Did I say something wrong, or is no one paying attention? That uncomfortable silence we hear in many of our virtual meetings these days really makes us wonder about the value of meetings at all. Has going virtual created more effective meetings, or is it worse now than ever?
Poorly run meetings are assuredly as old as meetings themselves. But what is new is that we can now draw on a body of research to make our meetings more effective and more productive.
In my book, The Surprising Science of Meetings: How You Can Lead Your Team to Peak Performance, I worked to lay out this research in a highly accessible, interesting, and dare I say even fun way. In short, we now know how to make more effective meetings. And it’s time we act!
What the research says about meetings
Meetings are taking up more of our time. According to analyses by Elise Keith, cofounder of the software firm Lucid Meetings, every day in the U.S. there are approximately 55 million workplace meetings. Compare this with a 1976 Harvard Business Review article by Anthony Jay that estimated there were approximately 11 million meetings per day. Our time in meetings has grown 500 percent in about a 40-year period! And that number has gotten much worse since 2020: the Microsoft Work Trend Index says that meeting time has more than doubled since the pandemic first hit.
Meetings are expensive. Xerox estimated the cost of meetings in its 24,000-employee organization was $100.4 million per year. Other studies have suggested that 15 percent of personnel budgets are spent on meeting time. Elise Keith’s analyses have estimated the cost of meetings in the U.S. is $1.4 trillion per year.
Meetings may have an unfairly bad reputation. It’s little surprise that various surveys reveal a large percentage of respondents find meetings to be non-productive. Or a waste of time. Or an opportunity to multitask. But it’s interesting that when asked to describe their ideal workday, most people include meetings in the mix. What to take from this mixed bag? I think it’s that while people see a lot of room for improvement in meetings, they also recognize they ultimately are valuable.
How to have more effective meetings
The best way to address what we see as the downside of meetings isn’t to get rid of them entirely. After all, meetings are an indispensable forum for critical activities such as getting team work done, brainstorming, building consensus, and communicating important information. But there are many ways we can have more effective meetings. Here are some evidence-based tips:
Don’t meet for an hour just because Outlook suggests you should. Why do we default to scheduling meetings in increments of 30 minutes or 1 hour? For one, it’s because of our scheduling tool: Microsoft Outlook. While Outlook’s default setting might make scheduling meetings easier, it also creates some problems. For one, it often leads us to schedule meetings that are longer than they need to be. This, in turn, leads us to fill up the remaining time with small talk or, worse yet, overthinking decisions.
Another problem arises when meetings are scheduled back-to-back (or in the case of some busy people, back-to-back-to-back …), leaving no time for bathroom breaks, eating a quick lunch, or moving from meeting room to meeting room. This, in turn, results in meetings starting late, attendees arriving late, and a lot of time wasted!
You don’t need to start or end on the hour or half hour. Go ahead and schedule a 25 or 48-minute meeting—and strive to end earlier. Also, you can change the default setting in Outlook to end scheduled meetings earlier.
Determine who really needs to be there. To increase the likelihood that everyone in the room will actively participate and find the meeting a good use of time, keep the number of attendees as small as needed. The meeting literature and my research have determined that for solving a problem or making a decision, meeting size should be kept to seven to eight people or fewer. Eight to 12 attendees is doable if the leader has outstanding facilitation skills. For idea generation, agenda-setting, and huddles, fewer than 15 people is ideal.
Get more out of meetings by putting more thought into agendas. It’s a common misconception that agendas are a necessity for a successful meeting. They’re not. Research shows that just having an agenda doesn’t equate to having a more successful meeting.
That doesn’t mean agendas aren’t important, however. They are. Construct agendas in a way that brings focus to what needs to be accomplished during the meeting. One approach I recommend is to structure the agenda as a list of questions that need to be answered during the meeting. That brings both clarity and laser-focus to the discussion.
Just because you’re leading the meeting doesn’t mean you should do all the talking. Research shows meeting leaders tend to rate meetings as more effective than do meeting attendees. This aligns with another finding: that those who talk the most in meetings tend to rate them more highly than others in the room (or on the call). After all, it’s too often the meeting leader who does most of the talking. (Hint: If you think you’re talking too much when leading a meeting, you probably are.)
Going back to the need to keep meetings lean, everyone in the room should be there for a reason. A critical part of the meeting leader’s role is to encourage participation, elicit input, and seek opinions from those who don’t readily speak up. Often, it’s those meeting spectators who will have the best ideas or insights. And research has demonstrated that asking for input from others, even when none is subsequently provided, engenders feelings of support, buy-in, and an overall feeling of inclusion.
“Meeting” doesn’t have to be synonymous with “sitting.” For those of us who are in-person at the office, it might be a huge relief to get out of (possibly masked) conference rooms for a bit. Walking meetings can be a welcome change of pace, and offer a chance to get out of the office.
The walking meeting is a mobile meeting for two to three, and maybe up to four individuals. Many companies are embracing this different take on meetings. For instance, walking meetings are a staple at LinkedIn, where folks circle around a 20 to 25-minute looped path in their California headquarters. After Johnson & Johnson adopted walking meetings, a company vice president noted that “people felt increased amounts of energy, they felt increased focus, they felt improved engagement.”
And if you're at home? Try taking a walk around the neighborhood or even jumping on the treadmill. As long as you're still focused on the meeting, you can gain the energy increase while still collaborating.
Keep in mind: These rules work for both in-person and virtual meetings. Whether you're staring at each other across a conference room table or on video camera, we should show no less respect for the time we're spending away from focused work. So make that meeting time count.
Before I conclude, I want to give a big shout out to DDI. I had the absolute honor of working in partnership with them to create a really unique course on meetings. This course, Leading Meetings: Use Time Effectively, is not your typical meetings class. It provides leaders with critical insights on the science of meetings and practical techniques to drive intentionality, create impactful agendas, and make the best use of everyone’s time.
I also really enjoyed doing a podcast with DDI. Check out my episode of the Leadership 480 podcast to learn committing to more effective meetings!
Learn more about DDI’s Leading Meetings: Use Time Effectively course.
Dr. Steven Rogelberg, an organizational psychologist, holds the title of Chancellor’s Professor at UNC Charlotte for distinguished national, international and interdisciplinary contributions. His latest book, The Surprising Science of Meetings was recognized by the Washington Post as the “#1 Leadership Book to Watch for in 2019,” by the Business Insider as “The Top 14 Books everyone will be reading in 2019” and by SHRM as “Top 10 favorite new books”. He and the book have been featured on CBS This Morning Freakonomics, and BBC World. Please visit Stevenrogelberg.com for more information.