Work Culture

Meetings are a waste of time. Here’s how to fix them.


Published on July 19, 2017

Meetings are a fact of our modern work lives, but they’re not winning any popularity contests. Economist John Kenneth Galbraith summed up the general sentiment when he said, “Meetings are indispensable when you don’t want to do anything.”

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And there may be more than a grain of truth there—wasted time in meetings costs American businesses an estimated $37 billion a year. What we’re doing in meetings—taking in new information and making decisions— draws on the same limited cognitive resources we need to do our actual work.

The more hours of meetings we have in a day, the less brain capacity—not to mention time—we have left over. So it’s no wonder that the idea of super-short meetings is gaining traction. Here’s how you can master the 15-minute meeting.

Make it a standing meeting

It may sound a little unconventional, but a meeting where everyone stands is definitely going to be over sooner than one where everyone sits. And research shows that standing meetings have a positive impact on group productivity, too.

A study found that standing meetings decreased territorial behavior and increased sharing of ideas, in part because the groups were focused on a shared workspace instead of their own individual computers or notebooks.

Focus, focus, focus

The key to keeping your meetings short is not covering everything under the sun—so keep your agenda narrow. If you have several agenda items that require you to have a different set of people in the room, consider making those items into their own short meetings.

This helps prevent off-topic discussions, which can quickly derail a meeting. You’ll need to be a good meeting manager to make this work. If an issue comes up that needs to be addressed, don’t get sidetracked—make a note of it, assign it to someone in the room, and keep moving on with the topic at hand.

Have a concrete goal

What’s your criteria for a successful meeting? What do you want to have accomplished when it’s over? If you have a narrow agenda, it should guide you pretty naturally toward your desired end result. And if your agenda items don’t help achieve your goal—or goals—then you need to rethink them. For help framing goals, think FAST goals.

Keep it exclusive

It can be tempting to invite lots of people—to avoid ruffled feathers or because it’s “business as usual.” But there’s a reason that companies like Google are setting an ideal meeting maximum of 10. Inviting only the right people to your meetings—those necessary to achieve your concrete goal—will help you stay on track. The fewer the people, the faster your meeting goal can be accomplished.

And, as an added bonus, fewer people means more savings to your company in terms of people-hours. Inviting the wrong people can have the opposite effect—those with no real purpose are the most likely to check their email, be disengaged, or derail the meeting with issues that aren’t on the agenda.

Your marketing team can shave hours off their approval processes. Register for this webinar to learn how two companies did it.

Send notes instead of invites

Assign someone to take notes—if your meeting has a clear goal, it should be pretty easy to summarize the discussion, conclusions, and recommended next steps. These notes will support the idea of cutting participants, too.

Since you’ve excluded anyone who just needs to know the outcome of your meeting, keep them in the loop with a summary email instead. The note-taker should be someone other than the meeting leader, so the leader can facilitate discussion and keep the meeting focused.

Ban gadgets—and take notes the old-fashioned way

It’s become the norm for people to tote their laptops and phones to every meeting, and even work on something else while they’re there. Partly that’s a symptom of how busy we’ve become—but it’s also a cause. So ban all gadgets from your meetings. After all, if all attendees are necessary but not really focused on the task at hand, they’re holding everyone else up—making a meeting longer than it has to be.

But should you make an exception for whoever’s taking notes? Actually, research shows that taking notes by hand significantly improves what you remember and helps you focus on what’s being said, as opposed to taking notes on a laptop. Add to that the potential for laptop distractions—from emails, chat screens, and the internet—and a pen and paper is clearly the more productive choice.

Prepare participants to succeed

Sometimes it’s just not possible to send all the materials you’ll be going over the day before you meet. But when it is, it can save you a boatload of time. If you’re going over information that people are seeing for the first time, you’re more likely to get bogged down in basic background questions as people try to get up to speed.

Give your attendees the tools they need to arrive prepared and ready to work. And make it clear that you expect participants will read the materials beforehand, especially if that’s not the norm at your company. Send only what’s necessary to achieve your meeting goal—sending a lot of extraneous documents will encourage people to read none of them.

Foil latecomers with odd starting times

Latecomers send a bad signal, waste everyone’s time, and can make those who are on time feel disrespected. If someone who’s necessary to the meeting has to be late—and all of your participants should be necessary—re-schedule the meeting for another time. Harvard Business Review even recommends resisting the urge to fill in people who show up late.

And to counteract latecomers, consultant Tom LaForce recommends starting a meeting at an unusual time, like 10:10, so it stands out. In environments where people are late because of back-to-back meetings, this strategy gives them a chance to grab a cup of coffee or visit the restroom and still be on time. You can’t turn around your company’s meetings all by yourself—a lot of these steps are things that your workplace culture will have to embrace for a successful implementation.

But don’t underestimate the effect you can have, either—try these strategies in your next several meetings and see the effects for yourself. Host a workshop to audit team meetings and engage coworkers on this refreshed way of working. Armed with some first-hand experience and a solid case for shorter meetings, you can have a significant impact on your company’s productivity—and bottom line.