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Rethinking meetings

How to increase effectiveness and liberate time for more useful activities

Have you ever been to a boring meeting?

Have you ever been to a pointless meeting?

Have you ever been to a meeting where no one could make a decision because they were seeing information for the first time?

Have you ever been to a meeting when you weren't sure why you were there?

Have you ever driven to a boring pointless meeting where no one could make a decision because they were seeing information for the first time and you weren't sure why you were there?

I suspect that the answer to each of these questions may be 'Yes'. Usually people laugh when I ask these questions, and nod in recognition. But there's also a kind of unspoken resignation to the inevitable. Because meetings are a fact of life, an immutable facet of institutional life - and there is no escape.

But actually, there is.

Challenge those meetings!

In moving to Smart Working, it is essential to Challenge all Assumptions of Necessity. I call this the CAN test. For every process and behaviour at work we need to ask 4 key questions:

  • Why are we doing this (at all)?
  • Why are we doing this here?
  • Why are we doing it in this way?
  • Why are we doing this now? (rather than at another time)

Applying these questions to the way meetings are held is often very enlightening. It unmasks many assumptions - and these assumptions often lock in inefficiency.

Typical assumptions are:

  • Meetings need to be a default time - typically rooms are booked for an hour
  • Meetings need to be in a meeting room
  • Meetings need to be physically face to face
  • Meetings will involve the handouts or people printing off their own agenda and information
  • People attending should attend the whole meeting.

You can probably think of others. The interesting thing, though, is that very often the way meetings are arranged and conducted owes more to habit and tradition than to necessity.

This is especially so now that the tools are available for Smart Working. But tools are only part of the story. Simply providing new tools is rarely enough to deal with the cultural legacy of old meeting habits.

Practical culture change

Cultural change for Smart Working works most effectively when behaviour and mindset change is tied to practical issues. Taking up the challenge to Rethink Meetings is one of the best and most practical ways to embed habits of Smart Working.

Having deconstructed meetings with the CAN Test and examined the unspoken assumptions, it's time to rebuild. Now it's time to ask the Smart Working question:

Are there ways of doing this that are:

  • Faster?
  • More flexible?
  • Lighter? (i.e. less heavy on time, energy, physical resources)
  • More in line with customer needs?
  • More in line with employee aspirations

It's important that to establish the principles of the change we don't start with facilities or the technologies. We're looking to find ways of doing what we do in meetings in improved ways, as these questions asked.

Thinking through the alternatives

So we're not starting by thinking, 'How do we do that meeting in a new way using smart tools and spaces?'. Instead we're thinking, 'How can we deal with the things we deal with through meetings in better ways?'.

That may include not having a meeting at all. It is useful to adopt the hyperbolic maxim, 'Never have a meeting to exchange information'. An immense amount of time is wasted this way. Of course, there may be particular complex or sensitive information where a meeting might be appropriate. But generally, all information should be exchanged beforehand using electronic processes. That will greatly speed the real purpose of the meeting - to make decisions.

It may include not having everyone present for all the time. Have you ever attended a 2 hour meeting when the part you need to be there for lasts only 5 minutes? Or attended a meeting in case your expertise is needed?

This is dreadfully inefficient. There are several ways this can be dealt with. People needed for short periods or on stand-by just in case can be consulted by text or instant messaging. And then join the meeting by audio, video or web conferencing while needed. There are a range of tools that make this easy - Citrix GoToMeeting, WebEx, Lync or Skype, for example.

New ways of doing what we do in meetings may well include having meetings with few people, or no people, physically in the same place.

For the tasks in hand, it's necessary to ask how essential it is to have all the participants physically present. It's basically a cost/benefit equation. What does it take away from people's other work and their productivity to travel to this meeting? What do the travel and non-productive time cost? What opportunities are being missed by insisting on rigid physical presence meeting structures?

People do rapidly adapt to 'virtual meetings', so long as they are not simply tryuing to replicate the deadening format of lengthy traditional meetings. And they tend not to work on the basis of most of the team being in a room and two people tagged on as virtual participants. The etiquette of such a meeting will inevitably be room-based, and the dynamic will probably marginalise the remote participants, and they'll end up doing something else while pretending to take part.

All meetings need to be paperless. This way any participant, wherever they are, can have access to all information and tools needed to support the interaction and decision-making. These kinds of meetings should include the ability for any participant to take control of a shared screen or whiteboard (physical or virtual) when the need arises.

Meetings can be shorter, more informal and in different places. With a range of activity-based work settings and places available beyond the office, many of the things we deal with in meetings, and whole meetings too sometimes, can take place outside the formal bookable meeting room. They can be in breakout spaces, cafe areas, cafes outside the office or in purpose-built confidential rooms or '20 minute meeting spaces'.  They can take place through ad hoc use of conferencing technologies. It all depends on the nature of the tasks involved.

Then - what are meetings for?

Generally, face-to-face meetings should be reserved for high-interaction activities such as decision-making, brainstorming, training, critical client meetings and 'getting to know you' meetings. Even then, many of these are routinely done using technologies in geographically dispersed organisations and project teams. And there is still room for some deconstruction around what exactly 'face to face' should mean in different circumstances. That is the topic for a future article.

In the meantime, why not set a target for your organisation, department or team. Cut meetings by 30%. Or 50%. How radical can you be? And how much time and resource can you liberate to be more productive?


Online meeting

October 2013


Further information

In this article Andy Lake takes a look at how we can rethink meetings.

It's not just about using new tools and spaces. Before we do that, we need to break down what we do in meetings, and use a range of techniques to do them more effectively - or dispense with them altogether. We can then set targets for reducing the amount of time people spend in meetings and tackle the dreaded 'meetings culture'.

This article is based on the method he uses in Smart Working workshops and the ideas in his book Smart Flexibility.





















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