Spotlight on – meetings – tips for making best use of meeting time

“Not another meeting!” has become a familiar corporate grumble. UK workers believe that more than one-third of meetings are not just unnecessary, but counter-productive, according to a new study by web conferencing company WebEx.

Another report, carried out by researchers at the University of North Carolina, shows that the average number of meetings more than doubled in the second half of the 20th century, and time spent in them keeps on growing.

Meeting mayhem

The cost to the bottom line is serious. Some studies estimate that 10% of managers’ time – 24 work days a year – is wasted on unnecessary or unproductive meetings. Little wonder that Microsoft has found them to be the number one drain on the productivity of small businesses.

Cary Cooper, professor of organisational psychology and health at Lancaster University, believes the problem lies in habitual behaviour. “For example, there may always have been a meeting on a Wednesday morning, and nobody has thought to question it,” he says. Other reasons include a ‘consensus culture’, lack of planning, disorganisation, and people who are prone to rambling or dominating meetings.

“Meetings should be a last resort and should only be used with a very specific goal in mind,” insists Claire Morley-Jones, an HR director and chair of the Institute of Directors’ Young Directors Forum. “I think a lot of people believe they should meet face to face because so much of our working lives are now conducted by e-mail, but that’s not a good enough reason for a meeting.”

She adds that too many people are generally invited, with too many topics for discussion and a failure to put anyone in charge. “It’s up to HR to look at this issue because human resources are literally being flushed away in our current culture of meetings,” she says.

Action plans

Sandra Postles, people and environment director at National Savings and Investments, did something about it. “I joined this organisation five years ago, when there was a very strong culture of meetings, which I think can be particularly the case in the public sector,” she says.

“Among the things we did to try to change this was take away some of the meeting rooms and ensure they had to be booked in advance. We also streamlined the decision-making process so that people knew they were accountable for making certain decisions without the need to get a committee together.”

Postles also introduced the idea of ‘huddles’, where small groups of staff have a brief conversation standing up instead of a formal meeting, and a ‘meetings charter’, which includes guidelines on how to have an effective meeting. “All our meeting rooms have the charter on the table or wall,” she says.

But Stuart Duff, senior business psychologist at Pearn Kandola, believes that while meeting charters are good in theory, they have a tendency to become part of the furniture. His organisation has egg-timers in every meeting room, along with a strict policy of 20-, 40- or 60-minute meetings. “If someone opts for a 20-minute meeting, people have the right to leave when the time is up,” he says.

Meanwhile, BT is among the organisations that have encouraged a culture of information sharing to minimise the need for meetings.

“Meetings don’t have to be a dirty word,” concludes Jo Causon, director, marketing and corporate affairs at the Chartered Management Institute. “It’s about thinking smarter and making meetings count.”

Top tips

  1. Create a meaningful agenda and make the chair responsible for keeping to it
  2. Time it right: people are usually more switched on in the morning and sluggish after lunch
  3. Only invite people who need to be there.
  4. Encourage people to speak in ‘headlines’. Don’t allow them to ramble on
  5. Ensure each meeting is concluded with an action plan that is followed up

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