What makes a good meeting?
Apparently, there are some 55 million meetings in the US alone… per day. With on average 3.5 people attending each meeting, that makes for 187.7 million meeting experiences a day. Since the average meeting length is 1.25 hours and the average hourly salary of $32.36 as of August 2022, that leaves us with a daily cost of meetings in the US of… drum roll… $7.59 billion per day. Or $1.82 trillion per year. If only 10% of that time is wasted, that’s a loss to the US economy of $182.2bn a year.
Did I mention that I was a productivity maximiser? Looking at these numbers, I immediately know where to cut slack in business and make people more productive… Ironically, most people really don’t like meetings. Apparently, there are only two types of people who like meetings: those who call them and those who talk most during them. That leaves the rest of us wondering how we can avoid meetings or how meetings can be made less painful and more purposeful.
Based on the note linked above, here are some tips that are backed by empirical evidence:
A meeting is more than an agenda
Meetings need a purpose and a goal. What do we want to get out of a specific meeting? This is more than just setting an agenda and then rattling through it. If the purpose of a meeting is simply to spread information among a wider group of people, you may as well record a video and send that to every participant to watch in their own time. If the purpose of a meeting is to teach a group of people how to use a specific app or a new tool, arrange a webinar or online training. Meetings should be called if they are about developing ideas or solutions to problems together. In other words, meetings are about the interaction between meeting participants, not just the pure transmission of information by forcing everyone to abandon their work and sit in a stuffy room for an hour. But if you want people to engage with each other, the meeting needs to have a purpose that makes the meeting meaningful to the participants. Meetings that are relevant create engagement during and after the meeting.
A meeting is about interaction
Meetings are more than just events where one person speaks after another. Meetings are social gatherings where we get to know our colleagues and intensify collaboration. That means that in different cultures, meeting etiquette will be different, but in all cultures, meetings have the purpose to enhance team cohesion and trust. It is this increase in mutual trust and group cohesion that motivates people and makes them interact more with each other. A corollary to this is that meetings should not be held remotely or over the phone. People are social animals and interact with each other better when they are in the same room together. Zoom calls are ok if you can’t avoid them (e.g. if you have meetings with people in other countries or continents), but avoid phone meetings because they are a total turnoff to participants.
A meeting is about focus
While fostering social cohesion and trust is key to motivating people, distractions and going off-topic should be avoided. Meetings are serious and while banter and joking are part of some cultures and thus an integral part of an effective meeting (see point 2), losing focus is a waste of time and thus a cost to the business and other meeting participants. Meetings need to be steered by a leader (typically the person who called the meeting, to begin with) so that people don’t get overloaded with a myriad of topics and remarks that are irrelevant to the meeting's purpose (see point 1).
A meeting is about leadership
The tone is set at the top or, when it comes to meetings, by the person who leads the meeting. If a meeting doesn’t have a leader, it is not a meeting, it is a water cooler chat with more than two participants. If you only have time to read one paper on meetings, make it this one. From the paper: “During meetings, leaders play an unequivocal role in establishing the meeting tone and focus. After establishing and circulating an agenda in the pre-meeting phase, the facilitator is also responsible for setting a clear meeting purpose at the meeting onset and following the agenda during the meeting to ensure the meeting stays on track. Leaders who make meetings relevant to subordinates, allow people to speak freely and to participate in making decisions, and use time in meetings wisely can foster engagement among their subordinates. Meeting leaders should also be readily equipped to recognize dysfunctional behaviors among attendees (e.g., complaining) and then to intervene at the appropriate time to refocus the meeting”.
A meeting is more than a group of people sitting around a table
I have made really good experiences with meetings that defy conventional expectations. If a meeting is about coming up with creative ideas, why not meet outside, e.g. in a nearby park? If meeting participants have a tendency to lose focus, make the meeting a stand-up meeting. This way, people will get tired more quickly which stops off-topic discussions very quickly. Think about where people sit or stand. It is not necessary for people to sit in a circle or square. Other configurations can foster engagement between a subgroup of meeting participants that can have beneficial effects for the entire meeting. As for the size of the meeting, my experience is that the fewer people the better, but there is some evidence that when it is about creativity, larger meetings can be better.
In the end, I come back to what I have said about the efficiency of Germans. It is about the process, not the result. If you focus open creating an efficient process around meetings, the positive outcomes in the form of less time wasted and more productive results from more engaged meeting participants will follow.