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How to run an effective business meeting

Business · 9 min read

Making more of your time

Running an effective meeting is an important art in business, especially in the interests of saving money and improving productivity. Day-to-day, a one-hour meeting may not seem like a big deal - but when you stack up that hour against a meeting with seven participants, you've used up seven hours of work time.

Learn some new efficient time management strategies for work and harness the latest technology to get the most out of meetings and avoid eroding your bottom line.

Do you really need that meeting?

Often, corporate business meetings are seen as a chore, eating into precious time that may be needed for other tasks. However, they should be recognized as an important opportunity for brainstorming ideas, coordinating tasks, and authorizing decisions.

When planning a meeting, think about why you need it – the sign of an effective meeting is if something in the real-world changes as a result. Be mindful of people's schedules by holding the meeting mid-morning or mid-afternoon; avoid first thing in the morning, during lunch, or finish times that run up to the end of the working day.

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Who should you invite?

When you arrange a meeting, make sure that everyone is aware of the agenda. The people invited should be there for a reason. The scheduler will often try to fill seats – as more heads in the room means more opportunities to solve the problem at hand – but it’s not the most time efficient way to work. Not only does it draw more employees away from work, it also muddles the focus and presents more opportunities for distraction.

If you’re not sure what someone would contribute to the meeting, that’s a good sign they don’t need to be there. Likewise, if you find yourself able to check your email during a meeting, that’s a sign you don’t need to be there either.

Staying on topic

To run an effective meeting, preparation is key. When there are a lot of people in a meeting, it can be difficult to stay on topic so guide the conversation with some pre-prepared questions that relate to current issues. If you ask a question but a straight answer isn’t forthcoming, gently push to get an answer that resolves your issue.

If you find that the meeting isn’t leading anywhere or someone is going off on a tangent, then politely steer back to the agenda. You may find that the off-topic discussion is a good one to have – if so, make a commitment to revisit the subject at a later date.

Avoid 'bike-shedding'

Northcote Parkinson's 1957 Law of Triviality became known as 'bike-shedding' after the way a fictional committee, tasked with overseeing the building of a power station, became bogged down with designs for the staff bike shed. This phenomenon describes how organizations often give disproportionate weight to trivial issues; when everyone attending a meeting can have their say about each small detail, they very often will. So, run each meeting with an eye to concentrating on the most important areas and don’t sweat the small stuff.

Calculating the real cost of meetings

Bad time management in business can be costly, particularly where meetings are concerned. Harvard Business Review created a ‘Meeting Cost Calculator’ which shows the real HR cost of a meeting and how much you could be saving.

Imagine a scenario in which there’s an hour-long meeting scheduled for a department of 30 people, where the average salary is US$50k. The real cost of that meeting is US$1,015 – before you’ve even included refreshments. Ask yourself, ‘is my meeting resulting in decisions that generate enough revenue to make it worth it?’ Remember, no amount of money can buy a 25-hour day or reclaim an hour lost in an unproductive meeting.

Simplify the whole organization

The number of management layers within a company often has an impact on the number of meetings scheduled, which in turn effects costs – after all, someone has to create and review content for it, and that someone has a salary. A 2014 report by the Harvard Business Review found that on average, the addition of one manager to an organization creates about 1.5 employees’ worth of new work – and every additional senior vice president creates more than 2.6 employees’ worth.

Some companies, including Seagate and Boeing, have experimented with giving their executives feedback on the ‘load’ they were putting on the organization through meetings, emails and IMs. At Seagate, some senior managers participated in a program in which they routinely received reports quantifying their individual loads, along with the average load generated by other executives at their level. This information, combined with additional guidelines, encouraged them to modify their behavior and run more effective meetings.

Prefer digital meetings to face-to-face ones?

Online meetings used to be a poor substitute to having a decent travel budget, but not anymore. The modern, digital conference meeting set-ups – with screen sharing, video calls, file-collaboration tools, and the ability to broadcast to any number of people – has reduced the need for every meeting to be a face-to-face one.

Video conferencing servers, such as Skype Business, now feature precision microphones, automatic cropping and head tracking, which promote more effective team meetings by keeping the focus on what’s being said, rather than what’s happening in the background.

Chair well-organized meetings

Always appoint a chair to run your meetings, plus a colleague tasked with collecting collaborative notes. A study by Harvard found that effective team meetings often include a few minutes at the end where the team can reflect on what could have gone better. This can improve the quality of meetings over time.

Don’t end a meeting without clear agreement on the next steps. Before wrapping up, make sure you recap any immediate actions and assign them to the appropriate people. Nobody wants a scenario where the relevant people don’t follow up, thus requiring another meeting to talk about what you already discussed. 

Meetings of the future

At Microsoft Build 2018, the company’s annual developer conference, a meeting room scenario was unveiled in which AI software assists meeting protocols. The software includes a 360-degree camera and microphone package that can detect everyone in the meeting room, and even transcribe everything, regardless of language. The addition of AI tools means that if someone says, “I’ll follow up with you next week”, they’ll get a notification in Microsoft Teams – the cloud-based team collaboration tool – to prompt them to act on that promise. Time will tell when this meeting room scenario will become a reality.

Try ‘No-meeting Mondays’. Or Tuesdays. Or Wednesdays.

To really change things up, commit one day a week to be completely free from meetings. Kelly Eidson, the co-founder of removals company Moveline, banned meetings on Tuesdays, which are considered ‘Maker Days’ – employees can work wherever they want without having to worry about being accessible to others. Dustin Moskovitz, the co-founder of team productivity app Asana, said they have a policy of ‘No-meeting Wednesdays’, and similarly, Kate Kinslow instituted ‘No-meeting Fridays’ when she became CEO of Aria Healthcare. 

Rory Vaden, the co-founder of Southwestern Consulting says that his company only has meetings one day per week, deciding instead that agile working is the future: “The next generation of business is one where people will work flexible hours, from multiple locations, on a variety of projects. Mondays are the one day we ask everyone to come in. We meet. We talk. We discuss. We make decisions.”


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