Combating meeting fatigue requires planning, task management and slicing meeting times in half
Few sights are as intimidating as the collection of rectangles crammed top to bottom on a Microsoft Outlook calendar. This segmented block signals that the day has been preemptively consumed with back-to-back meetings, leaving little time to check in with the team, finish any lingering business from the day before or respond to emails—let alone grab a bite to eat. But because other people are involved, time-consuming face time feels unavoidable.
Meetings have proliferated in the modern workplace, particularly in open offices where privacy is at a premium. Any group of two or more people squirreled away in a conference room, even if some join remotely, constitutes a meeting. The same telecommunications that ease the process of attending a meeting are also the ones eliminating any excuse not to attend, as anyone out of the office can dial into a conference line or contribute via Zoom, Skype or other video chat platforms.
Yet too often, meetings are called for the purpose of sharing information when—you know the memes—a simple email would suffice. It’s far too easy to veer off course when new TV shows and the office Christmas party provide more dynamic fodder for conversation. To make the best use of everyone’s time, meetings should be called and run as if teaching a board game: Distribute instructions beforehand, execute with brevity, address all relevant questions and leave a lasting impression requiring minimal follow-up.
Why Are Meetings Important?
When done right, meetings are a boon to productivity. Gathering all the decision-makers in the same room ensures projects can move forward with their blessing and guidance. Meetings provide employees the opportunity to contribute ideas for big-picture initiatives that may not be within their direct purview but affect them all the same. Plus, alternate forms of communication such as Slack messages or emails can be misinterpreted; tone, humor and irony are difficult to decipher when the words aren’t spoken.
An excess of poorly run meetings can have negative implications on both output and the bottom line. According to Australian software company Atlassian, employees attend, on average, 62 meetings a month, half of which they consider wasted time. These numbers shake out to $37 billion lost each year because employees aren’t working while in meetings.
Companies are guilty of scheduling meetings for the wrong reasons. Dick Massimilian, management consultant and author of “How to Lead an Effective Meeting (and Get the Results You Want),” says that too many meetings fail because they’re unproductive and veer off track. “People hate meetings where nothing gets done and then you have another meeting later on to talk about the same thing,” he says.
Other meetings, Massimilian adds, are called for the simple purpose of sharing information—a task better suited for an email exchange. The hard-and-fast rule for when to call a meeting is this: Only request a meeting when multiple employees need to align themselves around an upcoming decision, and the process would consume too much time or prove too distracting if conducted any other way.
How Can You Demonstrate Your Mastery?
The root cause of meeting issues, Massimilian says, is that people are placing too much emphasis on the meeting itself rather than everything that comes before it. “I’d say [a successful meeting] is 75% preparation, 25% execution,” he says. “Getting ready for a meeting is more about putting the rabbit in the hat than actually pulling it out.”
Adequate preparation is a team effort, making it paramount that an agenda be distributed before the meeting so that participants understand what will be covered. Begin with a one-sentence purpose statement for the meeting (e.g., what will be accomplished), followed by three or four bullet points representing key takeaways or deliverables. Each of those items should include the amount of time the group should spend on that topic before moving to the next one. Place this agenda in the calendar invite as a reminder to participants to come prepared.
Now is an appropriate time to revisit the list of attendees. Eliminate those who aren’t part of the decision-making process or are only peripherally involved with the meeting topic. If an employee may speak for an entire division, exclude others within that department. The goal is to keep meetings short and sweet, and it’s easier to wrangle fewer attendees than more.
Cameron Herold, author of “Meetings Suck: Turning One of the Most Loathed Elements of Business into One of the Most Valuable,” suggests reconsidering how much time is really required to cover each topic. Then, cut that time in half. “You’ll end up controlling the idle chatter and sticking to the agenda,” he says.
Once everyone arrives, kick things off by assigning roles to three people in attendance. (In smaller meetings, people can take on more than one.) One person, typically the organizer, will act as the moderator, taking responsibility for keeping participants on task and confirming all agenda items are covered. Another attendee should act as a time-keeper with an eye on the clock, alerting the moderator when it’s time to change topics. Finally, designate someone as the keeper of the “parking lot”—a space on a whiteboard or shared document where they can track any topics that may need revisiting after the meeting is complete.
Because time is of the essence, approach conversations with a plan of attack. Herold says he often asks the most junior person in attendance to speak first on a topic, followed by more senior employees. “Often, by the time he gets to the CEO or the head of marketing, they don’t need to add anything,” he says. “Our job is to grow people. So the more that we’re focused on hearing from [junior-level people], letting them contribute, letting them feel heard and valued, the more they will.”
The moderator’s job includes soliciting comments from all participants if need be; given that invites are sparse, each person should feel empowered to share their ideas. Massimilian recommends that moderators consider all personality types in attendance and engage with each accordingly. “As Isabel Myers [who helped develop the Myers-Briggs personality test] said, ‘If you don’t know what an extrovert is thinking, you’re not listening, and if you don’t know what an introvert is thinking, you haven’t asked,’” he says.
Massimilian suggests ending meetings unambiguously, then completing the necessary follow-up.. “You should say, ‘Meeting adjourned.’ Literally,” he says. “If you had action items, circulate them [via] email so that everybody’s clear about what was accomplished. … It gives you a reference point if you want to have a subsequent meeting.”
That’s one meeting down, countless more to go. But as meetings become shorter and more efficient, they’ll occupy less space on the calendar, opening up more room to actually play the game—and, more importantly, breathe.
Illustration by Bill Murphy.