A manifesto for better meetings

It’s two o’clock in the afternoon and you’ve just finished your sixth meeting of the day. You’ve quickly logged out of the meeting, ran to the bathroom, grabbed a drink, and are now back at your desk dialing into the next meeting…about three minutes late (because it started at two!). If this reminds you of your normal day, you’re not alone. Knowledge workers spend >50% of their time in meetings (which has increased nearly 70% during the pandemic). For every minute we spend in a meeting, there’s another minute lost for other work.

I want to be clear on one thing…meetings are not bad. Meetings enable individuals and teams to collaborate and share information in ways that other async communication methods simple can’t. What is bad though? Poorly planned and run meetings.

Meetings are broken today. We default to “let’s set up a meeting for this” instead of “should we have a meeting for this?” The biggest problem is that a bad meeting doesn’t just waste your time but everyone who attends. I believe there is a better way.

So what makes a good meeting?

  1. Start your meetings five minutes LATE

Many collaboration tools have the option to default meeting lengths to be a litter shorter. For example, Google Calendar has a feature called Speedy Meetings which allows you to make a 1-hour meeting 50 minutes by default, ending the meeting early so participants can have a quick break. The problem with this practice is most meetings run over the extra 10 minutes, leaving you right back to where you started.

Instead, consider starting your meeting five minutes later than usual (e.g. 2:05PM instead of 2:00PM). Your attendees will come in delighted as they realize they have a quick five-minute reprieve from the meetings gauntlet.

  1. Fill out the description of the meeting invite

If you were to look at your calendar, I bet more than half the meetings have an empty description box. It’s so easy to just add a meeting to someone’s calendar, but when we do this we put all the ownership on the attendee to understand what the meeting is for and how they should come prepared (and then we act surprised when people don’t come prepared!).

Instead, consider answering three questions in the description box for every meeting you set up:

  1. Why are we having this meeting?
  2. What is the goal/outcome needed from the meeting?
  3. Who should attend this meeting? (which allows people who are forwarded the meeting invite to opt out because they realize they are not the intended audience)

This might take an extra minute to fill out in the invite, but the savings you experience in time and participation will pay back immediately.

  1. Create (and send out) a meeting agenda with timeboxes

Close your eyes and imagine you’ve just started a meeting with the intention of getting to a specific goal. The facilitator starts the meeting with “so, what should we do with our time today?” You immediately know you won’t be getting to that goal and another meeting will be scheduled shortly to try again. “Just wing it” might be a good name for a chicken restaurant, but not a philosophy for meeting facilitation.

Instead, spend time before the meeting constructing an agenda with timeboxes to help keep the meeting on track. These timeboxes don’t have to be minute-by-minute, but should represent small chunks of time with specific goals (e.g.10 minutes – review and gather feedback on project goal). Even better, send out the agenda 24 hours prior to the meeting and ask for feedback…should we consider changing anything before we meet? I personally like to use the Meeting Notes template in Confluence to do this!

  1. Build in time for material review

I bet most of us have been to a meeting where the first thing the facilitator said was “I hope you all had a chance to read the material I sent out before hand.” At this point we usually mutter something that passes as “sort of” and then actively try to avoid eye contact with others in the room. Based the number of meetings we attend each day,I can’t imagine when people would find the time to read the material beforehand…which ultimately leads to a meeting where not much gets accomplished.

Instead, lean into this fact and schedule the first 15-20 minutes of the meetings for “material review.” Use this time to allow the group to read through the material and collect their thoughts and feedback. Even better, if you’re using a collaboration tool like Confluence, create a Confluence page with the material and ask everyone to review and add comments to the page during this time. You can then spend the rest of the time actively discussing next steps on the content instead of making guesses on what you think the content said.

  1. Determine if the meeting is needed BEFORE sending the invite

If you’ve found yourself thinking “this meeting should have been an email” you’re probably right. Most meetings we attend are created with good intention, but as they say…the path to hell is paved with good intentions.

Instead, ask yourself “what can I do to NOT make this a meeting” first before scheduling. Not sure how to do this? Check out this awesome graphic that can help you determine if a meeting is really needed.

Source: Atlassian Work Life Blog How to run effective meetings in the era of hybrid work

Let’s wrap it up

At the end of the day there is one resource none of us can create more of…time. We need to be ruthless in how we prioritize and protect our time for ourselves, but also those around us. Regardless of your role in the organization, let’s all commit to following the golden rule of meetings…

Don’t send a meeting unto others that you wouldn’t want to have sent to you.