Meetings have gotten a bad reputation in recent years, and it’s no surprise that they’ve become synonymous with wasted time, energy and resources.
So, is it time to scrap meetings altogether?
Not quite yet. Meetings aren’t inherently wrong; they are just often poorly run. Meetings are still a great way to check-in with team members, boost inclusion and contributions, and make crucial decisions. Companies shouldn’t be trying to get rid of meetings but instead taking steps to make their meetings more effective.
This is especially true now as people are having more meetings than ever, with research in 2017 finding that executives spent around 23 hours a week in meetings compared to just 10 hours in the 1960s. What’s more, a paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research reported that the number of meetings per person had increased 12.9% during the COVID-19 pandemic.
A poorly run meeting is detrimental to a happy and efficient workplace, whereas an effective meeting leaves team members feeling reinvigorated, valued, and on track. So, to make your meetings as positive as possible, we’ve outlined 11 rules for successful meetings.
Decide on Participants
We’ve all been in that position when you’re sitting on a video call – or even worse, around a conference table – trying to listen to what is being said (and not fall asleep) but wondering: what am I even doing here?
Having the wrong people in a meeting wastes time and can make employees feel superfluous and undervalued.
On the other hand, having all the necessary people for a meeting is one of the most crucial meeting guidelines. As the organizer, it’s your responsibility to invite the key stakeholders, and that’s it.
It can be easy to send an invitation to everyone in an all-hands chat or list, but people have difficulty saying no, especially to managers, so they will end up in a meeting even when they don’t need to be. As such, organizers should either select people for each meeting or create more tailored groups to share invitations. On the other hand, too many people make for messy meetings and are a major red flag of effective meeting rules.
Set an Agenda Well in Advance
An agenda outlines what will be discussed at a meeting and how much time each topic will take. It can also include the time, location, list of participants, and other information.
A well-structured agenda can help create an effective meeting in two significant ways.
First, it allows the organizer to understand why exactly the meeting is being held. It may sound simple, but sometimes we get into a habit (such as having a meeting each week) without questioning why. If you start to jot down an agenda and realize there is nothing important to discuss, then question whether a meeting is needed at all, you can try exploring such as asynchronous meetings, which will help battle some of that meeting fatigue, encourage collaboration, and result in a more productive team than one stuck in a pointless video call.
Second, it keeps everyone on track during the actual meeting, so time isn’t wasted on tangents. It enables the organizer to track topics, those responsible for presenting, and the timings of the meeting, so it doesn’t run over. During meetings, an agenda also can act as a template for notes, which can make following up with people far simpler.
A good agenda can also help with the first of our effective meeting guidelines, since knowing what you need to discuss will help inform who needs to be there and vice versa.
Share the Agenda With all Participants
Agendas are made even more useful when shared with participants. Doing so allows all parties to prepare in advance and understand what is going to be discussed. This will minimize the number of times a point is delayed – as in, “I’ll check and get back to you” – because everyone should already have the answers!
It also allows for informed decisions to be taken very quickly since research can be done ahead of time, and the meeting used only for decision making.
Ideally, the agenda should be circulated several days in advance, but due to the agile nature of many businesses, this can sometimes be tricky. As such, a good guideline for a successful meeting is sending an agenda no less than 24 hours before the meeting is due to start.
Start on Time, Every Time
A timely meeting is an effective meeting, and starting as planned is an important meeting rule. This sets the correct example for how things should be done across the company and shows that you value team members’ time. The same is true for latecomers – starting on time will show that things won’t be bottlenecked by an individual.
What’s more, a meeting that starts on time is more likely to end on time, which helps with an entire day’s scheduling. As mentioned, the agenda should outline and estimate how much time each point will take, so starting late will throw this off. When beginning the meetings, the organizer or chair should present the agenda so all participants get a chance to align on upcoming topics and a refresh of major topics.
Set Ground Rules for Meetings
Ground rules are imperative for effective meetings and they should be established far in advance. Just as you will develop brand guidelines, you should have some guiding principles for company operations as well. Part of these will be your meeting ground rules, which remain the same for practically all meetings.
Some simple meeting ground rules that you can implement today are:
Prepare to participate
It’s important that all participants are engaged in discussions. This is far simpler with smaller, more focused teams, as everyone should have something to add. Ensure that all team members know they are expected to add to the discussion and prepare in advance to actively participate.
Focus on the topic at hand
This can be helped with a well-structured agenda and is key to avoiding tangents, overruns, and wasted time. Staying focused on what a meeting is actually about keeps it effective and useful. Laying out this ground rule in advance will ensure employees know that meetings won’t waste their time.
No phones. Ever.
You may have the most driven, focused, and brilliant multi-taskers on the planet, but phones will have a negative impact and reduce the effectiveness of a meeting every single time. Research found that the mere presence of smartphones “reduces available cognitive capacity,” and reduced cognitive capacity is not the cornerstone of a successful meeting.
Close every topic
If your meeting only exists to set up more meetings, it’s not effective. A simple rule for all meetings should be to close topics and deliver actionable next steps for participants. This can be achieved through tasks and follow-ups, which we’ll get to shortly.
Stay Within the Time Scheduled for the Meeting
Losing track of time is easy to do, especially if a meeting is covering interesting and important topics (which it always should be). Unfortunately, a poorly timed meeting isn’t very effective since it can cut into participants’ other commitments, hold them back from hitting daily goals in their work, and lead to agitation.
The agenda created in advance should already have made the timings for each topic and the overall meeting clear, so stick to that. As the organizer, it is your responsibility to enforce these timings, so feel free to interject at an appropriate moment to bring a topic to a close or move onto the next one. Just make sure that this is done with some closure so the matter isn’t simply tabled. If this isn’t possible in the allotted time, then set out actionable steps that will take your team to a decision point.
If you struggle to keep time and focus on the topics at hand, then ask someone else to take the role of timekeeper. They can either alert you or the whole meeting when a topic is coming to the end of its allotted time, and it’s then in your hands to make a judgment call on what to do. Rotating this role can be an excellent way to keep everyone focused.
Make Sure There are No Distractions at the Office or Home
Open-plan offices are still trendy, with many companies driving collaboration through open connection, but they are not the best place for an effective meeting. An important rule for successful meetings is finding a quiet, preferably closed, space away from distractions such as main corridors with heavy foot traffic or communal rooms such as kitchens. These spaces can easily distract participants, which can lead to ineffective meetings.
The same holds true for video conferencing, but this must be done on an individual level. It is worth reminding team members of the importance of a distraction-free area for meetings, such as not facing main roads, not having other screens active in the background, a closed room away from the dogs, kids, life partner, etc. Carving out this distraction-free space at home is also a great way to separate your work from your home life and escape the always-on mentality that many of us suffer from.
Write Down Key Details From the Meeting
Depending on the type of meeting you’re running, you’ll need either minutes or notes. Most often, for daily meetings, notes are more than enough and don’t need to have the amount of detail you’d find informal minutes.
Notes can be used to keep track of what has been said for future reference and help remind the team of ideas both in the meeting and after. Ideally, everyone invited will have turned up to participate in the meeting, but if not, notes can also be used to keep them up to date.
An essential part of notetaking is writing down what to do next, so another guideline for a successful meeting is to create tasks and deadlines.
Create Precise Tasks and Deadlines, a.k.a Action Items
You should always aim to close the critical topics of every meeting. This involves making clear deadlines with clear deadlines so that all relevant participants know their next steps.
A simple way to do this is to add tasks (aka action items) to your notes or productivity platform and share these with participants. If using online tasks, then make sure to assign each one to the relevant person. If not, make a note of their name by the task and follow up with them.
Keep it Focused
With multiple topics and participants, it can be hard to keep a meeting focussed on what’s important. The shared agenda will help, but it is still the organizer’s responsibility to keep people actively following that agenda.
This can be achieved by politely but firmly redirecting conversations back to the topic at hand. It can be intimidating at first, but interrupting is an important skill for effective meetings. To get you started, some techniques you can use are:
Clarification and summary
This is when you clarify or summarize what a person has just said and then redirect the conversation. This is especially useful if you have a dominant speaker and want input from other participants. For example: “If I understand correctly, you think we should do XYZ? What do other people think about this?”
This is a rather blunt but effective way to get back to the topic at hand. It would sound something like: “That is a really interesting point, John, but we might not have time to cover that today, so let’s look back at XYZ.”
The most important rule for keeping things focused is staying optimistic about what you say and how you interrupt.
Follow-up With All Participants
The previous ten rules for successful meetings will undoubtedly make things run smoothly at the moment. Still, without following up on tasks (action items), deadlines, and new topics, your team will likely lose faith in how worthwhile those meetings are.
Prepare the foundations of your follow-up in advance, and then make sure to include all pertinent information before sending it out as an email. There can’t be a “too soon” with this since agile meetings will likely have to-do lists for that day.
While the organizer should undoubtedly be responsible for following up on all points, team members should also be encouraged to take their own notes and action points to combat any potential bottlenecks.
Let’s Wrap This Meeting Up
These guidelines for effective meetings should help transform video calls and in-person meetings from a useless time drain to an essential part of your business workflow. Of course, many elements go into running good meetings, but much of it boils down to three main acts: prepare before the meeting (both you and other people), stay on track and on time during the meeting, follow up after the meeting.