Want to boost productivity in your organisation? Understand these three types of meetings to ensure you’re getting the most out of your gatherings.
Meeting for the sake of meeting? Turns out that for many workers, that answer is an unequivocal ‘yes’. Research from Asana has found that the average employee wastes up to 129 hours each year in unnecessary meetings. And this isn’t a new challenge.
Microsoft found that since February 2020, time spent in meetings has increased by a whopping 252 per cent. The average meeting time increased from 35 to 45 minutes.
“After the pandemic hit, the volume of meetings skyrocketed because everything that was once a hallway interaction became a meeting,” says Amy Bonsall, former IDEO executive and founder and CEO of Collective, a platform that helps distributed and hybrid organisations flourish.
“We’re now out of practice at identifying who belongs in the conversation and how to communicate with people who need to know, but don’t necessarily need to be there.”
Read HRM’s article on the psychology behind why we find it so hard to stop attending unnecessary meetings.
Why are meetings turning into such time-suckers? First of all, they all look identical to each other – no matter how you’re participating, the conversations, rooms and outcomes are often similar.
We need to get better at making sure meetings are purposeful and driving projects forward. To do this, Bonsall says we need to understand the different types of gatherings taking place across meeting rooms and computer screens around the world.
Bonsall has identified three kinds of meetings, a concept that she first unpacked in an article for Harvard Business Review. Here’s how HR can make them more productive.
1. Transactional gatherings
These types of meetings have a clear intention – to progress work. They include stand-ups, status updates or presentations.
To make them more productive, Bonsall advises being intentional about why you’re meeting and creating structure with an agenda and clear roles and responsibilities.
Amazon has a great approach to this. As HRM has previously reported, the company runs silent meetings which rely on a physical document that structures the meeting. Attendees have 10-15 minutes to digest the meeting memo in silence, which outlines relevant context, data and intentions, and then they launch into discussion.
Liz Jamieson CPHR, Recruitment Manager at Amazon’s APAC Operations, previously told HRM, “[I recall at previous organisations] meetings where you’d jump in and expect people to have some level of understanding of the topic you’re about to discuss. But if the team isn’t up to date, they ask questions like, ‘Can you start from the start and explain the project?’ By the time you get to the ‘ask’, there’s no time left and you have to schedule another meeting.”
By baking reading time into meetings, Amazon can ensure everyone is on the same page from the get-go.
“There’s no wasted time on questions that half the people already know the answer to,” says Jamieson.
2. Relational gatherings
“Relational gatherings were broken before the pandemic,” she says. “They suffer from the ‘let’s get everyone together’ mentality – whereby we throw everyone into a room, a party or a pub and expect them to foster connections,” she says.
“Humans go where they’re comfortable. So they’ll hang out with the people they already know instead of creating connections with colleagues they don’t know.”
To create a successful relational gathering, you need a structure that allows people to mix up who they connect with.
For example, Bonsall has organised remote team-building sessions where everyone can create a Google slide outlining the best career advice they’ve ever heard. Attendees can present advice to the group. Then, she divided them into smaller groups where they can discuss the stories around the advice.
“This provides a safe way for colleagues to get to know each other better. The activity has enough structure to make the team feel comfortable and they can decide how vulnerable they want to be,” says Bonsall.
3. Adaptive gatherings
These are sessions where an outcome is uncertain, like brainstorms or strategic planning meetings.
To be effective, you need to structure the environment for fluidity while also articulating the end goal. A change of scene is also more likely to stimulate creativity and innovation.
For example, if it’s an in-person meeting, you might want to use a different space, or move furniture around in the room. Or, if your guests are dialling in, you might encourage them to change rooms or go for a walk.
“Humans go where they’re comfortable. So they’ll hang out with the people they already know instead of creating connections with colleagues they don’t know.” – Amy Bonsall, founder and CEO, Collective.
“Digital gatherings are harder to run, but they can add an element of safety. For instance, for online brainstorms, I like to use Google Slides for these kinds of meetings, but set it to public edit access so everyone can edit anonymously,” says Bonsall.
“These meetings are often longer to allow space for reflecting and processing. I encourage hosts to add in healthy amount of breaks, which create transition moments that allow people to reset.”
Making meetings more efficient
The most important thing to consider when sending out a meeting invite is knowing and communicating the why to the attendees.
“Ask yourself, ‘Why are we having this gathering?’ If the answer is surface-level, it might be time to consider if you truly need it,” says Bonsall.
She also advises being intentional about who you invite. Not everyone needs to be there at every stage. You could split up attendance based on who is in the working team, who is advising and who needs to be across it.
Bonsall also suggests letting attendees know what’s needed from them. If it’s an early brainstorming session, you can tell them you need their big ideas. Or if you’re about to present something to a client, you can ask meeting attendees to identify small things that need to be fixed.
Another problem is that often no one is assigned to keep a meeting on track and ensure equitable participation.
“There’s a need for an engagement role in meetings. In a small meeting, that could be the host, but in a larger meeting I’d advise having different people to take on host and engagement lead,” says Bonsall.
“An engagement lead makes sure all voices are heard. Whether in person or online, an engagement lead is looking out for subtle or direct cues that someone might want to contribute, like them going off mute.”
And finally, at the end of the meeting, ask people to weigh in on how effective they found the gathering by asking, “Do we feel closer to achieving our goal?”
“We have the opportunity to reinvent work the way we never will be able to again in our lifetimes. It’s a good moment to look at the meetings born of the past few years and consider what’s not working.”
Ultimately, if you’re taking up time in someone’s calendar, you need to be accountable for keeping everyone on track and accomplishing a goal.
“We’re all time-starved. So be thoughtful about how you approach a meeting. It’s a kindness to protect people’s personal time.”
A version of this article was first published in the February 2023 edition of HRM Magazine.
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