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The Definitive Guide to More Productive Meetings

They don’t have to feel like a time suck

Muriel Vega
Feb 14 · 6 min read
Credit: Weekend Images Inc./E+/Getty

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To plenty of people, it’s a workplace morning ritual as common as filling your coffee mug: You sit down at your desk, open your calendar, and feel your heart sink as you realize just how many meetings you have.

At least misery loves company. It’s rare to find someone who actually enjoys a workday clogged with meetings — partly because we’re conditioned to hate them, according to organizational psychologist Joseph Allen, and partly because so many of them are just plain bad.

“Meetings are often run poorly, and we cannot recoup the time lost in a bad meeting,” says Allen, the director of the Center for Meeting Effectiveness at the University of Nebraska, Omaha. “It’s normative in our culture to despise meetings and to empathize with people when they have meetings… Watercooler talk is often dominated by people complaining about a meeting, things that happened in the meeting, the time wasted in meetings, and so forth.”

“We love meetings for what they can do, but hate that they often don’t do well what we want them to do.”

Recently, inspired by his own frustration with the meetings that dominated his workday, Allen and a team of researchers dove into almost 200 scientific studies on meetings and the various factors that determine their success. In the resulting paper, published in the journal Current Directions in Psychological Science, they highlighted a few key findings. Employees, they noted, spend an average of six hours a week in meetings, while managers spend an average of 23 — and, somewhat paradoxically, while complaints about meetings were common, most people will say, when asked, that they wouldn’t eliminate them entirely.

“This tells me that we have a sort of love-hate relationship with meetings,” Allen says. “We love them for what they can do, but hate that they often don’t do well what we want them to do.”

Perhaps the most important finding that Allen and his colleagues uncovered, though, is that with a few strategic tweaks and the right leader, it’s possible to have a meeting that people appreciate rather than suffer through. Here’s what you need to do before, during, and after a meeting to make it a little less painful — and maybe even a productive use of time for all involved.

Before the meeting

First, make sure you have a clear goal — one that can only be accomplished by gathering people together — to clue participants in to why the meeting is necessary and prime them for a focused conversation. The invite list matters too, Allen says: “The most productive meetings have only five to eight attendees, a group size that encourages participation and actionable discussion.”

While it may be obvious, identifying the meeting leader ahead of time is important. The person sending the invite may not be the one who’s actually running it; without transparency over who’s planning things, it becomes harder for employees to ask questions that may come up as they prepare.

“Often the people who call meetings are simply too busy to spend the time required to think through the agenda or decide who should be there,” says meetings consultant Paul Axtell, author of the book Meetings Matter. “It would be better if they would actually delegate the task of identifying topics and preparing the agenda to somebody who had the time to do that.”

Theresa Ward, a productivity consultant in the Atlanta area, recommends switching up the meeting leader from time to time to keep meetings from feeling stale. “Sometimes people on a team get bogged down with the same person leading the meeting,” she says. “If your team has several peers, try to rotate the responsibility.”

Once the leader is made clear, the agenda should be, too. Ideally, whoever’s in charge should write up an agenda with the meeting’s priorities and circulate it to participants at least 24 hours in advance, to make sure participants know the final objective and can bring their thoughts to the table. And it’s best to keep the document as streamlined as possible: “The biggest mistake that people make on agendas is too many items and not enough time to talk about an item,” Axtell says.

Ward suggests adding times to each item on the agenda, to convey the expectation that the meeting won’t go over the period allotted — but try to keep it under 52 minutes, the optimal amount of time for productivity before you need a break.

And skip the cute names, Allen says — people will appreciate consistent scheduling more than they’ll appreciate naming it a huddle: “It’s still a meeting.”

During the meeting

The most important thing: Start on time.

Allen says that while it may not seem like a big deal to start a few minutes late, doing so will likely make the meeting less fruitful — and make the participants more resentful. “Respect people’s time by starting on time, ending on time, and being courteous of people’s time in the meeting,” he says. “Nothing sparks creativity and effort more than respect for finite resources.”

Once you get started, consider asking people to put away any technology, to prevent distractions and keep things running smoothly. Laser-focused employees will be able to follow the conversation and provide feedback when prompted.

“There’s a moment when the conversation reaches its peak and the group stops generating new value. That’s when you wrap up.”

Make sure, though, that the prompting is done in a way that encourages sharing, rather than cold-calling on people in a way that sparks anxiety. “Psychological safety is huge when it comes to getting the most from people in meetings,” Allen explains. “Give people the opportunity to participate and take their ideas/thoughts/opinions seriously. Make it a safe space.”

But set limits. A safe space is necessary for participants to speak up, but it can quickly turn into a complaining session. Axtell says that leaders need to let employees know that before they speak, they should consider if what they’re about to say adds value. This is where an agenda and prepared comments come in handy.

“Don’t disagree unless you need to disagree,” Axtell says. He suggests meeting leaders add names next to agenda topics so they can make sure to hear from key people at the right times.

Ward also recommends to her clients that they add a wrap-up last item at the end of every agenda. This ensures that everyone walks away with an actionable item and, if applicable, the person they need to work with on it. “Ask yourself, did you meet today’s meeting objective? It brings shared accountability,” Ward says.

Finally, learn to identify when to end the meeting — an acquired skill, but a necessary one. If you’ve gone through the agenda, feel free to call it quits, even if it is a little early. “There’s a moment when the conversation reaches its peak and the group stops generating new value. It’s now recycling that same energy and you must recognize when the group is ready to move on,” says Axtell. “That’s when you wrap up the meeting.”

After the meeting

The last thing anyone wants is a meeting to follow up on a previous meeting. Break the cycle by leaving that first meeting with actionable items and a clear division of responsibilities. Ward suggests adding items to a shared task board like Trello, Asana, or Basecamp to keep everyone moving, especially if your team is remote. Meeting leaders can also add follow-up reminders or deadlines to a team calendar right after the meeting.

“Hold people accountable for what they said they needed to do,” Allen says. “Don’t call another meeting to talk through the decisions made in the meeting. Just move forward.”

Allen and his team also found, in their research, that the most effective meeting leaders regularly gather feedback on the quality of their meetings from attendees — an easy path to improvement that’s too often overlooked or avoided.

“What I’ve found is, most people have evaluation apprehension. We don’t necessarily want to know how we are doing, because once we know, we kind of have to do something,” he says. But “you have to ask, and you have to then do something to make them better.”

Muriel Vega

Written by

Tech writer + editor. Bylines at Medium, Patreon, The Bitter Southerner, The Washington Post, City Lab, VICE + more. Dreaming of tamales. www.murielvega.net

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