Hate meetings? There are solutions

You can’t escape the corporate meeting boom, but you can stop wasting so much time

OVER a third start late, we lose the equivalent of 31 hours a month each because they’re unproductive, and many people hate them anyway. Meetings are the bête noire of corporate life and, according to one survey, 39 per cent of professionals have even admitted to falling asleep during one. While this is hopefully an exaggeration, meeting fatigue is probably justified. New research in the Harvard Business Review suggests that the corporate meeting hypercycle is wasting firms’ scarcest resource (time), turning them into slow, bureaucratic beasts, with resulting damage to the bottom line.

Why has it happened? It’s not just because videoconferencing and the like are cheaper. Authors Michael Mankins, Chris Brahm and Gregory Caimi argue that behaviour now ripples across organisations more quickly (15 per cent of a firm’s collective time is spent in meetings, a percentage that has increased year on year since 2008). Companies enter dysfunctional cycles, where executives double-book meetings, decide later which one they want to attend, and then have to set up more meetings to get the work done. And email has made the situation worse. At one organisation the authors studied, in 22 per cent of meetings, distracted participants sent three or more emails for every 30 minutes of meeting time

But while recognising that meetings serve a purpose, there are ways to stop the avalanche from burying you. Here are four ideas:

Most people know what makes a good meeting. But Roger Schwarz, author of Smart Leaders, Smarter Teams, argues that many get off to a poor start because participants don’t explicitly address what the point of the get-together is. Sending an agenda in advance, and listing items as specific questions, rather than general topics, are obvious ways to minimise distractions. Or try the opposite: preemptively decide what won’t be discussed. It should improve focus.

Parkinson’s law states that “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.” In meetings, Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg tackles this head on by taking a handwritten list of discussion points to each engagement, crossing them off, and calling a halt to proceedings when she’s got through them. But Sandberg accomplishes more than efficient time management. As the senior executive present, she sets the right tone by avoiding rambling.

Amazon’s Jeff Bezos has a famous solution to the problem of overly-large meetings killing productivity. His two pizza rule says that you should never hold a meeting at which a couple of Domino’s finest couldn’t feed the whole group. But even small meetings can be derailed. There is a tension between an efficient run-through of an agenda and crushing dissent or lateral thinking. If you think the discussion is veering off course, Schwarz suggests directly asking why. “You and your other team members might learn about a connection between the two topics that you hadn’t considered.”

And for the more adventurous, a fad for meetings on the go might be just the thing. According to Forbes, at the 2013 TED Conference, Silicon Valley’s Nilofer Merchant evangelised on the benefits of walk-and-talk meetings. They promise to vanquish health problems associated with sitting around all day, while encouraging participants to come up with more creative ideas. Although it may be unrealistic to manage the 30 minutes a day in nature that apparently enable better problem solving, holding a meeting outdoors will at least make it more memorable than the rest.

Keep track of meetings
Meeting Pad

Meeting Pad is a one stop shop for all your meeting admin needs. It features simultaneous audio recording and note taking, can sync with your calendar and to-do list, and generates a formatted email containing your notes, meeting actions and attendee list. It also comes with a seating planner, so you won’t forget any more names.