If there’s a universally disliked concept in the world of business, it’s the pointless meeting. What could have been a group Slack message or an email has now turned into an hour you’ll never get back. We’ve all been there.

We’re not saying that all meetings are bad; it’s a good thing to keep a finger on the pulse with bosses and teammates. What we’re talking about are the meetings that are filled with open-ended discussions, the dreaded ones where no real work comes from them, except to “circle back on this later.” You know exactly the ones we’re talking about. They’re the stuff of legend that inspire shows like The Office.

Time to Stop Meeting Madness

Regular meetings can be purposeful and essential. But, if you’re struggling to come up with an agenda or a purpose other than it feels like something you’re “supposed to be doing,” cancel it.

According to The Muse, middle management spends 35% in meetings, while upper management spends 50% of their time off in a room somewhere, trapped in meetings. And these numbers don’t even reflect the ad hoc conversations that happen in hallways or next to the coffee maker.

Think about time spent in wasteful meetings: it’s a zero-sum game. When a schedule is loaded with all kinds of blocked off time, it prevents that person from getting what Georgetown University computer science professor Cal Newport calls “deep work,” which is the ability to focus on a task without distraction. Newport’s studies show that workers who can concentrate without the frequent stops and starts show bigger breakthroughs than those whose focus was continually broken up throughout the day.

And it gets worse. According to Inc.com, pointless meetings cost businesses a whopping, insane, crazy $283 billion a year in time wasted.

Steven Rogelberg of the University of North Carolina released a study in regards to workplace satisfaction, which factored in management style, personality traits, and office environment, still said the number one complaint people had was you guessed it, bad meetings.

So how do we fix this bad meeting dilemma? Simple. Lead by example. Make sure the meetings you lead are focused, efficient, and—most important—necessary.

Keep It Snappy

Meetings should be focused, so contributors feel like their time is respected and that the number goal is to be productive. The agenda should be clear and concise, so there’s no need for sidebar conversations afterward.

Ask everyone to put away their computers if they aren’t necessary. Having their full attention dedicated to the task at hand will help move the meeting along at a much faster pace.

Invite the Right People

A lot of people get invited to meetings on the basis of their input being valuable, but many times, that person has nothing to add because the team is on top of it, or that maybe the information they’re covering was already sent out in an email and covered to the point that the meeting has just become an in-person review. That’s poor management of resources. People need time to work, especially those you’re calling into a meeting who don’t have to be present but do so out of respect for their co-workers.

Gather Feedback

Gather data from everyone involved. Ask if meetings are productive, is the team getting something from it? If the whole team thinks the meetings being called are pointless, there’s an issue.

Then you can collectively look at the data together and discuss what’s working and what’s not. Yes, it’s a meeting about meetings, but this move will hopefully transform how the team gets things done. Take this time to answer the hard questions and openly take stock about how the team feels. Making and keeping positive changes requires consistent attention.

Consider Project Management Tools

A lot of different teams collaborate with one another. Marketing, for example, often works with sales, copywriters, graphic designers, and subject matter experts. These individuals are likely not on the same team, which in turn, results in information possibly not getting shared. Because of this, some project leaders establish a recurring status meeting. Unless it’s a 10-minute stand-up, these kinds of meetings run the risk of becoming time sucks.

Consider relying on collaborative tools and project management software instead. Here are a few ideas:

  • Create a project channel in Slack.
  • Make a process for tagging and reviewing collaborative work in Google Drive.
  • Start a Confluence page.
  • Explore project management tools like Trello or Asana.

By doing any of these things, others can read and comment as a project develops, heading off the need for an “information share” or “progress update” meeting. Encouraging team members to check in on a project daily through your selected tools, rather than waiting for updates in a meeting, can also speed the project along.

Accept That Some Meetings are Critical

There are a few meetings that need to happen. If your team needs to make a choice or change how they’re getting things done, set the tone of meetings as places to keep the discussions on track and without side conversation distraction. By fine-tuning schedules, teams can get more done because these meetings are focused and all serve a purpose that’s laid out immediately. Here are some of the most useful meetings.

One-on-One Check-In’s

One-on-one’s are important because they’re a forum to talk openly about the good, the bad, and the ugly between a manager and her direct report. These meetings should be constructed on the two of you building a relationship by taking stock of daily work, the future, and if either has any concerns. These don’t need to be weekly, but they should be once a month at minimum.

Planning & Decision-Making Meetings

If something needs to be decided, don’t let it languish in a spider web of red tape. Make a choice and stick to it.

Gather a group of informed contributors and stakeholders who have the power to make a decision, and set the agenda to move a project forward. Make sure all of the critical people are informed and have sufficient background knowledge. Refer these folks back to whatever documentation is needed, but make that it’s crystal clear the purpose of these meetings is to leave the room with a decision.

Post-Mortem Meetings

During the year a lot of projects will get completed. But, with those accomplishments, there needs to be a moment of reflection—once a month, once a quarter, whatever you need–to get the team together to share their perspectives on what happened. Identify what needs to be worked on moving forward, ask the hard questions, but make sure the agenda is to improve how the team is working on projects together.

Brainstorm meetings

If there’s a significant roadblock or it’s time to create something new, getting together with core team members is a great way to develop a campaign or feature. There’s just something about getting into a room together and talking a situation out with a whiteboard that’s really productive. Beware: who is in the room is extra important for these meetings. You want a diverse group of contributors who can represent not only different areas of the business but also different viewpoints.

All-Hands Meetings

All-hands meetings have one clear goal: get the team in alignment on the company’s big picture goals. This is a critical exercise, especially for growing businesses where new ideas are everywhere. The executive staff should use these meetings to set priorities for the company and, ideally, host a Q&A session to field questions from the staff.

Meetings can make big things happen if the right people get in a room together. Get your team’s meeting calendar streamlined, and (please!) no meetings about meetings. If you’ve got any other burning questions, just head on over to the ScaleFactor blog. 

Derek Felderhoff &Derek Felderhoff
Director of People