11 steps to meetings that aren’t miserable

Meetings are a defining aspect of company culture and are also a really useful input into the personal style of fellow employees and managers. An example of this – I had a senior manager in a related group to mine (they were a director, in fact) schedule a meeting for five teams at 9 am in the morning. Participants were calling into the video chat from a number of time zones.

The meeting owner showed up 15 minutes late, saying that their commute had taken longer than she had thought. The meeting owner provided no agenda to structure the meeting. The meeting owner then spent 90% of the time talking to everyone at the meeting and then failed to send out a note outlining next steps or takeaways. For me, this was a classic example of really bad meeting hygiene. Aside from running a next-to-useless meeting, the meeting owner wasted 15 minutes of 20 people’s productive day. On top of that, 9 am is a prime meeting slot. That meeting likely crowded out other meetings. I shudder to think what that meeting cost the company in terms of lost productivity – certainly well into the thousands of dollars. .

Needless to say, I aggressively avoided meetings scheduled by that manager in the future and instructed my direct reports never to attend a meeting with that manager unless an agenda was provided a day in advance.

Is This Meeting Really Necessary? Or Could We Do It In A Document?

As a general rule, I always ask my employees “Is this meeting really necessary?”

My next question was usually, “Can we cut the time of the meeting in half?”

Almost invariably the answer was yes. Over time, my team began to ask the same questions and they reduced their time spent in meetings. This made them happier, they told me (which also made me happy, of course).

No one likes bad meetings. In one survey 17% of employees said they would literally rather watch paint dry than sit in a useless status meeting. Yes, watch paint dry.

So you can understand why I feel strongly that one of the key roles managers play is to set meeting culture and norms. This also includes, when necessary, defending your employees from unnecessary or wasteful meetings. My general rule of thumb is that employees who do not have direct reports should spend no more than one-quarter of their time in meetings (the exception is sales teams where customer meetings can take up most of their time). For smaller companies, where communication is easier, that number should be no more than 10% and can be lower still.

I have not gone as far as Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos in defining rigid meeting structures but I definitely feel that their meeting design guidelines are smart and useful. At Amazon, attendees often spend the first part of the meeting reading together a memo that brings everyone up to speed on the topic of the meeting and ensuring that everyone has the key relevant information. For the most part, from what a few Amazon employees have told me, laptops are closed and phones are put away. This culture came straight from the top.

Conversely, at well known tech company where I worked, laptops were open at every meeting I ever attended, right up to meetings of the most senior executives. This included key strategy discussions deciding the fate of the company. Attendees regularly picked up cell phones to text or respond to emails. In fact, keeping chat applications was actually encouraged to allow people to ‘backchannel’ during meetings. A lot of people worked on other projects while they were in meetings. I found meetings at this company often to be less than productive in most circumstances.

Based on my experiences at startups and at larger companies, and even with community organizations (I’ve served on boards of directors of non-profits), here are my basic meeting rules.

  1. Ask if the meeting is necessary. You’d be surprised at how often the consensus of invitees thinks the meeting is not necessary.
  2. Ask if the meeting can be shorter. Often the organizer realizes they don’t need as much time as they think, particularly if employees read the agenda beforehand.
  3. Make sure you have the appropriate number of attendees for a meeting (should rarely be more than 5 and almost never more than 10 – see Jeff Bezos’ Two Pizza Meeting Rule). Science shows as well, that larger meetings are less creative and productive than small ones.
  4. Require that the meeting owner put a brief description of the meeting and goals for the meeting into the calendar item. This forces a meeting owner to take the time to communicate the importance of the meeting. It also helps invitees understand how relevant this meeting will be to them. I’m always amazed at how many meetings get called with vague descriptions that confuse invitees.
  5. Require that the meeting owner provide an agenda for the meeting at least 24 hours in advance. Same as above and then some. By allowing the team to read an agenda in advance of a meeting, the meeting owner benefits from having the unconscious minds of invitees working on the agenda well before the allotted time. This means better ideas and a livelier conversation.
  6. Require that laptops be closed for meetings. Laptops are distracting to their owners and to others. Someone typing on a laptop is basically announcing that the meeting they are sitting in is not worth paying attention too. Also, laptops usually mean multi-tasking, which simply doesn’t work. Humans take 15 minutes or more to switch from one task to another. Laptops feed that monster.
  7. Anyone joining a meeting more than 10 minutes late without notifying the group must skip the meeting. Late arrivals that have not warned the others are almost always distracting. The late arrival, as well, is almost always behind.
  8. Any meeting owner that is late and does not notify the group forfeits the meeting. Full stop. Making people wait is never acceptable. Even for executives.
  9. Designate a scribe to take notes for the meeting, if required. This is the one exception to the laptops rule. The scribe may type to keep track of meeting notes and to add information to an agenda for later consumption, as needed. But only the scribe should type.
  10. Send a “Read Back and Next Steps” document after the meeting to ensure everyone is on the same page about what was discussed and decided. Sending notes after a meeting is a phenomenal way to cement conclusions and make sure that everyone knows that they are supposed to do next. Without some sort of “read back and next steps” document, invariably different people at the meeting will hear different things and will assume different next steps are in order.
  11. Empower your employees to skip meetings they believe will not be useful for them. I realize this is controversial. Letting your employees decide how to spend their day is your biggest vote of confidence in their ability to produce solid results. They know far better than anyone else how to divide their precious hours. Respect their judgement and they will be more productive.