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Better Meetings

How to have ad hoc meetings that aren't a waste of time

Illustration of a woman looking at a lightbulb flower

“Want to hop on a quick call?” While this question may seem innocent enough, the answer and what follows can profoundly affect your work day. 

Why? Ad hoc meetings don’t occur on a regular schedule, so they cause you to drop what you’re doing to join. When you finish the meeting and get back to work, you’re left playing catch up to get work done.

Of course, not all ad hoc meetings are a waste of time. The key is knowing when to have them and what best practices to follow. Let's dive in!

What are ad hoc meetings?

Ad hoc meetings, also known as unplanned or impromptu meetings, occur spontaneously, often at short notice.

Research has shown that these types of meetings are more prevalent in remote teams, perhaps as a way to compensate for the lack of face-to-face time. It's also easier to go ad-hoc when you don’t have to book a conference room!

Regardless of whether they happen in person or over video, the unplanned nature of these meetings can be both a good and a bad thing.

Pros and cons of ad hoc meetings

Ad hoc meetings help you make fast and informed decisions on specific topics. They help you get things done quickly, eliminate back and forth messages, and allow you and your team to talk through an issue in real time. 

Unplanned meetings are also ideal for quickly getting everyone on the same page during emergencies. You only have to think back to when the pandemic hit and the slew of impromptu meetings companies scheduled to deal with all the challenges around remote work

However, unplanned and last-minute meetings are not without their problems. 

They can throw a wrench into your workflows, which harms overall productivity. These interruptions can be especially damaging if you already have a tight schedule or are engaged in "deep work": work that requires intense focus on a single task with no distractions. 

Unplanned meetings can also be stressful for the invitee, who has to leave work at a drop of a hat and may wonder why someone is scheduling a meeting with such short notice.

Pros of ad hoc meetings

✅ Can make fast decisions to get things done quickly

✅ Can talk through an issue in real time to resolve it quicker

Cons of ad hoc meetings

❌ Stressful for the invitee who has to stop what they're doing (even if it's important)

❌ Can harm overall productivity and morale if they happen too frequently

Given that ad hoc meetings can be problematic, it's a good rule of thumb to use them sparingly and for the right reasons.

When do you need an ad hoc meeting?

Ad hoc meetings work well for high-priority or time-sensitive issues. Examples that meet these criteria may include:

  • Meetings to address something out of the ordinary that requires immediate attention, e.g., workplace challenges arising from a pandemic.

  • Meetings to address last-minute project changes. Maybe a client has requested a last-minute change to the scope of work, which threatens to push back delivery dates.

  • Meetings to resolve an urgent complaint, e.g., one of your biggest clients complains about your pricing changes and is refusing to pay.

  • Meetings to resolve a company-wide blackout where servers are down. This meeting will likely only happen with the IT department and departmental heads present who can, in turn, let others know what’s being done to fix the problem.

  • Meetings for big and urgent company announcements that impact all employees, e.g., a merger or layoffs.

However, for low-priority issues that don’t need an immediate response, like an ongoing project without tight deadlines or an employee wanting to share information, impromptu meetings are not the way to go.

Stick to using ad hoc meetings only for high-priority or time-sensitive issues, and leave everything else to your regularly scheduled or recurring meetings.

Asynchronous meetings: An alternative to ad hoc meetings

Asynchronous communication doesn't happen in real time. Rather there’s a delay between when information is requested and received. People can communicate in their own time.

For example, suppose your team is working on a project together in Trello or Asana. They can log in at different times of the day to view the work, comment, reply, and provide other feedback or missing pieces to move the project along. 

Similarly, if your team collaborates via video tools like Loom or Soapbox, teammates can record and send videos to their colleagues to share information without having to call a meeting.

4 best practices for ad hoc meetings

Now that we have a basic understanding of ad hoc meetings, let’s look at some best practices you can follow to keep them productive when you do have them.

1. Know your meeting purpose

Ad hoc meetings aren‘t formal meetings — so creating a comprehensive meeting agenda isn‘t necessary. But having a clear and single meeting objective is.

This purpose of the meeting is more important than the agenda and should be communicated clearly before the meeting, so everyone knows what the meeting is about and can mentally prepare for it. 

Examples of a single meeting purpose include:

  • Make a decision about how to proceed on an important project.

  • Remove a roadblock that’s holding you back from moving forward on a project.

  • Discuss a sudden opportunity, e.g., a big client has chosen your company to submit a proposal.

  • Do a quick retrospective after an unplanned event (e.g. major customer issue) so the learnings are fresh.

2. Write a quick meeting agenda

If you do need an agenda and/or there’s time to create one, keep it short and simple. Your agenda will typically include:

  • What you hope to achieve with the meeting

  • Discussion points 

  • An approximation of how long it will take to complete each discussion point

  • Time at the end of the meeting to review what was discussed and the next steps and takeaways/deliverables

Pro tip: Use a meeting tool like Vowel to quickly create agendas for more effective meetings. Simply visit the Upcoming tab, write out the meeting details, and share them with attendees.

Vowel meeting agenda

3. Keep it short

You don’t want to keep employees from their work for longer than is absolutely necessary. Short meeting times also keep everyone engaged and help people to stay focused on the main discussion points.

Try to keep ad hoc meetings shorter than 30 minutes (kudos if you manage an even shorter time). One hack that can help is to avoid using the default calendar time slots like 30-minute intervals, as people will often use the entire slot given to them even if it’s unnecessary. Instead, specify something more specific, like 15 or 20 minutes.

Pro tip: Use Vowel to set and display agenda times to stop meetings from running over. The agenda time, visible to everyone on the video call, is a reminder to stay on topic.

Agenda timers in Vowel

4. Insist on clear takeaways

Shared note-taking improves collaboration in team meetings, as well as idea generation, and overall productivity. Just imagine someone making a note which triggers an idea or thought in your brain. You then make a note in response to that note which, in turn, encourages someone else to make a note.

Consider opening a document in Google or Notion, or using a tool like Vowel (where you can use the agenda as a notes template). These tools give everyone access to the notes from the meeting in one shared space for easy reference later. 

You can also record ad hoc meetings so those who could not attend due to the short notice of the meeting or differences in time zones can quickly get up to speed by watching the video replay.

Pro tip: Include action items at the end of your meeting as part of your notes, so everyone knows what the next steps and deliverables are. This helps you avoid those typical scenarios where people leave the meeting feeling energized, only to later wonder: What was I supposed to do?

Action items captured in a Vowel meeting

Should you have an ad hoc meeting?

Ad hoc meetings have become a bigger part of working remotely. And while they do help us all make swift and informed decisions in real time, they can also be unstructured and remove people from more productive work. 

With that in mind, here are five questions to answer before every ad hoc meeting:

  • Is this ad hoc meeting even necessary? Only schedule meetings for issues that are time sensitive or urgent. For all other issues, you can probably achieve the same or better outcome via asynchronous communication (e.g., email, Loom,  or Slack).

  • Does my meeting have a single purpose? Ad hoc meetings remove people from their work. Respect their time and let everyone know what the meeting is about, so they know what to expect and can mentally prepare. Do not schedule a meeting if you’re unclear about the primary purpose.

  • Does my meeting need an agenda? Creating detailed agendas is often impossible with ad hoc meetings because they’re scheduled at short notice. But when they are, specify what you hope to achieve, the main discussion points, and the timing for each discussion point, so it’s easy to follow up.

  • How long will my ad hoc meeting be? The shorter, the better. Ad hoc meetings should be no longer than 30 minutes. Only on rare occasions should they run longer.

  • How do I plan to take notes during the meeting? Always be clear on how you’ll take and store meeting notes, so you have a way for attendees to quickly reference the meeting later on and see follow-up items (psst...this is easy to to in Vowel!).

How to have an ad hoc meeting using Vowel

A huge number of companies are using Slack for daily communication. So, it makes sense to be able to create an ad hoc Vowel meeting from within Slack using simple slash commands.

To get started, visit the Slack App Directory and install the Vowel plug-in. Once installed, type /vowel in any channel or direct message and immediately jump into your ad hoc meeting (either with members of your Vowel workspace or guests — the link will be your personal meeting room link).

Join a Vowel meeting from Slack

Proceed with intention

Ad hoc meetings can help you make quicker business decisions in real time without the constant back and forth. But they can also be a total waste of time, removing people from more productive work. 

That’s why it’s crucial to use them sparingly and follow a few best practices when you do use them:

✔️ Create a single meeting purpose

✔️ Create a short agenda, if there’s time

✔️ Keep meetings under 30 minutes

✔️ Have clear takeaways

✔️ Use a tool like Vowel to take notes and record, so you can go back and reference if needed (it’s way better than a Zoom meeting, we promise!)

Do the above, and you’ll improve your ad hoc meeting productivity and your overall meeting and company culture. Good luck!