To Meet or Not to Meet: How to Minimize Time Wasters and Maximize Productivity

Meetings can be murder on productivity, but they don't have to be.

Many are familiar with coming out of a team meeting feeling no sense of accomplishment. Sure, maybe everyone walked in with the best of intentions and an expectation of receiving clarification and closure on essential issues. You all thought, "Great! We're finally going to get on the same page. Now we're going to get stuff done!"

Instead, it spiralled into a bitter showcase of empty complaints, grievances, and a lot of finger-pointing. With nothing significantly addressed or resolved, the attendees who were secretly eager to soapbox the gathering took you all off on tangent after tangent. And when it was over, you left thinking to yourself, "Well, that's an hour of my time I'm never getting back." 

Imagine what a communication culture like this would do to company morale and productivity over time if left unaddressed. 

done working

Cut to September 2020, when a global pandemic has forced us out of our meeting rooms and onto Zoom, which in only a few weeks became a household name after social distancing made the face-to-face connection a potential health hazard. Virtual conferencing comes with problems of its own, not the least of which is the aptly-coined phrase "Zoom fatigue." 

The point here is simple: a company's wellbeing and longevity depend on a complete re-examination of meeting culture and finding a way to implement meetings to enhance deep and meaningful work rather than harming it. We've done it here at Wabisabi Learning, and we believe you can do it too.

And it all begins, as any great learning experience does, with asking essential questions. More on that later; right now, let's talk about productivity.

First, What is Productivity?

Some would argue that productivity is merely about getting as much done as possible in a given workday. But this is a misconception, and here's why.

According to a report from Asana called The Anatomy of Work Index, knowledge workers (those whose primary capital is knowledge, and thinking for a living), can spend up to 60% of their day on what's called "work about work." Things that fall under this category include but aren't limited to:

  • Sorting and sending email
  • Phone calls
  • Project updates and checking statuses
  • Searching for answers and information
  • Switching between apps
  • Reviewing team communications
  • Managing schedules
  • Assorted "busywork."

In other words, work about work is anything that takes away from the meaningful skilled deep work an employee is actually hired to do, which is the work that actual productivity is all about.

Even though work about work is so ubiquitous in global office cultures that it's considered part of productivity, it isn't. And it adds up over time, such that we are likely spending less than 30% of our work time doing anything that will move a company forward.

Too Many Meetings Leave Too Little Time

Now, what does this have to do with meetings? Frankly, meetings can more often than not fall into the category of work about work. In other words, we spend a lot of time in meetings when we don't have to. 

If you had to guess, how much time would you say in the last few years you've wasted attending meetings you didn't need to be in, or that didn't even need to happen? It's a good bet that if you did the math, that number would be staggering. 

Some argue that productivity is about getting as much done as possible in a given workday. But this is a misconception.

But don't fret—the idea here is not to dwell on wasted time. Instead, what we want to gain here is an awareness of how we are using meetings now, and how we can improve future meeting culture.

Recall what we said at the beginning of this post about asking essential questions. In the following section, we'll provide you with different approaches for breaking down motivations and purposes using simple yet profoundly powerful questioning.

Do We Need to Meet? Let's Find Out

We'll get you primed for this by referencing a snippet from an article by Doist's Becky Kane:

"All of the advice around productive meetings can be boiled down to this: Before putting a meeting on the schedule, ask yourself: Is this worth interrupting my teammates' time and attention for?"

Becky touches on perhaps the most fundamental question to ask before you even consider holding a meeting. Before defining the issues, drafting a plan, booking the room (or creating a Zoom event), and sending out invites, it all comes down to necessity. Why do you think this meeting is crucial?

Do you need to disrupt the workflow of your employees and colleagues with a meeting? If so, why? Now is a time for heartfelt honesty and in-depth consideration. Could this meeting just as quickly be an email, company memo, or a feature in your newsletter?

boring meeting

The less time you spend in a meeting that doesn't need to occur is more potential time you and your team can attend the deep work that matters to the success of your organization. All it takes is merely considering if that meeting has to take place at all.

Another benchmark to use for determining meeting priority is this flowchart from the Becky Kane article we referenced earlier. Use this when you find yourself invited to a meeting and want to discern the sender's probable agenda.

can we meet

Another consideration to make regards outcomes. What are you hoping will be the takeaways for this meeting? How do you feel these outcomes will best serve the team? For example:

  • Are you looking for a joint discussion, updates or deliverables?
  • If it's a brainstorming session, how many ideas do you want to collect?
  • Is this a discussion about a project you haven't kicked off yet?
  • Are you meeting to address milestones and project updates to keep everyone on the same page?

Here is another flowchart from Gaiku to help you make the right decision.

gaiku meeting chart
source: gaiku.io

No matter how you choose to approach it, make sure before you waste your or anyone else's time that you've examined your motivations and purposes. Then, even if a meeting is necessary, you'll at least be able to explain why clearly.

Tips for Meeting Maximization

The word "meeting" can inspire dread because of the stigma attached to it. It's often seen as either an arena for wasting time or as a vehicle of bad news for those attending. However, if a meeting is needed, it can and should be as positive and constructive an experience as possible.

Well-planned and managed meetings make everybody better. They are windows for sharing knowledge, ideas, and opinions in a forward-thinking way.

Be honest—could this meeting just as quickly be an email, company memo, or a feature in your newsletter?

You know when you've walked out of a great meeting. You're inspired and empowered. You have a stronger sense of personal and group values. You feel like you've learned something important, and maybe you've even been heard. Most importantly, it feels like everybody's on the same wavelength, and you're all moving forward together.

For any team working under the same roof, harmony in action and clarity of vision is achievable. For that to happen, meetings must become effective team-building exercises. Here are some tips on how to make that happen.

1. Stick to a Schedule

There should always be a clear purpose for each meeting you have. Agendas and schedules are essential to holding productive meetings. Making it up as you go isn't an economical use of anyone's time, and leads to chaos. 

Think ahead about what the meeting is about and why it's crucial. Then create a structure that's written in stone. Include things like:

  • The meeting date
  • The departments involved
  • The main focus of the meeting
  • A list of all attendees
  • An estimated timeframe (overestimate if possible)
  • Discussion topics, questions, discussion leaders
  • Time devoted to each topic

Send this list out in advance of the meeting, at least a few days to give people time to prepare and think about what they want to bring up. Ask for confirmation from attendees as well. This way, you have time to reschedule if necessary.

2. Establish the Mood

How is everyone looking and feeling when they enter the room? Is everyone happy, or do some seem distracted or preoccupied, or just plain unhappy? Closely observe everyone who comes in to attend the meeting. Make a mental note of what you observe.

Now give everyone a minute or two to settle, get comfortable and relax. Allow people to set up whatever materials or personal devices they have (if they are enhancing the meeting) or to put them away. Give people a minute to socialize and chat. 

The point here is to make sure everyone does all this stuff now. There's less chance of it happening during the meeting. Then, start on time.

3. Begin With the Positive

Ask attendees to share some good news. What positive thing happened to them today? Is there something they want to celebrate? It doesn't matter how big or small it is; go around the table and let each attendee contribute if they wish to. What this does is set the tone for moving forward positively.

Some people don't enjoy idle chatting, which is perfectly fine; you've got people who want to get down to business. You can still begin the meeting with a chat session like this to bring everyone into a mindset of possibility.

4. Incorporate Solution Fluency

We here at Wabisabi Learning recommend using Solution Fluency as a set of exploratory guidelines for any meeting. Here's a simple breakdown:

Define: Establish your purpose, problem, focus, and challenge. What do we want to accomplish/address/overcome?
Discover: Discuss and confirm what is known and what is needed. What do we need to do/learn/change to make this happen?
Dream: State your perfect ideal solution and visualize it. What's our best-case scenario for an end goal?
Design: Begin the work of creating a solution to your challenge. How will we proceed to make this end goal a reality?
Deliver: Finalize the solution and establish action steps. How do we practically apply our plan of action?
Debrief: Check in with everyone, answer questions, and conclude on a positive note. What have we resolved/answered/determined, and are we all satisfied?

    The 6Ds apply to the smallest and largest of tasks. It's the formula for hosting productive meetings that get results.

    5. Remain Positively Charged

    This one's important to both morale and productivity. People will always come to a meeting armed with problems, and your gathering can quickly degenerate into a griping session if you’re not careful. So everyone should also be encouraged to come armed with solutions. 

    Caring is contagious, so let everyone know that the meeting is intended to bring a great team with great ideas together.

    6. Provide Necessary Materials

    It can be frustrating for everyone when there's nothing on hand to give out that summarizes important content. People often don't like to chase links and emails to get handouts or transcripts when they can grab them at the meeting. Besides, online access can be faulty and hard to manage between people. 

    Have hard copies of crucial materials on hand to distribute to those who want them. You can also email links to materials after the fact if you still want to.

    7. Conclude Constructively

    Here we have the Debrief part of Solution Fluency. It's perhaps the most critical facet of any productive meeting. Ensure that everyone leaves with a sense of purpose and accomplishment. Ask questions like:

    • Have we resolved what we gathered to determine? If not, why not?
    • Are there any other questions/comments/concerns?
    • Is everyone clear on the next steps? If not, what are we missing?
    • Is everyone feeling a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction?
    • Do we require additional meetings or follow-up? When should these happen?

    Master Meetings and Move Forward Together

    Remember that the best meeting is often the one that didn't happen. But sometimes they have to happen. Always examine your plan beforehand and make sure your request for a meeting is justified and that there is absolutely no other option. Then, set about making the experience as efficient and as proactive as possible.