Meetings might be a staple in your daily work life, but far too often—let’s face it—they’re a time suck. Think about how often your day flies in the midst of back-to-back-to-back meetings, as you inhale a burrito in the four minutes you have between them. At the end of the day, you realize you’ve had no time to get your work done. But if those meetings weren’t work, then why did they snarf your day faster than you ate that burrito?
Here’s the good news: Remote work may be prompting a shift not only in how people perceive working from home but also in how they think about meetings. As noted in a June 2020 article in the New York Times Magazine, “The sudden shift to online meetings has prompted executives and employees everywhere to rethink how many are truly necessary.”
In addition, the structure of online meetings, including issues like Zoom fatigue, prompts workers to want to streamline meetings while also adopting more asynchronous communication, which remote-first companies like Basecamp often use. Dr. Sahar Yousef, a cognitive neuroscientist at the University of California, Berkeley, explains in an April 2020 episode of FreshBooks’ I Make a Living podcast that asynchronous communication involves workers responding to messages more on their own timelines rather than the immediate back-and-forth of synchronous communication, which can help boost productivity.
With remote work, you might have personal priorities throughout the day, like taking care of children, pets, or that cactus you’ve tried so hard to keep alive. Taking time for these other tasks doesn’t mean that you’re shirking your work responsibilities; it just means not everyone will be available at exactly the same time. A working parent might need to sign off for a couple hours midday and then finish their work at night, for instance. That’s why it’s important not to assume that you can host meetings all day like you would within an office. Instead, you should find ways to scale them back. Here are ten ways you can get started.
1. Skip Them:
If you’re serious about saving time on meetings, then be honest with yourself about which ones you can do without. For example, if you run a daily meeting for employees to share what they’re working on, ask yourself whether that could be accomplished through email, a platform like Slack, or by using project management software like Asana, Basecamp, or Monday.com. That way, everyone stays on the same page without a meeting cutting into everyone’s day.
Unsure which meetings to skip? Do some trial and error. Change a daily meeting to a weekly meeting, or turn a weekly meeting into a monthly meeting. You can always return meetings to your calendar if needed. But you probably won’t.
2. Establish an Agenda:
If you’re not clear, before a meeting begins, about what you want to accomplish, and if other meeting participants are unsure what the meeting is about, the meeting likely will not be as productive as it could be.
As Latasha James, founder of creative services agency James + Park, explains in her show notes for The Freelance Friday Podcast, having an agenda “will help guide the conversation and keep you on track with your time, while also allowing you and your client to do some research in advance and come prepared.”
3. Share Meeting Materials:
In addition to setting an agenda, sharing meeting materials helps get everyone on the same page and prepared to accomplish what they need to do. If you’re going to show a PowerPoint, for example, send it to attendees in advance (no more than a week and no less than a day) for them to review. That way, participants will be ready to weigh in on what you’re sharing, rather than trying to come up with responses on the spot. Make sure your email says clearly that they need to read it before the meeting.
You’re not trying to put on a show, so no need to worry about spoiling a surprise. And here’s a thought: If sharing meeting materials gives attendees everything they need to know and act, maybe you don’t need to schedule that meeting. If that’s the case, you can wrap up the event before it even starts and avoid meetings that boomerang back onto your calendar (spoiler alert for tip #10).
4. Set a Time Limit:
Parkinson’s law states, “Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.” In an open-ended meeting, a task that needs 20 minutes will take more. Lots more. If you know you have a hard stop, however, Parkinson’s law is less likely to kick in. Think of how productive you often are when a project is due within an hour or so vs. within the next week. Now apply that logic to meetings.
Once you set an allotted time, stick to it. When your meeting runs over, that can mess up the rest of your schedule, forcing you to rebook other appointments or show up late–band frazzled—to another meeting. Worse, running late also negatively impacts your colleagues, who may see your lack of time management as disrespectful.
If you really need more time for a meeting’s tasks, end on schedule, then aim to tie up loose ends through email. And take some notes. What slowed things down? What gummed up the works? Going forward you’ll at least have a better idea of how long you need to set aside for certain meetings.
5. Stand Up:
When working remotely, you’re probably already sitting more than usual—no walking down the hall to the conference room, for example. If participants can reasonably and safely stand during your remote meetings, try that. Standing can be good for your circulation and can get your mind going while providing the added bonus of making participants a little less comfortable. If they want to sit down, they’ll be less likely to dilly-dally and more likely to wrap up the meeting.
6. Use Instant Messaging:
Emails don’t readily capture the back-and-forth of conversation common in meetings, but you can save time and get a similar effect through instant messaging. Try using Slack, Google Chat, or another messaging platform for times when you might otherwise hop into a virtual conference room to chat with colleagues.
7. Stow Your Devices:
How many times have you been in a meeting where everyone is on their phone or laptop sending texts or emails about another meeting or project? When this happens, ask yourself if this meeting is necessary. People may be distracted because they need to be somewhere else.
Whether you’re running meetings or attending, model good device etiquette—put away any you don’t need for the meeting. While proper device etiquette might not be as obvious when working remotely, you can still model appropriate behavior: Don’t text on your phone or lose eye contact during a video chat. And stay focused on the agenda during a conference call—don’t check your email or click around on your computer.
8. Record Your Meetings:
You can record remote meetings on Zoom and other platforms with the click of a button. Participants can refer to what you discussed during the meeting afterward and thus can get more mileage out of it. And if anyone can’t attend the meeting, they can easily catch up via the recording.
9. Get Your Tech in Order:
As we’ve all experienced, working remotely also has disadvantages, such as multiple participants trying to get their videoconferencing software, cameras, and microphones in order. Instead of taking up valuable meeting time waiting for participants to fumble through technical issues, companies need to make sure employees have the tools and instructions they need for productive remote meetings. If you’re the meeting leader, consider providing a “quick start” guide for your videoconferencing platform to inform participants of what they need tech-wise to join. If you’re a participant, do yourself and your colleagues a favor by testing your tech before meetings begin, especially if you’re using new hardware or software.
10. Beware of “Boomerangs”:
As Gretchen Rubin, author of The Happiness Project, explains, “A boomerang errand is one where, just when you have successfully gotten rid of some task, it drops right back into your lap.” Meetings might be a bit different than errands, but your meeting can still be trying to accomplish a task, only to have that meeting yield more meetings instead.
Suppose you meet weekly to review marketing plans, and during one meeting you realize you need to pull some social media stats. You decide that you’ll meet tomorrow to discuss the social media data. During the social media data meeting, you decide to meet later that day to follow up on whether to expand your social media ad budget once everyone examines the data more closely.
All of these are worthy discussions, but you’ve boomeranged from one weekly meeting to three meetings in two days. A possible solution: Try sharing the materials through email for employees to weigh in on their own time, as mentioned in tip #3, rather than during a follow-up meeting.
Embrace the Streamlining Shift
Following these 10 tips can go a long way toward reducing the amount of time you spend in meetings, which gives your employees more time to accomplish the tasks that actually move the needle for your company. As fun as it can be to see colleagues’ kids and pets on Zoom or envy your CTO’s collection of succulents, meetings should be efficient and focused, and some may not be needed at all. Instead of using meetings as your default communication option, embrace the streamlining shift, whether your team continues to work fully remote or moves back onsite.