Long reads

The People Management guide to meetings (and how to survive them)

24 May 2018 By Robert Jeffery

Universally disliked, but here to stay – there are still ways to inject new life into your meetings

The abject pointlessness of most business meetings is so well understood, it’s a wonder we’re not embarrassed to be seen in them. From The Office to W1A, self-indulgent, irrelevant or downright anger-inducing discussions are a rich comedic trope. But real life can be just as amusing: from the chair who insisted his agenda was so important the meeting room doors would be locked from the outside until he was satisfied, to the HR manager asked by the police to discipline an employee who had jokingly dialled 999 to get out of a particularly pointless meeting.

And yet, the concept of the meeting is not just surviving but thriving. Bain & Co research suggests that 15 per cent of collective work time is now spent in meetings, while respondents to our survey of the HR and L&D profession told us they spent on average 22 per cent of their working day attending them. So if you still need to have at least some meetings, People Management is on hand to make them less infuriating and perhaps even productive.

Stop saying yes, start saying no

“We’ve created a working culture where receiving an invitation to a meeting is a bit like being invited to a party,” says Hayley Watts, ‘productivity ninja’ at time management consultancy Think Productive. “The default setting is to go if you can, rather than to ask what you’ll get out of it.”

Many of her clients, she says, are in back-to-back meetings from 9 to 5, which means it’s not unreasonable to question when they are actually doing their jobs.  In such an environment, it’s no wonder that when Tesla founder Elon Musk suggested you should “walk out of a meeting or drop off a call as soon as it is obvious you aren’t adding value” it was treated as a revelation. “It is not rude to leave; it is rude to make someone stay and waste their time,” he concluded. 

Tech guru and popular TED speaker David Grady says we have developed what he calls ‘mindless acceptance syndrome’ by saying yes to every irrelevant meeting request. He is an advocate of the ‘tentative’ acceptance button on meeting calendars, and of blocking time out for tangible work. He advises: “Tell the person who asked you to the meeting how excited you are to be there. Ask them what they hope to achieve and how you can help them achieve it. If we do that often enough, people might start to be a little more thoughtful before they put together invitations.” 

Failing that, says Watts, it’s acceptable to drop in and out of meetings rather than stay to the bitter end, or to share important information electronically beforehand and see whether a meeting is still necessary when participants have digested it.

Decide who’s in charge 

The concept of a meeting facilitator is very different to choosing a chair, says Jonathan Frost, managing director of Discovery Coaching and author of Meetings That Make a Difference! He describes a facilitator as a “leader, navigator and diplomat” whose most crucial role is to control certain types of over-exuberant participant: “Sometimes they need to be able to say ‘we’ve heard what you think – what do other people think?’ You might even need to take someone to one side and say ‘you’re taking up a lot of the bandwidth here’.”

More prosaically, they need to set the pace by telling the group how long they have to discuss particular points and ensure an appropriate balance between listening and debating. Frost says: “Without a facilitator, what often happens is that people wait to see what the most senior individual thinks and then find ways to align themselves behind that view.”

Have a clear plan

Open-ended discussions lead to interminable procrastination, so be clear before you start a meeting what you hope to achieve. Frost says it should be possible to set a tactic for every agenda item that makes it clear how it’s to be dealt with. He defines these as: inform and advise, discuss and explore, debate and evaluate, decide and close, create and innovate, inspire and energise, or warn and caution. Nothing, he adds, should simply be ‘talked about’, which makes it unclear whether a conclusion is required.

How you achieve this, however, is open for debate. Amazon’s Jeff Bezos famously likes to begin each meeting with up to 30 minutes of quiet reading of essential information. LinkedIn has banned presentations in meetings, requiring people to turn up having read detailed briefing notes. Watts prefers a ‘timekeeper’ who sets a clear itinerary for agenda items and advises of over-runs.

Try something different 

Stand-up meetings have become all the rage, and while they might not be suitable for every situation, they do focus the minds of those present. ‘Walk and talk’ meetings are fashionable in Silicon Valley as a means of stimulating innovation by setting an open and leisurely pace to discussions. 

Others advocate the introduction of a small bell. It can be rung when a participant is labouring a point or being repetitive or irrelevant. It might not be a good idea for a disciplinary meeting, Watts adds, but it sends a clear message about the value of brevity.

Don’t make it too comfortable

If you watch people when they arrive for a meeting, says Frost, they often stretch and spread out, settling in for the long haul. This is where indecision first sets in: “When a meeting gets judged by how long it is, not what it has achieved, you’ve missed the point.”

The average British attention span has been measured at 14 minutes, and in meetings this drops to 10. So detrimental are long meetings to our wellbeing that Public Health England has warned that they slow our metabolism and make it harder to regulate our blood pressure.

What can be done to end this blight? Watts points out that the default meeting request in Outlook is an hour, but she suggests keeping it to a maximum of 20 minutes. And don’t start on the hour, either: “Start at 12 minutes past and end before the hour is up. It gives people time in between meetings to go to the toilet or actually do some work.” 

One manufacturing sector CEO liked to burst into meetings and ask why they were taking place: if he wasn’t satisfied they were necessary, participants were ordered back to their desks.

Turn off and tune in 

It’s common to ask for phones to be stowed away before meetings begin. But laptops are even greater enemies of productivity. Answering emails or engaging in Google Chats with colleagues during meetings makes it harder to coalesce around a decision. And if you think electronic notes are a useful aid to memory, think again: a study conducted among students at Princeton and UCLA found that hand-written notes were just as effective for factual recall and significantly better for conceptual recall of presentations.

Don’t give up on meetings

“We really only hear the bad stuff about meetings,” says Frost. “People rarely write a LinkedIn post saying they had a great meeting that really worked well for them.” In fact, he says, meetings can be the best way to get senior people together and focused in the same place. Even the forced small talk they encourage can be a vital social lubricant inside organisations that lack regular social interactions.

It has become fashionable to add up the salary costs involved in meetings and use this to justify banishing them. But this overlooks the positive value that a great collective idea can generate, adds Frost, who concludes: “I’m suspicious of anyone saying they’re ‘allergic’ to meetings. I’m allergic to mussels – I get very ill if I eat them. But I don’t stop eating because of that; I just don’t eat mussels. If meetings aren’t working, the answer isn’t to stop having meetings – it’s to stop having meetings in the same way.”

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