The meeting is dead, long live the meeting

Forget everything you know about running (or attending) a meeting. Here's how to make them productive

Meetings. The word alone can conjure feelings of dread, anxiety, and existential despair.

Often, that’s for good reason. Many of them feature dull presentations, insufferable leaders droning on for too long, and daydreams of looming lunch options. Time is wasted, spirits drained, productivity and presence zapped.

Yet our desire for the mediocre meeting, even in the digital age, continues to soar. By some estimates, there are 55 million meetings a day taking place just in the United States.

It doesn’t have to be this way.

At their best, meetings can be rallying points for teams and cradles for collaboration, writes Steven G. Rogelberg in his book, The Surprising Science of Meetings

“Meetings can be stages for leaders to truly lead, share their visions, be authentic, and inspire and engage their team,” Rogelberg writes. “At the same time, meetings are a form of localized democracy where ideas and innovation can emerge through employee interaction—even the smallest voices have the opportunity to be heard and to be given life and influence.”

If that quote’s got you thinking, “if only,” try these suggestions from Rogelberg that promise to take your team from meeting meh to fruitful collaboration—and maybe even fun.

Go on a meeting diet. It’s likely that you already have too many meetings on your plate. If you’re a meeting scheduler, evaluate which are really necessary, who needs to be there, and whether the meeting should be recurring.

The average recurring gathering lasts up to eight instances, according to Teem, a workplace software and analytics company acquired by WeWork, and can easily become what Teem calls “zombie meetings”: sessions that people stop attending as the purpose of the meeting loses its relevance. Teem also tracks “ghost meetings,” the one in five meetings that, at their start time, are completely unattended.

“I think we’re all surprised by the behavioral aspects of these problems, that they’re all so prevalent,” Ken Myers, data-engineering manager with Teem, says.

If Teem’s research has just given you a name for the meetings others keep bailing on, take a critical look at your calendar and solicit feedback from your colleagues. Consider it a form of calendar Kondo-ing.

For all the zombie meetings his company has slayed, says Meyers, the backlash has been almost nonexistent. “We were really fearful when we launched that it would be a problem, that we would wipe out a CEO’s calendar quickly,” he says. “But that has never really happened.”

Find the right space. Many offices prioritize large conference rooms that can accommodate a soccer team, but real demand is often for smaller spaces that facilitate conversations among  three to five people. Avoid booking a large room, and you won’t feel compelled to fill it with (unnecessary) attendees.

Scuttle the 60-minute standard. It’s a default setting in Google Calendar and Outlook, not a hard-and-fast workplace rule. Ask whether meetings can be shortened, both of yourself and to attendees ahead of time. At the start, address the scope and needs of the meeting itself relative to the amount of time everyone should spend. As a meeting organizer, you can even end a meeting early.

Build in reading time. This trick, favored by Amazon, involves inviting attendees to read together, then begin a discussion immediately after completion. The thinking is that employees won’t stress out about doing their homework before a meeting, and this way everyone is literally on the same page. Amazon also emphasizes that these briefings or readings should be on the side of trim and concise, not War and Peace.

Be attendee-focused. Rogelberg points to a common disconnect between the person session leader and attendees. As he points out, “If you talk a lot, you are more likely to think the meeting experience was a good one.” Better meetings should be democratic, providing a chance for everyone to weigh in, and yield a positive consensus. If you’re leading a meeting, pay attention to how much you’re talking and solicit input from quieter team members who could offer insight. (In his interviews, Pulitzer-prize winning historian Robert Caro admits to writing “SU” in the margin of his notes, a reminder to himself to “SHUT UP.”)  

Keep the conversation constructive. At the meeting’s start, establish ground rules for tone, where debate is invited but there’s comfort in disagreeing. And know that, perhaps more than anything else, your tone will set the stage for the conversation among colleagues.

Consider going screen free. If your employees are plugging away on laptops and smartphones, it’s likely you’ve already lost them.

Rethink the typical agenda. Rogelberg points to research that finds, much to the horror of many a Type-A planner, that meeting agendas may not necessarily increase productivity. What’s worse, sometimes people recycle their agendas for recurring meetings, creating a Groundhog’s Day nightmare for attendees.

Rogelberg says an agenda should be more of an event plan that is focused on “the details, the flow, the experience, and the approach.” Figure out who should be in a meeting and solicit ideas ahead of time. Order the topics, consider goals, and, if possible, prioritize employee-generated items.

Take a stand (or a stroll). A tactic favored by the Obama White House, Steve Jobs, and characters in nearly every Aaron Sorkin TV show, “standing” meetings are inherently shorter than sitting ones (just be mindful of accommodating colleagues with back problems or other physical needs).

Learn from sports and take a huddle. Another alternative is the “huddle.” No need to play coach and scream at your “players”—the huddle is about “team members communicating with one another, pulling together, learning together, and seeking ways to support each other,” says Rogelberg, and also to kickstart conversations and tasks that need to be handled beyond the group. One way to cultivate this: Rotate who is responsible for leading the huddle each day.  

Make takeaways available to all. If people marginally related to the meeting aren’t in the meeting, have someone take minutes and share those with everyone. This creates transparency, while also saving time. Some workplaces even have the Google Doc of meeting notes on a projector so that everyone can see the work being done as it’s documented in real time.

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