This meeting could have been an e-mail

André Lauer
5 min readMay 8, 2020

Have you ever had this experience? You’re in a meeting, and while it goes on and on, you question why it even happened and ask yourself ‘why me’? The sighing, eyerolling and disengagement are a price we accept in a culture which values keeping busy — and calling meetings.

That meeting could have been an e-mail
©Seth Phillips/Dude With Sign

And while the lockdown situation could have been a chance to change this culture of keeping busy and calling meetings, many people still find themselves spending half their day being reactive and having overloaded schedules. If you’re in this situation, here’s a checklist that can help you.

Ask yourself these questions before joining:
- Why is this meeting happening?
- What’s on the agenda for today?
- What’s my role in this meeting?
- Who are the other participants?
- Could this meeting have been an e-mail?

Why is this meeting happening?
More often than not, meetings happen out of a fear of decision-making. You want to do everything right, be inclusive, have a broad perspective and take the best possible decision. So you get everyone together to talk and discuss. Ironically, with the right facilitation, meetings can be a fantastic place to take the actual decision together. The prerequisite is that every attendee is prepared for it.

Many of the discussions and presentations that are commonly on the agenda could be done perfectly well before. Give people access to the information they need, have shared documents where it’s possible to feedback and give inputs. Then, create a window of time in which everyone can work on this themselves. This gives others the chance to be active when it suits them best and teams can thus work asynchronously. Consolidate the findings and then use the actual real-time meeting to take decisions on these topics.

What’s on the agenda for today?
This question presumes that there is an actual agenda. Actually, that is often not the case. It’s okay to have a standard and to say ‘yes’ only to meetings that have a clear agenda. Ideally, an agenda mentions the topics of the day, the decisions that should be made and the goal that should be achieved. You can also easily prioritize in an agenda by adding an estimation of how much time a topic will take.

Don’t introduce the agenda at the beginning of the meeting only — send it out to the people attending 24–48 hours in advance and allow time to add topics, comments or questions. When working in a team without a classic hierarchy, enable others to add points of interest to the agenda as well. This increases the sense of ownership and responsibility of every person involved.

What’s my role in this meeting?
This question presumes that you have a role. Again, this is often not the case. There can be specific roles for a specific meeting — like taking the notes, keeping the time — or general roles. Maybe you are an expert on the topic and you can help ensure that every single person has correct information. Then you can be there in case there are questions. Or you can be an external person that is simply there to provide a different perspective or feedback to people that are working closely together.

The question about your role really is one of contribution. If you feel like you can’t think of a contribution to the meeting, it will likely feel like something you just ‘have’ to do. It’s also a point to reflect on — why are you getting invited into meetings that you don’t see any possible contribution to? Be proactive about this and talk with the person who asked you to be there. Try to find out what their perspective is on what your contribution should or could be.

Who are the other participants?
The participants of a meeting say something about the type of meeting. If you’re having a call with every person from your department to connect, because you have not had a connection space for a long time, that works. But if the goal is to take decisions on a specific timeline, budget or project, you want to ensure that the right people are present. In this case, less is more. There is no added value when bringing in more people from outside — unless you are clear about wanting a different perspective or feedback from their position.

One thing that can be very helpful as well is to allow people to stay only for as long as they can contribute. So you can start off with a general part of the meeting, but make it clear that there is no underlying expectation for people to stay until the end if a topic doesn’t concern them. Or you can have a part of the meeting where you want them to be active and contribute and then have a part of it where they can stay as observers. Here, clear communication is key: Every attendee should know why they are there and how they can contribute.

Could this meeting have been an e-mail?
What sounds like a joke is a question we should allow more often. Meetings can be great for different purposes. If you’d like to take a decision in real time, it can help to have every person in the same (virtual) space or to hear out all the concerns. This might feel fair, especially if you have the experience that some people have a ‘louder’ voice outside of meetings. Invite others to speak and share their opinion.

Meetings can also be great for facilitating connection. And they can be an alternative to lengthy e-mails threads or tutorials when it comes to rolling out new projects. That said, they are not a solution for every problem and should not be the standard answer to every question. Use them when it makes sense to have them. But always as part of a process that involves a proper preparation and follow-up. Just by holding a space where people meet, you don’t make progress. It’s always meant to be a touch point in a bigger process.

I hope you can take some of these questions with you in the future to help you decide if a meeting makes sense in a certain context. We’re too often just tolerating them and suffering through them silently when we could use that time to actually build something. By allowing everybody to prepare properly and by having good facilitation, meetings can be both more enjoyable as well as more productive than the boring sit-through events that many of us have gotten used to over the years.

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André Lauer

Trainer | Health Coach | Nutrition guide — Enabling people and organizations to become their healthiest and best selves.