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Death by appointment: How to make meetings more productive

By Nick Wilson | |7 minute read

There’s a good reason many organisations are opting for meeting-free days, but reclaiming productivity lost to excessive, unconstructive meetings might be more a question of optimisation than avoidance.

In the 1960s, executives spent fewer than 10 hours per week in meetings. In the 50 years since, time spent in meetings by executives has more than doubled to an average of 23 hours per week.

According to research cited by MIT Sloan Management Review: “Today’s knowledge workers typically spend more than 85 per cent of their time in meetings.” Research shows excessive meetings are not only counter-productive, they can weigh on the individual’s mental wellbeing.

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We spoke with HR leader, speaker, author, and consultant Mofoluwaso Ilevbare to learn how business leaders can get more out of fewer meetings. Here’s what we learnt:

1. Setting expectations

Meetings can be energy drainers or energy boosters. At their best, we leave feeling clearer, energised, and better prepared for the work ahead. How often is this really the case, though? According to research from Bain and Company, 50 per cent of meetings are considered unnecessary by attendees.

Often, this comes down to a failure to appropriately set intentions for the meeting. Regular meetings might serve a team-building function, but when the occasion for a meeting is the occasion itself, productivity becomes an issue.

“You’ll be surprised how many people get into meetings, they have no clue what the meeting is about,” said Ms Ilevbare. Enter the agenda.

Setting intentions before a meeting can be as simple as an email with a one-sentence summary of the expected outcome. Other times, it’s a more detailed agenda or a list of materials to be read ahead of the meeting.

Amazon founder Jeff Bezos is famous for his formulaic approach to meetings. Ahead of the meeting, an employee will create a “six-page memo”, and the first 30 minutes of the meeting are a kind of “study hall” in which the attendees are asked to read through the “meticulously crafted, narratively structured memo”, after which the meeting items are discussed. Mr Bezos likes a “crisp document (the memo) and a messy meeting”.

When intentions are clear, attendees can gauge the success of a meeting by asking whether the aims were achieved. Moreover, they can help attendees to ask whether the meeting is even necessary in the first place.

“Some people might tell you, ‘Oh, you don’t even need a meeting for this, this is the answer.’ Or someone might say, ‘Oh, I don’t even need to be in that meeting because I’m not needed for that decision,’” said Ms Ilevbare.

It might seem counterintuitive, but taking the time to properly prepare before a meeting often saves time in the long run, either by avoiding long, winding, unproductive meetings or by maximising the probability that employees are clear of their responsibilities when coming out of a meeting.

Ms Ilevbare said the “40:20:40” principle is a good rule of thumb. In other words, 40 per cent of the time should be spent preparing for the meeting, 20 per cent on the meeting itself, and the remaining 40 per cent executing the plan agreed upon in the meeting.

2. Intentional location

Location is another aspect of intention setting. While a meeting room might be the obvious choice, it can sometimes help to change things up. Ultimately, the location should match the tone of the discussion.

For instance, if maximising for creativity, fresh surrounds might be ideal. Interestingly, a 2016 Harvard study found that crowded meeting rooms can reduce higher-level cognition by up to 50 per cent due to elevated C02 levels. On the other hand, a phone or video call might suffice for certain meetings. If it’s a matter of personal importance, however, a face-to-face meeting is often preferable.

In recent years, the “walking meeting” has become a popular option for certain discussions. Research from the American Psychological Association found that walking can enhance creativity and productivity. It can increase blood flow to the brain, thereby helping attendees to reach and express ideas with greater ease.

Anecdotally, the case for creative walking is strong. Famously, Nietzsche did his greatest thinking while walking. Author Rebecca Solnit described walking as a state “in which the mind, the body and the world are aligned”.

Naturally, some colleagues will be more comfortable talking over the phone than on a walk. Part of being intentional requires considering not just the aims of the meeting but also the interests of the attendees.

3. Intentional invites

Naturally, ensuring the right people are invited to a meeting is crucial. It’s surprising, then, how often it seems to go wrong – either by excluding necessary attendees or over-inviting. Invitations are part of the preparation stage, but mistakes are made so often that they warrant their own discussion.

Knowing who to invite is not as simple as it might at first seem. It requires some forecasting.

“Sometimes people will get into a room, spend one hour deliberating, only to realise the final decision-maker is not present,” said Ms Ilevbare.

“Then they have to write a report from the meeting and plan another one just to brief the decision-maker. If you spent time preparing, you’d have asked whether your key stakeholders are going to be there.”

4. Intentional timing

When booking a meeting, it pays to be intentional, not just in terms of agenda items but also in allocating time. One dimension of this is being mindful of the responsibilities of attendees. This might include adding a space between your meeting and a preceding obligation or simply keeping the expected meeting time brief in a calendar invite.

One trick, said Ms Ilevbare, is entering a meeting on a digital calendar as a 45-minute block rather than the default one-hour block. This means that any existing or added items will typically have a 15-minute buffer.

“The brain needs time to reflect and lead time to reboot … so having those breaks in between meetings can help the brain to recalibrate itself. It helps you as a human being as well to relax [and] gain more clarity; you can make better decisions when meetings are not back to back. And then it can help us to save time, as well,” she said.

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