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For me, the most productive part of my workday–when I really hit my stride and get in the groove to do my best writing–is between 10 a.m. and lunchtime.
Usually around 1 or 2 (I like to eat late so I don’t break my flow during those productive morning hours).
For some reason, though, those are also prime time for meetings.
This means that the time of my day when I’m doing my best, most-focused work is constantly being interrupted by calls about things that could have probably been figured out with an email.
It’s the worst.
Actually, what’s worse is going to that meeting and having it be an unproductive one. No one seems to be leading the discussion. We go off on tangents. No decisions are being made, the meeting is running over its scheduled end time, and all I want is to get back to my keyboard so I can hopefully capture what little time is left in my work time.
A commonly held view among developers (and many other people who work in collaborative roles) is that meetings are pointless. And in cases like the above scenario, it’s easy to see why people feel that way.
The truth is that a lot of teams suck at meetings. If they consistently run over time, wander off track, and distract people from doing more valuable work, you’re doing them wrong. Do meetings have to be that way? Are they actually pointless, or can you retrain yourself and your team to have meetings that actually add value to your work?
Do we really need to list all the reasons we hate meetings? If your office sucks at meetings, you probably already know all these. But let’s take a look anyway.
At worst, meetings happen during really productive times for people and take them away from doing their best work. At best, they interrupt whatever the meeting attendees might be working on, and we all know how hard it is to get back onto your train of thought once you’ve been interrupted. No matter what, meetings cause a drop in productivity for everyone who has to attend them.
How many times have you been in a meeting that began with idle chit-chat about everyone’s upcoming weekend or holiday plans? Then, mid-meeting, discussion wanders off-topic again as whenever someone goes on a tangent during discussion. For anyone who just wants to get back to work, this is unbearable.
When was the last time you were in a meeting with only essential people included? Or the last time you were invited to a meeting that you were essential to? I’m going to guess never. Meeting organizers tend to over-invite, which seems like a good idea in theory, right? More minds working on projects or problems? In actuality, it just draws more people away from productive, meaningful work they could be doing during that time.
Say you have to attend a one-hour weekly meeting that generally isn’t super productive. Not a huge deal, since you only lose an hour per week, right?
One hour per week adds up to 52 lost hours per year… for each employee who attends that meeting. So if 10 people generally attend, you’re looking at 520 hours of lost work time per year for the company. And that’s only counting the time actually spent in the meeting. It doesn’t account for time spent prepping, or time spent trying to get back on track after attending a pointless meeting.
Sure, meetings are spent talking about work. But that means they aren’t spent doing work. There are exceptions to this rule, of course, but most meetings can’t really be counted as work, which is a huge drain on your company’s productivity.
Unfortunately, despite all the reasons we hate meetings, you can’t usually just eliminate them altogether. There are reasons we need meetings, especially if you can manage to hold productive meetings (more on that later).
Studies show that more than 90 percent of all communication is nonverbal — think body language and tone of voice. That means meetings can be an opportunity for way better communication than you’ll ever get over email or Slack messages.
Better communication means fewer misunderstandings and less conflict. It can help strengthen your team and promote collaboration. Meetings can also be a great place to resolve issues, since face-to-face communication leaves less room for misinterpretation and promotes back-and-forth conversation better than technological communication.
And meetings are a great place for sharing information, brainstorming, and educating other members of the team more effectively than you could by just communicating without the face-to-face factor. Being able to have an instant flow to communication (which you just can’t get over email, sorry not sorry) allows members of your team to work off each other’s ideas and feedback quickly and naturally, which can lead to better creativity and collaborative problem-solving.
Have you ever tried to facilitate a group decision over Slack?
Here’s how that usually goes.
You run a poll.
Several people comment with new ideas instead of choosing one of the poll options, so you run another poll.
80 percent of the team participates, and you have to hunt down the others to get them to vote.
Two poll options have tied, so you have to have another discussion and run another poll. The whole process takes several days and leaves people frustrated at the slow decision-making and the inability to share their own ideas.
That’s why meetings are so vital to making decisions. Being able to set a time to have a group discussion in a face-to-face setting makes it so everyone can have their voices and input heard, and the group can truly collaborate on coming to a decision.
When you start a large project, the best way to kick it off is by having a meeting where you can delegate tasks and assign out responsibilities to different people on the team. And as that project progresses, meetings can help keep it on track by allowing the whole team to check in, share their progress, alert the team to any setbacks or challenges, and work together to keep everything moving forward. When a project requires a lot of moving pieces, meetings are truly the most efficient way to keep track of them all.
In any organization, it can be hard to find space to air out your frustrations, grievances, and complaints. Meetings provide an opportunity to do that. They also give space for complimenting other team members, providing constructive feedback, refocusing and reflecting on projects and tasks, and other types of communication that an open forum helps facilitate.
Let’s face it — while the above reasons do reinforce the notion that we need meetings when we work with collaborative teams, those meetings won’t do anything for us if they’re not run well. Meetings need to be run correctly for teams to reap all those benefits. Here’s how you should organize and run meetings to make sure you’re getting all of the benefits and reducing the drawbacks as much as possible for your team.
Yes, meetings can be necessary. But they aren’t always. The first step to stopping pointless meetings is to ask yourself this question before every meeting you plan: Does this actually require a meeting?
To better decide whether an actual meeting is called for, you can ask yourself these questions, too:
The first thing every meeting needs is an agenda. Do not ever slack off on this. Agendas are 100 percent necessary to 100 percent of meetings. If the meeting is actually needed, then so is an agenda.
The agenda’s format should be personalized to fit the meeting’s specific purpose. In addition to the topics the meeting is going to cover, it should include a clear goal or objective for the meeting, so everyone knows what they’re there to accomplish. It should include whatever topics are necessary to talk about to achieve the goals of the meeting. Follow the agenda, in order, and avoid pivoting to topics that aren’t included on the agenda.
There shouldn’t be too many topics for your team to be able to tackle them all in the allotted time for the meeting, and whenever possible, include some time at the end of the agenda for spontaneous creativity or brainstorming. If it isn’t needed, you can just end the meeting early, which everyone should appreciate.
One of the most annoying things about meetings is that they have a tendency to run over time. For every meeting you organize, set an end time and make it a hard limit on how long the meeting will last. Hopefully, that will help keep the meeting on track enough to accomplish what needs to be done before the end time. If the end of the meeting comes and you truly need more time to meet your goals, you can always schedule a follow-up.
Just like every meeting needs an agenda, it also needs a leader to ensure it follows the agenda and doesn’t veer off track. The meeting leader should:
Not everyone who regularly attends meetings actually needs to. When planning a meeting, carefully consider who you’re sending invites to. Only invite people who have value to add to the meeting or will take real value away from having been there — anyone else can probably just be filled in later.
If you receive an invitation to a meeting, think carefully about the pros and cons of attending. If your presence will add real value to the meeting, or if you’ll take real value away from attending, you should go. Otherwise, don’t be afraid to decline the invitation and stick to doing your regular work. If you weren’t actually necessary to the meeting, it’s likely they won’t miss you, and you sure won’t miss the wasted time away from doing something that’s actually productive.
Yes, most meetings are pointless. But they don’t have to be. By following these steps, you can make sure your team gets all the benefits that come from having productive, necessary meetings, all while eliminating all that wasted company time that comes from having overly frequent, unproductive meetings.
Stop letting your meetings be a time-suck, and make them useful for once.