Last reviewed 2 March 2017

The working week can be swallowed up in meetings. Developments in communications technology seem largely to have increased the number of meetings rather than making each more efficient. Gudrun Limbrick looks at what can be done to curtail the manner in which meetings can take over our working lives.

In terms of standard internal business meetings, there are basically four types: talking shops, brainstorms, negotiations and action meetings. Leaving talking shops aside for a moment, brainstorms are an opportunity for people to get together and put ideas forward for a specific project or work plan. The attendees are people who generally do not meet to talk about the topic in question. These sessions will invariably lead to further planning and discussions.

Negotiations bring people together who need to come to consensus on some topic or other. The aim of the meeting is to bring harmony where they might be discord and disagreement. Action meetings are events to bring together a team to report back on issues and decide on a set of actions. These are generally regular meetings.

All of these meetings can end up being talking shops, the final type of meeting. These are the least effective form of meeting in which some people have their say, largely only for the sake of saying it. Any other aims of reporting back, writing an action list, negotiating or brainstorming are not met. Any meetings which degenerate into talking shops are not worth the time they swallow up. Worse than that, as they tend to be dominated by one or a few individuals (who may have an axe to grind or a point to prove), other attendees can leave the meeting feeling unheard, frustrated and angry.

We tend to use meetings for more than one purpose. For example, we tend to use them so that people can get to know each other as well as to resolve issues, make plans or fulfil whatever the aims of the meeting are. In efficiently run meetings, it is rarely possible to achieve the aims outside of the meeting itself. While we may take it for granted that people attending meetings are getting to know each other, it can be worth putting aside a particular time for this — in getting together before the meeting, for example, for a coffee which means that, at the time of the meeting itself, people are much more aware of each other.

The advent of telephone and video meetings has made little change to the nature of meetings, despite the face-to-face element being removed. Most virtual meetings follow the same basic patterns as face-to-face meetings and are prone to falling into the same traps and deteriorating into meaningless talking shops.

Any meeting, in order to be effective in achieving its aims, needs to have an effective chair. The chair does not necessarily have to be the individual who has the highest standing in the organisation, but the person with the most effective chairing skills. Instead of it being an honour to chair a business meeting, it should be a task assigned to the most effective person. The person who has the casting vote does not have to also be the chair. This is a diversion from the traditional meeting hierarchy but I would argue that that is what is often needed.

Chairing meetings involve a very specific set of skills, and these are not skills that we necessarily pick up from simply having attended many meetings in the past. I would argue that people could, and should be able to receive training in chairing meetings as we can be trained in any other skills vital to a well-functioning business.

The skillset of the effective chair should include the following.

  • Maintaining focus — the effectiveness of a meeting can only be judged by the manner in which it manages to achieve its stated aims. It is the role of the chair to ensure that discussion does not go off at tangents and is focused on those aims.

  • Keeping records — any meeting which needs a permanent record of what was said or what was decided needs a minute-taker. When a participant takes notes, that individual can no longer participate fully in the discussion and in the meeting. The chair works closely with the minute-taker to ensure that everything of note is recorded.

  • Ensuring appropriate participation — the chair needs to see who is participating and who is not to ensure both that the meeting is not dominated by a small number of individuals and that some people fail to participate at all. Where necessary, time limits should be set for some topics or even (in extreme cases) some individuals so that meetings can finish on time. Holding meetings with all participants standing up and not serving refreshments can also help meetings not to drag on any longer than absolutely necessary.

These seem like straightforward skills but are actually very difficult to carry out effectively. Training could help many potential and existing chairs.

We tend to assume that people can take in all the information a meeting presents to them. As we reel through the list of agenda items and hear from many different perspectives, we believe that all participants can take this in and retain details for their future reference. This is not necessarily the case, particularly when any meeting lasts longer than 90 minutes. We simply find it difficult to focus for longer. This seems to be particularly true in audio or video conferences where we lose a lot of the more subtle clues we can pick up in face-to-face meetings such as the facial expressions and body language of participants and muttered asides. Keeping meetings short is essential in maintaining their effectiveness.

With any agenda, it can be a useful exercise to see what information can be gleaned in advance from participants by a phone-around or email exercise to, say, feedback on action agreed at the previous meeting. This can then be presented at the following meeting rather than take up time, which could be more usefully used in discussions. Being asked for specific progress reports before the meeting may also encourage some progress to be made. It is possible that these sorts of information gathering exercises may also replace some meetings altogether.

There are opportunities for sharing and recording information in video and audio meetings — by sharing onscreen documents, participants could record their ideas, progress reports, or even votes for people to read either in real time or after the meeting. Communication technologies have given us opportunities for changing the traditional reporting — discussion —recording format of all meetings, opportunities which, more often than not, we are not taking up.

In some workplaces, the proliferation of meetings mean that actual work takes a back seat. For some people, attending meetings is a very useful way of looking busy and feeling important — it can be an easy way to fill the working day. This does not help when it comes time to looking at ways of cutting back on both meetings and the time spent in meetings. When carrying out a review of meetings, it is important to look at why so many meetings are happening both in terms of business reasons as well as perhaps more personal ones.