How to run effective meetings

Five principles for getting more done as a team

Author: Jennifer PhillipsNovember 6th, 2018Illustration by Kelsey Wroten

Understanding how to have effective meetings is likely one of the most important skills employees at all levels need to learn to thrive at work. And yet, according to online meeting provider Fuze, ineffective meetings waste an estimated $37 billion a year. A recent study in the Journal of Organizational Behavior found that, while wasting time is typically unacceptable in all other aspects of business life, “in the case of meetings, wasted time seems to be an accepted norm.” 

Meetings have earned a terrible reputation as a time suck, and it’s no wonder. Most people tend to default to using meetings for one purpose: to share information. While that can be essential sometimes, in reality, effective meeting strategies can help a team move work forward in a meaningful way—whether by gathering attendees to come to a decision, brainstorm new ideas, or workshop a solution to a problem.

Learning how to run effective meetings is not only a boon for productivity, but good meetings also inspire greater team collaboration which can have a direct effect on the overall happiness of workers.

Here are five tips for running effective meetings, which will hopefully make them more more enjoyable, too.

Ask yourself: Is this meeting actually a meeting?

Before even booking a room, ask yourself (or your team) if this meeting would be useful to them and, if so, who truly needs to be in attendance.

There are a couple of culprits disguising themselves as meeting-worthy, but the truth is that these meetings can often be pruned down or skipped altogether.

  • Presentations: If the meeting is mostly one person talking and a whole bunch of people listening while trying not to check their phones, it’s likely more of a presentation than a meeting. To keep folks engaged, try sending out the slides in advance, then devote the majority of your time together to hosting a group discussion in person or online.
  • Status updates: Generally, these types of meetings are quick and to the point anyway, so why force people to interrupt their day? Save team members from context switching by posting updates in a group message or even writing them on a whiteboard that the whole team can see. Follow-up discussions can then happen with just the people involved in that particular project or activity.

Dot out a meeting agenda

The first rule of running an effective meeting (once you’ve established whether or not your meeting is actually a meeting) is to set an agenda. This lets people know what to expect and can help table side discussions. “I like having an email with objectives or expectations before a meeting so I can be prepared,” says Farah Jaffer, a project consultant at Kaiser Permanente. “Or to inquire if the meeting is really necessary.”

And if you can have a designated facilitator to keep things humming along, even better. “Smart facilitators are key to successful meetings,” says Jaffer. “They keep people on track, are not afraid to interrupt, call out participants for being off-topic, and summarize the to-dos and next steps.”

Some other tips for running effective meetings include:

  • Start meetings on time. Many meetings are scheduled for 30 minutes but are really only 26 or 21 minutes long because people are checking email while waiting for someone to get there. At companies with more than 250 people, nearly 40% of meetings start late. Even worse, the annoyance that grows while waiting for the meeting to start spills over into the meeting itself, resulting in more interruptions, fewer ideas, and decreased morale. Crush that crankiness by getting started on time, even if everyone hasn’t arrived.
  • Plan to engage people or check in on attendees every 10 minutes. That’s the average attention span length, John Medina, a molecular biologist and author of Brain Rules, has found. As he puts it on his blog, “You’ve got 10 minutes with an audience before you will absolutely bore them. And you’ve got 30 seconds before they start asking the question, ‘Am I going to pay attention to you or not?’ The instant you open your mouth, you are on the verge of having your audience check out.”
  • Assign people roles before the meeting starts. Having a facilitator and a dedicated note taker is a good place to start. Or if you plan to engage specific people to speak on certain topics, make sure they’re briefed beforehand so they can come into the meeting well versed in their material and ready to share it.

How to have an effective meeting: types and suggested meeting lengths

Meeting type Ideal meeting length
Regular team meeting 15 to 30 minutes
Decision-making meeting A few hours, possibly a full day depending on the decision
Brainstorming meeting 40 minutes to 1 hour
Retrospective meeting 30 minutes for every week in the project
One-on-one meeting 30 minutes to 1 hour
Strategy meeting 60 to 90 minutes

Prepare people to actively listen

You’ve decided to meet, made your invite list, and created an agenda. Great! On the day of the meeting, try to make the most of it by preparing people to really listen. “Active listening” is a communication technique—frequently used by counselors, teachers, and researchers—in which you listen deeply, and solely, to the speaker. Active listeners live in the moment, taking in the speaker’s words, gestures, and facial expressions, rather than simply waiting for their turn to talk.

But to get people prepared to listen actively, you’ll have to set the scene a little bit. You can do this in various ways:

  • Make the meeting environment comfortable. That might mean providing some food and drinks—if the meeting takes place first thing in the morning or over lunch—and making sure the room is at an agreeable temperature. Chairs ought to be quiet, and, when possible, book a room that has some natural light so that people don’t get too comfortable.
  • Think about the optimal meeting time for your team. It’s a good idea to reserve some meetings for the morning when people have the most energy, or, as one study found, 2:30pm on a Tuesday also seems to work wonders.
  • It’s no surprise that effective meetings require the attention of all meeting participants. So, before you dive into the agenda items, get attendees relaxed and receptive with a brief icebreaker, whether it’s some light physical activity to relieve tension or a quick check-in on everyone’s day or week.
  • Close those laptops and put phones out of arm’s reach to reduce technological distractions. Don’t trust people to stop themselves from checking their phones: Science shows we literally can’t help ourselves.

Make meetings more inclusive   

Being inclusive doesn’t mean putting everyone in the company on the invite. Instead, think of inclusivity as a mindset. When you create a safe space for people to express opinions—a place where people’s ideas matter more than their titles—work can (seemingly magically) get finished. By removing the power structure from the room, as Pixar co-founder Ed Catmull did in his meetings, you remove a stumbling block on the path to creativity.

Just because everyone feels welcome at the meeting doesn’t mean everyone has to speak, though. There are many ways to keep people engaged and involved.

  • Encourage team members to take written notes. Research shows that writing notes by hand helps people learn more, recollect facts better later, and gain a deeper understanding of the material than when they type notes.
  • Have people write down their questions during the meeting. Collect them and go over them as a group. This can help introverts, or those who don’t feel comfortable speaking up, get their concerns addressed.
  • Break people into groups and have them accomplish small tasks, or make decisions, together. Then have them share their findings with the larger group.
  • Break the meeting into sections with a different person leading each section or part of the agenda. Switching up presenters helps refresh people’s attention span and encourages attendees to feel ownership over a topic or project.

For teams with people working remotely, you can beam them in via video conferencing for valuable face time. Make sure to meet at a time that’s friendly to their time zone when possible and that they can see and hear everyone clearly before you get started. It’s also a good idea to provide dedicated space during the meeting when remote team members can participate, like during an icebreaker question or other group activity.

Leave meetings with clear next steps and owners

Some meetings leave us drained, while others may leave us inspired and wanting more. If you’ve planned well, who knows—your meeting may actually end early. “I appreciate realistic agendas,” says Jaffer. “If the meeting finishes early because we tackled all the topics, no one complains.” Hopefully, at the end of your meeting, people will feel better about the topic or project and have more insight into the next steps.

Some effective meeting strategies to help ensure that people leave your meeting with clarity and purpose include:

  • Sum up the meeting with notes and action items. Make these notes accessible to everyone who attended the meeting. Consider sharing notes with others who couldn’t attend. Or better yet, record meetings and send out a link to the audio or video afterward. This is particularly valuable for team members working remotely or companies with a globally distributed workforce.
  • Assign action items or things to follow up on to specific individuals whenever possible. It’s also helpful to schedule a deadline or a time when someone will check in on progress.
  • If there were side discussions that were tabled, make sure they’re surfaced afterward so people can choose how, when, and if to keep them rolling.

Don’t forget to send out the occasional anonymous feedback form to gauge how effective the meeting was for attendees. Ask them if the meeting was meaningful for them. How would they improve it? Was it a valuable use of their time?

Running effective meetings can feel like a tall order, particularly when they’re the default way a company shares information. Too often, meetings ask for employees’ time but not for their thoughts or skill set. By meeting only when needed, crafting a solid agenda, priming people to listen deeply, being inclusive, and leaving with clear next steps, you can host effective meetings that leave everyone feeling inspired rather than frustrated.

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