5 ways to get what you want from meetings

This article is based on the webinar delivered by business consultant, author, futurist and speaker, Gihan Perera, which can be viewed here.

The average UK office worker spends 16 hours a week in meetings. According to research by Officebroker.com around a quarter of this time is usually wasted, meaning that “one year of your career is being spent, not in meetings, but being wasted in meetings”, says Gihan Perera.

Perera reminds us of the popular phrase, ‘a meeting is a place where the minutes are kept and the hours are lost’. But in our fast-changing world, he believes this shouldn’t be the case because we have “the very latest thinking on how to optimise meetings so you and your organisation can get the most out of them”.

These new approaches, based on emerging research and developments, help us run meetings more effectively and cut out time wastage. Perera places these ideas into five categories that address the time before, during and after a meeting takes place.

1. What to do long before your meeting

Before you schedule a meeting, ask yourself this question: ‘Is a meeting the best way to achieve what we need?’ Recent advice and thinking show there are many good reasons to avoid meetings which aren’t completely necessary.

“Decisions should never wait for a meeting,” says Kristen Gil, Google vice president of business operations, as this would mean the company would only be running as fast as its meeting schedule permits. Instead, decisions should be made by those who have the authority. Al Pittampalli, author of Read this before our next meeting: How we can get more work done, agrees, saying “meet only to support a decision that has already been made”.

In their book 37Signals, Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson argue that “every minute you avoid spending in a meeting is a minute you can get real work done instead”. This is based on the rationale that meetings:

  • disrupt natural workflow
  • are usually about abstract concepts
  • convey an abysmal amount of information per minute
  • time-waste
  • easily go off-topic
  • frequently have vague agendas
  • often involve people who are ill-prepared

“The more time we spend in meetings having to talk and make decisions and exercise willpower, focus and concentration, the more it depletes those sorts of skills for your other real work,” Gihan argues. “That’s a reason for not having unnecessary meetings.”

For regular weekly meetings that are focused on relationships and social cohesion of the group, try to get value from them instead of status updates. For example, Gihan shares that one sales group has a weekly meeting where they discuss ideas from a podcast they’ve all listened to.  Or you could consider having very short meetings instead, e.g. 15 minute daily huddles. These are popular with start-ups as they help align the team.

2. What to do before your meeting

If you’ve decided you’re going to have a meeting, what do you do to prepare for it? Try implementing these strategies for efficiency before your meeting starts:

Schedule your meeting effectively

  • Keep it as short as possible.
  • Don’t feel you have to round off your meeting time to traditional lengths. Save time when you can.
  • Don’t start on the hour, e.g. start at 2:10pm. If you give a precise time, people are more likely to be punctual.
  • End a little before the end of the hour or half-hour. It gives people time to get to their next meeting or check emails or messages.

Get time zones right

Stating local time zones correctly on meeting invites is highly important, says Gihan. He suggests sending out calendar invitations which automatically save to your attendees’ calendars in their local time zone.

Decide who should be in the meeting

Gihan believes there are three reasons why you should invite someone to a meeting:

  • If you need their input, e.g. to achieve the result of your meeting
  • If you need their authority, e.g. to execute a decision
  • If you need their support, e.g. they might be a stakeholder in the decision being made

If people don’t fit into one of these categories, consider carefully if you should invite them or not. And if you’re an attendee and don’t fit into a category, consider declining an invite. If you’re required to provide input, you might suggest providing it in advance, attending only part of the meeting or meeting people individually to fulfil your role.

“The more people you invite, the more chance there is that people will sit back and wait for someone else to contribute, rather than making a contribution themselves,” says Gihan.

Send an agenda

It’s a basic meeting principle, but vital for not getting side-tracked during a meeting. Francesca Gino, in her book ‘Side-tracked: Why our decisions get derailed, and how we can stick to the plan’, points out that when people are side-tracked, it costs more than just time as it affects the quality of the decisions they make, too.

3. What to do during your meeting

Gihan challenges meeting leaders to consider the following meeting techniques:

Five word goals

To start your meeting off, ask attendees to state the meeting goal in less than five words. It’s not a test of them, but of the meeting leader, to ensure everyone has the information needed to focus on the meeting’s success.

Ban electronic devices

Instead of laptops, smartphones and tablets, allow paper and pen to take notes. Some argue this increases concentration, provides less distraction and creates a better culture of respect.

Have a standing meeting

This is where attendees of meetings stand up for the entire length of the meeting. This leads to shorter meetings. Research has also shown that for creativity or idea generation, participants are more engaged in a standing meeting.

Use silence

In Japanese work culture, it’s not uncommon for there to be silence during meetings. Participants reflect, absorb what’s being discussed and come to their own decisions during this time. Alexander Kjerulf, a leading consultant on happiness at work, says “the purpose of meetings is not to talk – the purpose of meetings is to arrive at ideas, solutions, plan and decisions…some people can think while they’re talking – most can’t.”

4. What to do after your meeting

After your meeting, you’ll probably have a follow-up routine, e.g. sending out slides and handouts. But Gihan also suggests utilising a technique Steve Jobs was known for, which was assigning DRIs, or ‘directly responsible individuals’, for each agreed action. These ideally have a deadline, too.

5. What to do long after your meeting

This isn’t about what to do three months after your meeting, but how to help ensure that three months later, your meeting’s actions are complete. Gihan suggests conducting a ‘pre-mortem’ for failed actions during the meeting itself. An idea developed by a couple of Harvard researchers several decades ago, it involves attendees being asked to imagine their project failing and offering reasons for it. “You can use those reasons as a list of obstacles that you can then work around,” says Gihan. “You put in place actions to stop it from failing.”

Company culture is everybody’s business, says Gihan, not just management’s. It might be hard to change meeting culture, but you can make a difference by implementing some of these ideas with the meetings you chair. Show you can get better results with your new way of doing meetings.

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