In short:

  • Meetings can be a drag on productivity if not well-run. Laying ground rules in your office keeps them efficient.
  • Tactics like setting an agenda, choosing a random end time and incorporating a physical aspect can make a real difference in the amount of creative decisions a meeting yields.
  • By reining in your meetings, you’ll also give everyone a better chance of completing their tasks during the workday, curbing after hours work.

Millions of meetings take place each day(opens in new tab). Not all of them are well-planned nor productive, and most of us have been in a meeting that, in hindsight, should have been an email thread instead. Research confirms the majority of us don’t think highly of them: In a 2018 Udemy survey, 60% of respondents(opens in new tab) said meetings are just a distraction from the work they need to finish each day.

However, meetings needn’t be a timesuck nor a drag. At their most productive, they yield creative decisions and give your team a better chance of completing tasks during the workday vs. after hours or on weekends — a habit which, put simply, just isn’t healthy nor sustainable(opens in new tab).

Reset your company’s meeting culture with these tactics.

1. Decide whether you really need to meet.

In a 2017 Harvard Business Review survey, about 65% of senior managers said meetings keep them from completing their own work(opens in new tab) and come at the expense of deep thinking.

Accordingly, “We approach meetings with a bit of suspicion,” said Jesse Harrison, founder and CEO of HopeTree Legal Funding(opens in new tab), which provides individuals with borrowed legal funds. “Every time someone in the office feels we need to have a meeting, I stop and ask myself if there is any possibility that what we are trying to achieve can be achieved by a simple email. Most of the time, the answer is yes.”

�� Before calling a group meeting, ask yourself if the goal would be achieved more efficiently in a 1:1 meeting, email, etc.

If they can, Harrison’s team skips the face-to-face and makes decisions via email, he said. But, “when a meeting is inevitable, we keep it productive by preparation.”

2. Make a meeting agenda.

Usually, preparation means creating and sticking to an agenda. According to The Balance Careers(opens in new tab), creating an ideal agenda includes the following:

  • Decide who should attend the meeting, including who should help set the agenda. (This means a little pre-work, but the time and effort you save for a larger group makes it worthwhile.)
  • Next, determine the goal of the meeting and what decisions the group needs to make.
  • Then, determine how much time you’ll spend on each agenda item.

Make sure to share your agenda with attendees before the meeting so they can prepare. When your meeting starts, stick to the agenda. It should guide the discussion and help keep it on track topic-wise.

Hamna Amjad is a community manager at Gigworker(opens in new tab), a resource for freelancers and contractors. She cited agendas as useful for setting and enforcing meeting themes.

“We always have an agenda for our meetings which is sent to all the participants by the organizer beforehand, so that everyone knows what’s going to be discussed in the meeting and comes well-prepared,” she said. “If anyone comes up with a subject that is not directly relevant to the matter at hand, the organizer notes it down to be followed up later and steers the discussion back on course.”

�� Write a brief meeting agenda, and send it to all participants beforehand.

Choosing to follow up on a topic later, or “tabling,” is a tenant of Robert’s Rules of Order(opens in new tab), a traditional method of running meetings. Businesses may find that and other of Robert’s Rules helpful.

written meeting agenda
A written meeting agenda ensures discussions don’t veer off-track.

3. Make it a point to stick to your meeting’s start and end time(opens in new tab).

While there are many conflicting statistics about adults and attention spans, anyone who’s ever had to face the wrath of their boss after forgetting critical information knows that attention spans can be limited.

Thus, try to keep meetings around 30 minutes long. If you know you’ll need more time, one idea is to set a seemingly random time, like 48 minutes(opens in new tab), to avoid calendar creep. Everyone will be thrilled to get their 12 minutes back, as that time can add up.

�� Keep meetings to 30 minutes long. If you know you’ll need more, create a seemingly random time block, like 48 minutes, to avoid calendar creep.

Starting and ending on time is more than just a simple courtesy, though. It holds the entire team accountable for their other commitments throughout the day, including your own. If your office has a chronic latecomer to meetings, don’t wait for him or her to get started.

And if your meetings are continually running overtime, implement a system like dimming the lights to remind everyone to wrap up. (It might sound silly, but it works.) Remember that if you don’t end your meeting on time, team members may not get to their next one on time, setting everyone up for chronic lateness and meeting fatigue.

4. Get physical.

Have you heard sitting is the new smoking(opens in new tab)? With standing desks here to stay, there’s no reason not to extend the trend to the conference room and have a standing meeting.

You can take it a step further and host a walking meeting, like Virgin CEO Richard Branson suggests(opens in new tab). For a small group, this can keep meetings short and inspire creative thinking. Plus, everyone involved will get their steps in.

Or, take a cue from yoga teachers and put time in your agenda for a stretch break. This is particularly important for longer meetings, when a team or guest is in town and you might be in a room together for a big chunk of the day. Even if it might seem like something that takes up unnecessary time, getting the blood flowing can keep everyone’s energy levels up(opens in new tab).

�� If your meeting is over 30 minutes long, put time in your agenda for a stretch break.

Lastly, try the fish bowl(opens in new tab). Nope, that doesn’t mean sitting in a glass-walled conference room — it can be an effective meeting technique. Two or three people in the meeting sit together in the middle of a circle of participants and discuss an agenda item. Then, as other participants need to raise an issue or move on to other items, they tap out the people in the middle, switching seats and focus. This keeps everyone in the loop, makes it clear which agenda item is being discussed and ensures everyone in the room has a seat at the table, eventually.

5. Ban devices.

We know: How are you supposed to remember anything without a phone or a laptop? The truth is that devices can be a major distraction. (Sixty-nine percent of millennial and Gen Z(opens in new tab) respondents told Udemy their smartphone has kept them from concentrating(opens in new tab) at work.) Plus, using your phone while your peers are making decisions isn’t great meeting etiquette, even if many people do it.

Try to have everyone keep their phones face down in meetings (except for emergencies, of course). Also ensure laptops keep a low profile.

�� Have everyone keep their phones face down in meetings.

Besides, if you implement some of the strategies included here at your office, your meetings could become so effective that no one will want to multitask because the chance of missing something important in a meeting will skyrocket. What an idea!