Meetings are hands-down the most ironic aspect of workplace culture today. Why? Because no self-respecting business wants to advertise that it’s inefficient, unfocused, lacks a clear direction or purpose or that they regularly waste tens of thousands of dollars for no tangible reason. And yet, that’s exactly what happens every day as businesses around the globe force their workers to spend time in meetings without seeing a return on that investment of time and energy.
“At its core, this is a cultural problem for businesses. Meetings rarely result in actionable work. Workers spend on average six to seven hours per week in meetings and are then forced to do the real work they were hired to do on the margins of their day. This leads to burnout, which leads to retention and attrition issues. You’re not getting the best work out of your talent,” says Carson Tate, the founder and principal of Working Simply, a management consultancy, and the author of “Work Simply“.
When your workforce spends the majority of its time in meetings, they’re not producing anything — except more meetings, Tate says, and that becomes the entire culture of your business.
Making a Culture Shift
The first step to making any sort of significant change is to first be aware that a problem exists and understand the breadth and depth of the problem, according to Tate. Start documenting how much time is spent in meetings versus how much time is spent on other work, and then determine how much that’s costing your business both in real dollars (try this handy meeting cost calculator) and in terms of where employees’ time would be better spent.
“You need real awareness of the impact and the cost of your meeting-centric culture. Look at your team members. Are there constant emails coming in time-stamped 2 a.m.? Are there regular meetings that involve numerous executives whose skills and time could be better used elsewhere? What did the time, energy and money put into these meetings really produce? You can’t change what you can’t see,” Tate says.
Next, you have to accept that your culture, such as it is, is broken. Then, take a deep breath, and move on to the third stage, which is committing to changing that culture for the better. The fourth step is the most difficult: actually developing and implementing the steps to change. Whether organizations decide to go it alone, or hire a consultancy like Tate’s, this will be the most difficult step for organizations to stick to. Finally, organizations must implement new meeting strategies and tactics to replace the old, says Tate.
“The way meetings are run is a microcosm of your company culture as a whole. Approaching the problem by scheduling another series of meetings is just ludicrous. You must start at the very core of your business and shift every assumption, from how you interact with technology, to how many people should be involved in business decisions, to where meetings are held, the length, everything. Otherwise, you’re just putting a bandage on an injury that really requires a trip to the ER,” Tate says.
Be the Change You Want to See
The good news is that each individual employee can help their organization shift away from a meeting-centric culture and contribute to a larger cultural change just by taking a few simple actions.
“First and foremost, question the value of every meeting you’re asked to attend. Before you hit ‘accept,’ ask yourself, “What the return on investment will be? What will you get for your time, your energy? What will you forgo working on to go to this meeting? Ask yourself if your presence will contribute or add value? Will this be a rehash of the last five meetings?,” Tate says.
Another crucial question to ask is, “Who will be disappointed if I don’t attend?” says Tate.
“You need to be clear about who you are ‘letting down’ by not attending. And you need to be able to articulate that confidently. What is the best use of your time that will add maximum value to the work that you do? Or will I be disappointing the right person? Am I disappointing my manager? Direct report? Child? Yourself? So many times, meetings are just about politics — who’s there, who’s not. That’s not valuable for businesses. You can decline graciously by saying, ‘I don’t see where I can add any meaningful value to the conversation. Instead, I’m going to be working on X, Y, Z, and this is why it is more valuable than the actual meeting,” Tate says.
Doing so not only empowers the individual, it empowers their coworkers, their managers and their direct reports to start declining meetings, and forces the organization to be much more efficient and streamlined when meetings are mandatory, Tate says.
When Meetings Are a Must
That’s not to say that meetings can’t be useful or produce value; in fact, meetings can be one of the most powerful tools businesses have to get things done and drive success, says Paul Axtell, a management consultant and personal effectiveness trainer, and author of “Meetings Matter: 8 Powerful Strategies for Remarkable Conversations,” they just have to be done right.
Shift the Perception
What does it look like when a meeting’s “done right”? The first order of business is to change the way meetings are perceived; from a necessary evil that generates a lot of hot air and accomplishes little to a group conversation aimed at solving a problem, says Axtell.
“If you must have meetings, start by shifting the way you talk about them. Instead of the usual dread, fear and boredom, emphasize that meetings are, at their core, a way for multiple people to have a conversation and communicate about solving a problem. That way you are honoring the time and energy your talent invests by focusing on what you can do to support them and their efforts,” says Axtell.
Teach Communication and Speaking Skills
One of the biggest stumbling blocks to productive meetings is the fact that, for most attendees, communication isn’t their strong suit, according to Axtell, especially in the IT industry, which is dominated by engineers, analysts and technical folk, not public speakers and communications-savvy workers.
To overcome this obstacle, it might be worthwhile to invest in some training and professional development courses aimed at teaching these basic communication skills so workers feel more confident expressing themselves and can do so much more concisely and effectively.
“After their core discipline, your people need to be proficient at conversation, and most workers aren’t giving any thought to working on core skills – ‘how do I start a conversation, make my point, wrap up, be effective and efficient at delivering a message?” Axtell says.
“Listening, too, is a skill that is almost universally missing from the workforce, but it can be learned and honed,” says Axtell.
Keep It Small and Intimate
To better facilitate effective communication and ensure every attendee has the chance to speak and be heard, try and keep meeting size small, says Axtell. A group of four or five people will necessarily feel more intimate and personal, and will not only have more time to connect with each other, listen and suggest solutions, but any disagreement will be handled more gently and tactfully, he says.
“When I talk to clients, they almost always tell me they find it easier to be authentic, open and honest in groups of four or five. When they’re forced to be in large group meetings, there’s not enough intimacy for them to feel secure, and the chance that good ideas or innovative solutions will get drowned out increases,” Axtell says.
In addition, notes Axtell, in groups of four or five, it’s much more likely that core issues and problems will be addressed and resolved, and that unrelated topics will be left for another time.
Always Have an Agenda — and Stick to It
Even in small groups, it can be easy to get sidetracked. It’s important to keep the conversation focused only on the issues and topics that must be resolved with only the people needed to resolve them. That’s why planning and sticking to an agenda is especially important.
“An agenda is nothing more than a path for resolution of an issue. One thing people forget when holding meetings is that these conversations must be designed with a specific outcome in mind, with a set time and a plan for getting to the bottom of whatever issue you’re discussing,” Axtell says.
The POWER of Productive Meetings
Tate advocates a strategy based around the acronym POWER: Purpose, Outcomes, Who, Execution, Responsibility.
This is the “why” behind the meeting. Before the meeting, this must be clearly stated, as well as put into context for those who must attend. It’s also helpful to anchor the meeting’s purpose into a larger, strategic business priority.
What will definitively happen at the close of the meeting? Is this a decision-making meeting? Then, one way or the other, it will reach a decision by the end of the allotted time. “The outcome could be to inform my colleagues about the new vacation policy. But the fact is, there must be an outcome, otherwise the meeting hasn’t served any practical purpose,” says Tate.
This aspect of the meeting dictates not only who attends, but assigns specific tasks to each attendee. “You decide who are the right people in the room to provide the data, the background, the context surrounding the topics and issues that will be addressed. That way, those folks all come prepared with the information needed for the larger group to reach a decision,” says Tate.
This part of the agenda should stay blank until the meeting begins, and is filled in while the meeting’s taking place to spell out exactly how the participants will get from problem to solution. This ensures that each attendee has specific actions and tasks to attend to after the meeting’s over, notes Tate.
Before the meeting ends, make sure that each attendee understands what they’re accountable for and that they have the authority to complete the tasks assigned to them in the “execution” stage. “This doesn’t necessarily mean they have to do specific tasks themselves — it could mean they follow up on an assignment with their supervisor or another department. But they must take responsibility for their task and accept the associated deadlines and timeframes, too,” Tate says.
Shifting organizational culture away from endless meetings is by no means an easy task, and it certainly won’t happen overnight. But it’s an undertaking well-worth trying; one that can help increase productivity, streamline business process and boost employee engagement, morale and job satisfaction. So, next time you get a meeting request, consider declining and see what happens.