The future of work continues to evolve more than two years after we lurched into global lockdowns. Remote work has largely been successful, according to a 2021 PwC survey, and more than half of employers report that they plan to offer expanded remote options long-term. But we’ve learned a lot since then, especially when it comes to running remote and hybrid teams more smoothly. One of the biggest realizations is that meetings can be a giant waste of time.
Whether your employees work remotely, in-office or both, meetings still have their place. To maximize their effectiveness, it can help to learn the difference between a formal meeting and an informal one and which to use when.
Informal versus formal meetings
A formal meeting is what you likely think of first. There’s a set agenda and a strict protocol. One person typically leads the discussion. There might be rules on who can speak when and for how long. Often a notetaker records minutes, which follow a specific structure and use more formal language.
In a formal meeting, time is usually broken into blocks, with the schedule distributed in advance. For example, the main speakers might talk for 30 minutes each, followed by small-group breakout sessions, with everyone reconvening to discuss the results.
While the structure might be a bit old-fashioned, most formal meetings today rely heavily on modern electronic communication tools.
Examples of formal meetings include, but are not limited to:
- Board meetings
- Team or departmental meetings
- Quarterly reviews
- Committee meetings
- Governmental debates
An informal meeting may not look like a traditional meeting at all. It is typically much looser or more flexible. Rather than a conference room or video-conferencing call, it might take place in a break room, an office or even a local bar or restaurant. There are few specific protocols, though the group might agree to certain conventions such as voice votes.
An informal meeting might have a loose plan, but participants typically feel freer to go “off script.” People can generally interject whenever they want, and brainstorming is common. Informal meetings usually happen within a specific time block but might run longer or shorter depending on how things develop.
Examples of informal meetings include, but are not limited to:
- Training sessions
- Problem-solving meetings
- Post–formal meeting discussions
- Talks on upcoming changes
In essence, a formal meeting has a structured schedule and agenda with set protocols and an official notetaker. An informal meeting has a looser agenda and fewer protocols. In general, formal meetings tend to focus on one or a few key speakers, with attendees playing a more passive role. Informal meetings are often more collaborative discussions, with everyone taking a turn in the spotlight.
Note that weekly team meetings, including project meetings and the like, may be either formal or informal. In most cases, it works best to run them informally. But a formal structure can work best for meetings that largely revolve around presentations. For example, if the development team presents a finalized website layout, it may be best to use formal conventions to keep the meeting on track.
Pros and cons of each type of meeting
Each type of meeting has its place, but the two are not interchangeable.
- Recorded minutes
- Lack of flexibility
- Stifled creativity
- Inability to pivot
- Lack of structure
- No formal minutes
Productivity versus innovation
When deciding which meeting type to use, think about your goals for that meeting. In general, formal meetings are best for:
- Disseminating information
- Holding recorded votes
- Featuring guest speakers
Informal meetings are usually best for:
- Spurring creativity
- Getting feedback
But what about productivity and innovation? Do they favor one type of meeting over the other? Like so much in life, it depends.
You could argue that formal meetings are better for productivity since they follow a set plan. Informal meetings are often better for innovation since they leave room for interaction and creativity. But if you’re not using the right tools and following the best practices for each type of meeting, both can quickly go off the rails. Likewise, both methods can foster productivity and innovation when used to their maximum potential.
Best practices and tools for each meeting type
So what tools should you use for each type of meeting? And what are some of the best practices? Let’s take a look.
Formal meetings are most effective when you follow certain best practices:
- Send the agenda to all participants in advance so they know what to expect
- Set parameters and expectations, from how long each person may speak to how votes are recorded
- Use an experienced notetaker who knows how to record formal minutes
- Send out a copy of the minutes and related documents to all participants within a few days after the meeting
Depending on your unique needs, common tools include:
- Video-conferencing software (be sure to test it ahead of time)
- Notepads and pens or note-taking software
- Screen-sharing software
- Stopwatch or timer
Although they don’t have strict protocols, it’s important to follow best practices when conducting informal meetings to keep them efficient and on track.
- Loose agenda. Lay out the basics of why you’re meeting and what will be discussed, even if this happens collaboratively at the start of the meeting.
- Moderator/facilitator/timekeeper. Even in an informal meeting, if there are multiple participants and things to discuss, it’s wise to designate one person to keep things on track. For example, each person might get five minutes to speak. The timekeeper can alert the speaker when their time is almost up.
- Agreed-upon conventions. If you plan to hold a vote or make decisions, agree at the outset on how this will happen. Will people vote by hand, in writing or in a poll? Does a simple majority make decisions, or does someone have veto power? Taking a few minutes to agree helps avoid disagreements.
- Note-taking. Informal meetings don’t require formal minutes, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t keep a record. Notes provide written documentation for everyone to refer back to later on. Designate someone to take notes or, better yet, conduct your informal meetings via recorded video or chat.
Exactly which tools you need depends on the purpose of your informal meeting. In general, though, you might need such things as:
- Video-conferencing software (test in advance)
- Note-taking software or paper and pens
- Collaboration software, such as a task-sharing platform
- Document-sharing tools (or physical documents if everyone is in the same room)
Putting it all together
Though the current trend is to reduce the number of meetings overall, it’s impossible to eliminate them. But understanding the different types of meetings, which to use when and the best practices for each can go a long way to making sure your meetings are highly efficient and productive. To make the most of both types of meetings, consider using a highly customizable collaboration platform like Slack.