6 Steps to More Productive (and Fewer) Meetings

By Bill Peatman | Updated: 22 Feb, 2022

Executives spent up to 67 percent of their time in meetings before 2020, and by most accounts, that number went up during the work from home movement.

  • Most employees experienced a 70 percent increase in meetings.
  • One-on-one meetings increased an 18 percent.
  • Weekly meetings increased a 10 percent.

And 71 percent of employees said meetings keep them from being productive.

The proliferation of meetings raises the question asked by analysts at McKinsey: “If we’re all so busy, why isn’t anything getting done?”

“With endless meetings, incessant emails, and casts of thousands [of attendees], companies have mastered the art of unnecessary interactions,” McKinsey said. “Winning in the next normal requires much more focus on true collaboration.”

6 Steps to More Productive (and Fewer)) Meetings

1. Cancel all Meetings and Start Over

Atlassian executive Dominic Prince famously canceled all his meetings. To any organizers that invited him back, he demanded to know why he was needed, what role was expected of him, and what he would be accountable for. In every meeting that he accepted; his role was completely different than what he had thought it would be.

Prince ended up with 60 percent fewer meetings on his schedule. “I got back literally 15 hours of my week. I got to reinvest those,” Price said. “I didn’t reduce my hours, I just got 15 hours to invest in something more valuable than to attend meetings where I had no role.”

2. Have a Meeting Agenda and Stick to It

Every meeting should have a detailed agenda that is part of the invitation. Everyone should know the purpose of the meeting, the material that will be covered, the outcome expected, and what will be required of them.

If you do not have an agenda, you should question whether the meeting is needed. In fact, a good agenda can make the meeting unnecessary. For example, if you are meeting to plan an event or document that has been postponed or canceled, someone invited to the meeting will point that out. An agenda also helps you bring closure to a meeting—when you reach the final item everyone can go back to work, rather than continue an open-ended discussion.

3. Assign More Homework Before Meetings

Sandra Porter, the author of How to be an HR Superstar, says most meetings are held for the wrong reason—focusing on updates rather than on outputs or decisions. Updates can be done asynchronously via email, wiki pages, or other channels.

Do not spend meeting time reviewing reports that could be reviewed in advance. Get your updates done beforehand. “Make the meeting as output-focused as possible so that everyone comes to the table with their thinking hat on, not thinking about what to have for dinner.”

Keep in mind that 69 percent of employees check their email frequently during a meeting, and 49 percent do other unrelated work during meetings rather than paying attention to the meeting agenda.

4. Rethink the One-Hour Meeting

Parkinson’s law says that work expands to fill the time we allocate for it. The same can be said of meetings. Set aside an hour, and the meeting will take an hour. Set aside 15 minutes, and you just might find that this is enough time.

Teams at automation software maker Zapier have the policy to use instant messaging for most communications, and if a thread goes beyond five or six messages, to call a 15-minute video meeting. The goal is to save time, not waste it. The instant messaging threads also give everyone access to thought processes and decisions—eliminating the “I missed the meeting” syndrome where individuals are left out.

5. Empower Teams to Make Decisions without You

“How often do you tell your teams what to do versus empowering them to come up with solutions,” McKinsey asked. “While they may solve the immediate need to 'get stuff done,’ bureaucracies and micromanagement are a recipe for disaster.”

McKinsey is also a fan of the 15-minute meeting in the form of a daily team standup, where everyone identifies plans for the day and any obstacles that they face. “Leaders should play what we call the coach role: coaches don’t tell people what to do but instead provide guidance and guardrails and ensure accountability while stepping back and allowing others to come up with solutions.”

It is also important that your reports know you are available to them and that you create a level of psychological safety: ‘If employees don’t feel psychologically safe, it will be nearly impossible for leaders and managers to break through disempowering behaviors like constant escalation, hiding problems or risks, and being afraid to ask questions.”

6. Focus on the ROI of Meetings

If you calculate the value of each attendee's time in terms of their hourly wages, your perspective on a meeting’s value changes. Executives’ time is valued in hundreds of dollars per hour—having six of them in a meeting is expensive. How much value is being generated by them being together in the same physical or virtual space?

Sandra Porter believes that any meeting should create at least twice as much value as the cost of the attendees’ time. That might seem like a tall order, but, as McKinsey insists, “leaders should treat time spent in meetings as seriously as companies treat financial capital. Every leader in every organization should ask the following questions before attending any meeting: What’s this meeting for? What’s my role? Can I shorten this meeting by limiting live information sharing and focusing on discussion and decision making?”

Not all Meetings are Bad

Everyone loves to hate meetings. But not all meetings are bad or a waste of time. Decisions need to be made, and live discussions can add context and raise issues that might not be well communicated in email or chat. As McKinsey said. “High quality, focused interactions can improve productivity, speed, and innovation within any organization—and drive better business performance” Still, many organizations fall into the trap of assuming every project needs a weekly meeting, and that is not the case.

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About the Author: Bill is Prialto's senior content marketing manager and writes about the future of work and how businesses can be more productive and successful. His work has appeared in the World Economic Forum Agenda blog and CIO magazine.