia that comes with carrying out everyday tasks means that we get stuck in a rut. An example of this is regular follow-up meetings. Are they always essential? Since the objective of each meeting—periodic ones, too—is to be productive, ask yourself these two questions before deciding whether to keep the next scheduled meeting:

  • Does the next meeting have a specific agenda?
  • Do you have all the necessary information for the meeting to be productive?

If you come to the conclusion that your next scheduled meeting is necessary, do continue to analyse follow-up meetings moving forwards. For example, if the meeting resolved all the issues, does another one still make sense? This way of thinking will help you choose which meetings are truly worth keeping and eliminate those that don’t add value.

Meetings about simple topics

We tend to think that a meeting is necessary to resolve issues that involve a number of employees. However, before sending out invitations to your colleagues, ask yourself if there is another way to solve the matter you need to address, such as a conversation on Slack or a similar internal communication channel. If it is a straightforward issue, perhaps you could use a more agile and simple channel to manage it.

2. Meeting preparation

Preparing the meeting in advance, either in person or remotely, is key to its effectiveness. In fact, a study carried out by Doodle in 2019 reveals the importance of preparation for a successful meeting. Among the points that make a meeting productive, 72% of respondents said that setting clear goals is essential, followed by 67% who highlighted the importance of creating a pre-meeting agenda.

The agenda

Just as the meeting topic needs to be clear, it is also crucial to establish an agenda of the issues to be discussed. Most importantly, this agenda should be accessible to all participants beforehand. This will give everyone time to personally prepare for the meeting—both the organiser and the rest of the attendees—to make sure they can contribute new ideas and make their participation relevant to achieving the objectives.

What’s expected of attendees?

An agenda helps us to identify the role of each participant during the meeting. To prevent attendees from becoming mere spectators and allow them to actively participate, they need to know in advance what is expected of them. For example, one might provide specific sales data from last month; another might address the doubts of another department on a certain project; someone else could take the minutes of the meeting and be in charge of following up on agreed action points. This will also make the meeting flow and move swiftly through all the items on the agenda.

3. Set the length of the meeting

Some meetings can end in off-topic, rambling conversations, which makes those final minutes much less productive. Decisions aren’t being made, but inevitably the meeting gets longer. To avoid this, it’s important to know in advance the specific slot available to address an issue so you can cover the topic in the allotted time frame.

Apply the general principle of “less is more” to the duration of meetings. However, don’t forget the quantity and complexity of topics on the agenda: some will take more than an hour; others more like 30 minutes.

Start on time!

Professor Steven Rogelberg, director of organisational science at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, believes that work meetings “must be short, few in number and with a clear purpose for them to be effective”. In his book, The Surprising Science of Meetings, he also states that arriving late can create frustration among participants, which can negatively affect the meeting’s development. According to Professor Rogelberg, in meetings that start late, attendees tend to interrupt each other more, and more parallel conversations occur. And if there’s anything more frustrating than starting late, it’s ending late.

4. Invite only essential participants

It is highly likely that every participant at a meeting can contribute innovative ideas to a project. However, decision-making can become complicated when the number of contributions becomes excessive and difficult to manage. Limiting participants is something that Kristen Gil, vice president of business operations and strategy at Google, included in the company’s updated meeting policy to make them more effective. Her recommendations included a maximum number of participants: never more than ten. In addition, all those who are present must actively participate.

… And postpone meetings when key players aren’t available

There may be other scenarios regarding key participants that you need to consider. For example, what should you do if someone who is presenting a main topic or important data on a particular issue is unable to attend? Your knee-jerk reaction is probably to move the meeting forward, but perhaps this isn’t the best option. If you don’t have the information you need to fully develop any of the items on the agenda, this creates grounds for a second meeting, where you can resolve everything at once. In this context, we don’t recommend rushing a decision. Take a few minutes to assess whether it makes more sense to re-schedule or keep the meeting.

5. Run through any conclusions and allocated tasks at the end of the meeting

To ensure that all participants have noted the key points and that the purpose of the meeting is achieved, we recommend the following:

  • State the conclusions by way of closing the meeting.
  • Send a follow-up email with action points assigned to each attendee. Don’t make this a tedious read; instead go for a brief summary that clearly reflects what each participant must do for the project to move forward.

Try to avoid developing a negative mind-set about meetings; after all, they are firmly anchored in our day-to-day work life. In the words of Professor Rogelberg, “a world without meetings is not the answer”. According to this expert, they are a guarantee of democracy within many organisations. So let’s use constructive criticism to give them back their value and to fulfill their purpose again. It depends on us!

Translated by Sunita Maharaj-Landaeta

Photo: WTTJ

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Núria López

Periodista freelance

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