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Urgent message: Despite most employees’ abhorrence to meetings, they indeed serve a valuable organizational purpose. The key is to keep them short, focused, free of distractions, and actionable.

Alan A. Ayers, MBA, MAcc is Vice President of Strategic Initiatives for Practice Velocity, LLC and Practice Management Editor of The Journal of Urgent Care Medicine. 

The next time you find yourself bored and distracted in yet another meeting, take solace in the fact that you’re not alone; Stephen G. Rogelberg, professor of organizational science at the University of North Carolina in Charlotte, asserts that based on his research, American workers attend a whopping 11 million meetings every single day. And as staggering a figure as that is, it jibes with numbers that pollsters from Mersive, a software firm, likewise compiled on meetings: Fully one-third of Americans claimed to attend 10 or more meetings each week.

In an urgent care setting, for example, meetings might consist of quick morning/afternoon huddles with a clinic’s staff, while the larger management organization across the chain would likely hold regular meetings of the traditional variety. In either case, studies conducted by Rogelberg and other workplace experts find that the majority of meetings are ineffective and unproductive, to the tune of $37 billion in wasted dollars each year, especially when the squandered productivity lost to meetings is factored into the employees’ loaded salary expense.

Despite those eye-popping numbers reflecting waste and excess, though, the number of meetings are actually on the rise.

Meetings, when done right, are vital to the smooth functioning of any organization. They address issues, solicit important feedback, provide face-to-face fellowship, and promote adherence to agendas. So, how can your organization fend off such well-known issues as “meeting creep” and “meeting inflation,” while ensuring that your employees’ time spent in meetings is fruitful and productive? Rogelberg and his colleagues, along with leaders of forward-thinking companies like Google and Apple, are in consensus that the following tips can make meetings more productive:

  • Ditch the tech. Unless your job function requires you to be reachable by phone at all times, turn off phones and leave laptops behind. This not only limits distractions, but encourages handwritten note-taking, which experts assert increases attention and engagement.
  • Keep meetings short. A meeting should always be as short as possible. Restate the agenda clearly and directly, and get right to the point. Dawdling, idle chit-chat, and wandering off-topic lengthens meetings, and strains the attendees’ attention spans. In cases where there are several topics to cover, try compartmentalizing them into easily digestible, “bite-sized” chunks of information. 
  • Maintain an agenda. Ideally, a meeting should be held for one of three reasons: To promote teamwork and communication, make decisions, and set agendas. So, make sure your meeting agenda is well-defined beforehand, and that it gets right to the matter. Meetings should not be held for information dumps or noncritical updates, as those items can be communicated through email or other platforms.
  • Offer incentives. One HR consultant notably said about garnering attendance and engagement in meetings, “If you feed them, they will come.” Advise attendees in advance that food will be served, preferably a light breakfast or lunch spread, depending on the time of day. Often though, donuts and good quality coffee are usually enough to satisfy attendees.
  • Solicit feedback and input. Meetings where only one person is talking are not meetings at all—they’re lectures. Hence, the meeting leader should actually solicit opinions and feedback from attendees when appropriate. This gets everyone involved, and encourages a free flow of ideas and fresh thinking. It also gets the attendees more invested in the issue at hand, knowing that their opinions are valued.
  • Employ hard data whenever possible. In the absence of data such as reports and scorecards, a meeting can quickly devolve into a debate of opinions without supporting facts. Both quantitative and qualitative data should be brought to the meeting to crystallize a topic, and clearly demonstrate that it is a worthy action item supported by hard data.
  • Capture actions items and plan the next steps. Even if the meeting is extremely productive, a failure to accurately document decisions and action items will mean the entire affair was a waste of time. Maintain the momentum from a successful meeting by outlining and solidifying target dates, next steps, and joint decisions. Documenting then disseminating this information facilities progress, defines expectations, and establishes accountability to team members.

There is no denying that most employees abhor meetings; however, they do serve a valuable organizational purpose. The key is to keep them short, focused, free of distractions, and actionable. Present data to support your ideas and conclusions whenever possible, be open to others’ opinions and feedback, and collectively decide on the next steps. By implementing these and other valuable strategies, your team can transform meetings from the time-consuming and costly bores they often are, to the indispensable organizational tools they’re meant to be.

How to Make Workplace Meetings More Productive

Alan A. Ayers, MBA, MAcc

President of Experity Consulting and is Practice Management Editor of The Journal of Urgent Care Medicine
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