Are meetings a waste of time? Here’s what you should do instead
It’s no secret that meetings have become an oft-dreaded part of working life. You see jokes about them on the internet. Employees complain about the wasted time that interrupts their day.
“If you had to identify, in one word, the reason why the human race has not achieved, and never will achieve, its full potential, that word would be ‘meetings,’” wrote Dave Barry.
The bad reputation has only become more obvious with the rise of remote work. It’s hard enough to stay focused in person. It’s even harder when everyone’s a floating head, and Netflix is just a few clicks away.
But despite all the hate, we still have a ton of meetings. Recent research shows that executives spend nearly 23 hours a week in meetings.
You may not love them, but sometimes there’s no alternative to people coming together (because...synchronous communication!). And we can’t beat up too badly on meetings because every once in a while, they’re awesome. We’ve all been in or at least one meeting that went really well, where we felt a closer connection to our team or came up with some idea as a group that no one would have unearthed on their own.
If you’ve seen even a glimpse of a good meeting, you know how powerful they can be. The best ones foster collaboration and creativity. They bring people together and offer a sense of community.
Looking for ways to help ensure your meetings are more awesome and less a total waste of time? Read on!
What makes meetings a waste of time?
Few things suck the energy out of a room like a bad meeting. You know the ones. You look out and see your team hiding their phones under the desk like high school students, competing for who can find the perfect GIF to represent their boredom.
The frequency of unproductive meetings can trick us into thinking that all meetings are bad, but that’s not the case. Bad meetings have certain qualities that make them unproductive. These include:
❌ Too much basic information
How many times have you heard or spoken the phrase: “that could've been an email?" That’s because most meetings dedicate a large portion of their time to simply informing, reviewing, or catching people up on something basic.
And if a meeting doesn't have an agenda (more on that below), this type of "basic information creep" is more likely to occur.
❌ Excessive brainstorming
While meetings do create opportunities to foster creativity, some meetings can go too far by opening up to the floor.
People start sharing ideas or experiences that stray away from the original goal of the meeting. Pretty soon, you’ve gone 20 minutes over and didn’t cover everything, forcing you to — you guessed it — schedule another meeting.
If you do want to spend time brainstorming in a meeting, have a clear timeframe (set a timer!) and, if possible, ask participants to think through the problem ahead of time and bring ideas. We love this creative brainstorm agenda!
❌ Poor agendas (or no agendas)
Crafting a meeting agenda is an often overlooked pre-meeting step (or it's viewed as unnecessary). But it's hard to have a good meeting if everyone isn't on the same page beforehand about why they're gathering.
What are you there to discuss? Why does each person have to be there? What has to be decided or shared or figured out?
If you do create an agenda, it has to be focused — not too packed, but not too loose. It also has to be realistic — you have to make sure everything can get accomplished in the allotted time.
❌ Lack of focus
Although meetings can foster a sense of community, it’s still important to keep off-topic conversations to a minimum. A few minutes of “catching up” with everyone can quickly stretch into a big chunk of the meeting time and throw off the focus of the group.
Keep in mind that no one sets out to run an unproductive meeting. These pitfalls tend to sneak in and quickly derail any sense of getting something done. It’s the little things that make a big impact.
Luckily, by knowing what makes a *bad* meeting, you can take some simple steps to save your meetings.
6 meeting rules to increase productivity (and happiness!)
It doesn’t take an elite group of specialists to ensure your meetings aren't a waste of time. But it does require some intention and effort.
Try these six rules to get your company's meeting culture on track:
1. Introduce a "no-meeting" day
No matter how high your company’s morale is, no matter how much you get your employees to love their jobs, no matter how many times you stock the break room with their favorite snacks — a little part of them will always feel bummed when Monday comes around.
This doesn’t have to be a terrible thing, though. You can use this reality strategically. People aren’t likely to have their greatest ideas when they first walk in the door. They usually have to get up to speed for the week.
Giving your teams a break from meetings on Mondays can help them start the week off strong. Plus, when you do have meetings later in the week, you’ll have a team who is more engaged and ready to participate than they would be on a Monday. If Monday doesn't work for your company it's worth noting that many teams choose another day to eliminate or reduce meetings (Vowel does "deep work Wednesdays").
2. Evaluate weekly meeting productivity
Businesses regularly measure and evaluate various metrics. When something doesn’t work, they try to pinpoint the problem and solve it.
Why shouldn’t meetings be the same?
Company leaders and managers can look back on their meetings and see what worked and what didn’t. Which meetings are consistently the most productive? Which ones left something to be desired?
To help stay on top of this, the people hosting the meeting can reference notes, action items, and recordings (p.s. we've got instant recaps like this in Vowel 👇).
3. Require an agenda *in* the calendar invite
Meetings work best when everyone has a clear idea of the goal and what will be covered. Think about when a meeting host spends a few minutes at the top laying out the expectations and plan of the meeting.
Why not give that information out earlier?
Putting an agenda in the calendar invite can also help ensure that leaders put out worthwhile topics to discuss, and it can give the attendee an idea of what they need to get caught up on prior to the meeting.
If there are any meeting pre-reads, you should also put them here (and send out a reminder of what should be reviewed before the meeting).
4. Reduce meeting time
This one is pretty straightforward. If you feel like meetings waste too much time, make them shorter. Easy enough.
The challenge comes in making sure you still give yourself enough time to accomplish all the material on the agenda. That’s where strategy comes in.
Meeting hosts should treat their agenda like a surgeon approaches an operation. They’ve got to strategically trim all the bad stuff, making sure that they don’t harm any of the necessities.
A great tip comes from Inc.com editor Jeff Haden. He that meetings do not have to fit in the default time slots (30 minutes, 1 hour, etc.), adding that “a meeting that will start at 9 is usually scheduled to run until 9:30 or 10, even if 10 minutes is all that is required to make a decision.”
You can save time by determining the length of the meeting based on content, not default time slots. Or, if you know others have lots on their schedule, try making your meetings 25 minutes (vs 30) or 50 minutes (vs 60) to give people a break in between.
Little changes like these can help you waste less time in your meetings (and reduce meeting fatigue) — which will in turn allow you to get more done.
5. Have goals and next steps for each meeting
Companies set goals for nearly everything. Marketing, sales, customer success, product, finance, HR — all these departments and more are expected to achieve at least some level of the goals set for them.
But this isn’t often true for meetings. At best, the person leading the meeting might have some rough agenda, but they rarely have goals.
In education, every class period has student learning outcomes: expectations for what the student should walk away with after that particular session.
Meetings can do the same thing. Writing down these goals can help companies make sure teams accomplish what they set out to do.
For example, if the goal is to make every employee aware of new market trends, then it’s easy to measure the success by simply seeing if they can articulate the trends by the end of the meeting.
6. Take notes on what matters
Meeting notes give people an easy way to look back on what happened in previous meetings. It also creates a sense of accountability because of the light pressure people feel when they know they’re being observed.
But assigning a note taker can be tricky because it’s such a tedious task.
Tools like Vowel alleviate this burden from the staff by having live meeting transcription running in the background, and a shared notepad where meeting attendees can keep track of the agenda, decision, and action items.
Users can also bookmark certain sections of the conversations and go back later to search the transcript. Or, if it makes sense for you to skip a meeting, Vowel has instant recordings so you can catch up later at 2x.
7. Cancel what's not working
Recurring or ad hoc meetings without a purpose or intention are the most likely to feel like a waste of time.
If you can get clear on what the outcome of the meeting should be (and why), then the meeting might be worth saving.
If you can't, it's worth challenging either yourself or the meeting owner to a) see what could be better or b) eliminate the meeting and figure out if info can be shared async, or pushed to another meeting.
Your meetings don’t have to be a waste of time
Better meetings enable everyone to do their jobs better — and they're not impossible to reach, either! By following the steps outlined above, you can change the narrative around meetings in your workplace and make sure that you get the most out of the synchronous time you and your teammates have together.
Want to try a new way to make your video meetings more productive? Try Vowel for free or learn more about how it works.