How to structure meetings to make them more productive

Meetings play an important role in helping your team communicate and collaborate effectively. Structure them poorly, however, and they can have the opposite effect.

Get your approach to meetings right and they can propel your business forward; run them poorly and they risk becoming an exercise in time wasting.

If you don't want staff to dread new meeting notifications, it's crucial to have a structure in place to ensure they're productive.

This article shares guidelines for effective meetings, including a meeting agenda template, ideas for better decision making and how to follow best practice.

At the end of this article we've also curated a list of other pieces of content you might find interesting and useful.

Setting a structure for effective meetings

It helps to create a simple set of guidelines that shape how your team book and run meetings. Here are some ideas on how to make them more productive.

Book the amount of time needed

Calendars default to booking time in 30 or 60-minute blocks. Encouraging staff to think about exactly how long meetings should be saves time and creates an expectation of efficiency.

Remember that meetings are expensive. Antony Marcano, co-founder of RiverGlide, uses a meeting-cost timer app, which multiplies the number of attendees by the average cost per attendee, to encourage productive meetings.

“It starts out as a bit of fun and a curiosity, but people are often astonished at how rapidly the counter increases,” he said.

Ban mobile phones and laptops

Laptops and mobile phones make it harder for people to follow what’s going on, reducing their productivity. Using them in meetings can create an air of disrespect too, as speakers see people are more interested in an email notification than the discussion.

Consider banning mobile phones and laptops from meetings altogether. Having short meetings and leading by example will help embed the discipline.

Invite the right amount of people

Company announcements or updates often require large meetings. However, when you’re trying to make decisions or debate ideas, a large number of attendees usually makes you less productive. Keep meetings as small as possible.

One approach is to establish a precedent that people can walk out of meetings if they feel it’s not valuable.

Consider having representatives from teams rather than inviting every member. Pick an advocate that’s particularly interested in the subject matter, don’t default to the team leader.

Limit note taking to one person

It can be productive to write up notes and action items during the meeting. However, if every attendee has their laptop open, people can get distracted and you’re duplicating the effort. Instead, have a dedicated note taker.

They can share follow-up actions, highlights from the discussion and add any additional resources that are useful, such as links to project folders.

Book meetings at an appropriate time of day

Take any flexible working arrangements into consideration. If staff arrive between 8:30 and 9:30 am, for example, make sure nothing’s booked before that. Don’t book anything during lunchtime or at the end of the day.

Consider whether meetings should be limited to specific days of the week or time periods; imagine the productivity boost if you had no meetings from Wednesday to Friday.

Naomi, Reboot Online
Case Study.

How structured drop-in meetings helped Reboot Online improve internal communication

Preparing for a meeting

There are lots of elements that can be included to make meetings more productive, but the process needs to be straightforward. Consider the size and type of meetings your company has and what elements are appropriate.

The purpose of meetings needs to be defined effectively. Just like a headline conveys the purpose of an article, the meeting name should make employees immediately aware of the purpose.

Calendar invites provide the most effective way to share information about the meeting and keep everyone on track.

  • Meeting title: The title should define what the meeting will cover
  • Related resources: Add links to the relevant documents, planning tools etc. This helps embed procedure, such as Objective Key Result goal setting
  • Goal setting: Add which company goal or objective the meeting relates to
  • Meeting leader and note taker: Who’s responsible for keeping everyone on track and who’s taking notes?
  • Decision-making process: Make people aware if there will be a vote or similar exercise

Including resources and the aim of the meeting gets people thinking about the challenge you’re trying to solve. Some employees will benefit from considering the options outside of a meeting, rather than being put on the spot to come up with an idea.

If necessary, choose the speakers for each topic and make it clear how much time they have.

Consider lunch and coffee meetings carefully

Going for lunch with someone’s a treat and can be a good way to share ideas and build relationships, but it takes up a lot of time. Barnaby Lashbrooke, founder of Time Etc, has stopped doing these kinds of meetings for this reason.

Barnaby Lashbrooke, Time etc

Barnaby Lashbrooke avoids lunch meetings or “quick coffees” because they eat up too much time

“I no longer do lunch meetings because, however enjoyable it is to wile away a few hours in a nice restaurant, there just aren’t enough hours in my day. Similarly, I won’t do ‘quick coffees’ with people I don’t know, because it’s a misnomer. If I’m interested, we can meet remotely or do a quick call and get straight to the point.”

Barnaby Lashbrooke, founder of Time Etc

Exercises for prioritising as a group

Coming to a consensus takes time and can cause meetings to drag out. Creating a framework to agree on priorities helps make sure you come to a conclusion, making for a more productive meeting.

If it’s a team meeting and the manager is present, they’ll often take the lead. Be aware of the opportunity to follow a view you don’t agree with if there’s a consensus, particularly if it’s proposed by someone from the specialist area; it can improve decision making and is highly motivational.

Whether or not the meeting includes someone that has clear seniority, a structured approach to reaching consensus helps create productive meetings.

Define how decisions will be made at the start of the meeting or set a company-wide standard. For example, there are 10 minutes to provide an update, 30 minutes for discussion and then there'll be a vote.

Create a voting system

Write each option on a whiteboard and give team members three stickers to vote on their preference. This gives the team agency and is likely to provide a more accurate sense of people’s priorities than a verbal debate, which may be biased by the positions of extroverts.

Having multiple voting stickers provides more context. For example, if you’re deciding how to prioritise software development resources, team members can choose to put all their votes on one feature or select several.

Defer decisions that require more time

Don’t be afraid to hold off on making decisions if more time, research or thought is required. The key to keeping the meeting productive is to do this consciously. The leader of the meeting should say that the decision’s being deferred, why and when it’ll be revisited.

Encourage an open environment

Productivity is driven by your team. Every business will have a mix of personalities, including extroverts and introverts. Fail to create an open atmosphere and you risk losing valuable ideas and insight.

Creating an open environment starts with the leadership team. If you’re aware someone wants to talk but can’t find an opening, give them a platform. Actively discourage people from cutting each other off.

Use one-to-one sessions to sense check whether team members feel like their voices are being heard and if your meeting systems are working more generally.

Create an inclusive work environment

Five steps to removing workplace barriers

Build a culture around productive meetings

A productive meeting culture will eventually become second nature, but think about how you can apply processes and templates until then.

  1. Lead from the top: Make sure the meetings you book, run and take part in follow the guidelines. Likewise, for other managers and team leaders
  2. Have a calendar template: Asking employees to include specific information in calendar invites helps ensure meetings have been planned effectively
  3. Meeting rules: Share meeting rules when they’re established, during employee onboarding and on meeting room doors. Be succinct and make sure they’re memorable

Establishing cultural norms requires repetition, simplicity and staff buy-in. Distil the key elements to your approach, share them often and live them every day.

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