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Why So Many Meetings Are Unproductive and How to Improve Them

By: Jacques Le Normand - Team Lead at Teamflow

Complaints about too frequent and unproductive meetings have gotten louder. Every year it’s estimated businesses lose $37 billion on unproductive meetings. And employees say they spend 31 hours per month on unproductive meetings.

A lot has been written about meetings. However, the bulk of the advice given simply addresses the symptoms of a more fundamental problem. It does not mention, let alone address, the problem itself.

The root of the problem

The fundamental issue is not the length or the format of meetings, or even the number of meetings in a day. The problem runs much deeper, and its consequences are far more profound than just complaints and groaning.

The fundamental issue is that we are not valuing the time of our peers, subordinates and superiors. We are quite simply wasting each other’s time — the one thing that we will never be able to recuperate, and the one thing that stops us from achieving our personal and professional goals.

On my deathbed, I will probably ask myself if I have effectively used the time that was given to me, and I hope that my answer is not that I wasted far too much of it in pointless meetings.

As a manager, you can help your employees feel their time is valuable by making sure they don’t spend time on activities which aren’t useful. Employees who feel their time is valuable will consequently feel more appreciated, and feel they are making a bigger impact on the business. They will also stay longer with the organization, work harder to achieve their goals, and they’ll actually have more time to complete their tasks.

It’s not hard to make a business case for valuing the time of your employees, and making them feel that their time is valued. And beyond the business reasons mentioned above, there is an even more important reason for doing so, it’s a matter of respecting each other’s indispensable personal resource of time.

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Meetings can be more productive

There is one area of corporate life where the most egregious time wasting occurs: meetings.

As a meeting organizer, it is important to empathize with meeting participants. The organizer should ask this important question: how much of this meeting will actually be useful for this individual participant? The more time wasted per participant, the less productive and effective a meeting is.

Meeting guidelines

At Teamflow, we have specific guidelines for all our meetings that have more than two participants; the purpose of these guidelines is to reduce time wasted, and to make everyone feel their time is valuable.

Purpose and agenda

Every meeting with more than two participants needs a purpose and an outlined agenda, which are sent to all participants before the meeting starts. This helps inform all participants of how the meeting will unfold, which in turn mentally prepares them for the meeting at hand.

Meeting chair or mediator

When the meeting begins, a chair is appointed to make sure the meeting progresses in an orderly fashion — following the agenda, and also quickly addressing any differing points of view or disagreements, often by suggesting that the parties further discuss their viewpoints, separately after the meeting.

Be selective about participants

Have you ever been to a meeting where you did not understand how you could contribute, and felt it wasn’t the best use of your time? A simple way to make a meeting more effective is to reduce the number of participants. Often, for some attendees a meeting can be completely replaced by another method of communication, such as group chats or recap emails.

To encourage effective virtual meetings, Teamflow, has an upper ceiling of six participants for any given meeting. We make an exception for all-hands and standup meetings. If too many people happen to join a meeting we start things off by suggesting that any participants who are not directly impacted by the topic at hand leave the meeting. The reason, we remind them: your time is too valuable to be here right now. Participants who leave are first asked if they have anything specific to say relating to the topic, and their concerns are addressed before they leave.

A great place to start cultivating a culture that is mindful and respectful of each other’s personal and professional time is by changing the way meetings are planned and run. With structure, preparation, and empathy, meetings will become more productive and effective, and everyone in the organization will feel more appreciated and valued.