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In the echo chambers of time the phrases “Are you on mute?” and “Can you hear me?” will reverberate as an eternal reminder of how much precious time is lost in meetings. Many look back in despair at the time spent in awful meetings, it’s time that is lost forever! Has all hope disappeared for meetings? Are the mental scars of bad meetings too deep to repair? Do we even care anymore?!

It’s difficult to say how much time is used (or even wasted) in meetings, various studies report anywhere from 15% to 30% of our time is in meetings. Certainly, the higher the management ladder you are the more meetings you can expect. But my concern is with engineers and engineering managers whose focus is on implementing and delivering features for customers. If we are ‘wasting’ time here then it is directly impacting what is delivered to customers and also, if it continues, negatively impacting health & morale.

As appealing as it sounds, stopping meetings is unrealistic! This doesn’t mean all are needed or that there cannot be improvements. The easy option is to continue with the way it is, but for change to happen, we need to believe that meetings can be better before we invest effort into making potential changes. One mindset to help is putting the other people first, any meeting will take up someone’s time and distract their focus from their current task, by putting them first means we want to use their time effectively. Or even question if we should be distracting them! Here I will share some of my observations in a hope that maybe meetings can be less tragic and we can become more aware of their impact on others…

Too many meetings

We have to start with the reality that there are generally too many meetings! This is a well-discussed topic (hopefully not in a meeting!), but it still is one of the biggest factors that affect productivity. Questioning the necessity of a meeting is important, consider if the information needed can be gathered another way before sending the invite. When there are too many meetings people start to resent even the ones that are needed. If a little effort is put into avoiding the ‘create meeting default’ then time can be saved.

Have an agenda

People want to know what their time is being used for. Setting expectations with an agenda not only helps people decide how they can contribute but also gives them time to prepare. Sometimes with recurring meetings, a clear agenda isn’t known, one option is to use a document attached to the invite that anyone can edit detailing topics for discussion and what was discussed previously. This way it is easier to determine if the meeting is needed and what to cover. If it’s a single meeting with no agenda, question if it’s really needed!

Only invite the required people

If a meeting is needed and the agenda is known, make sure only the people needed are invited. Resist inviting someone because they ‘might be able to help’, check with them first to get confirmation. Put people as optional if they might be interested or for awareness but don’t be offended if they ignore it!

Timing of the meetings

For someone to attend a meeting it costs more than just the time of the meeting. The focus someone loses has to be regained. People need time to get ‘in the zone’ to progress their tasks, scheduling meetings that interrupt this is costly, not only for productively but also for health reasons as spending mental effort continually shifting focus is not free. Consider the people you need for the meeting and what time suits them (not you!), even ask them if you’re not sure.

Don’t be late!

If it’s your meeting, don’t leave people waiting. I know there are always challenges, either waiting for the meeting room to be free or issues with the phone. If this happens, apologize to your attendees straight away, even warning them of the delay and how long you will be. Be proficient in using the meeting software too so if there is a delay it’s not increased trying to dial in!

Be clear on outcomes

The meeting lead needs to be clear on the outcome of the meeting and ensure that it is reached. This means starting to bring the discussion together with enough time at the end of the meeting to reach a conclusion. Too often the meeting runs out of time without any decisions or actions that then either need to be taken offline or rescheduled. Some topics are too big for the meeting time, this happens and is ok, simply make sure everyone attending is aware of next steps during the meeting.

25 or 50-minute meetings

It’s great when you go into a meeting knowing you’ll get some time before the next meeting! And it is a good idea if you hold to it! Unfortunately, it is rare that those who schedule these meetings actually stop early. This creates a problem because people’s expectations are not met and if it continues it can affect trust. If you schedule these ‘shortened’ meetings make sure you keep to the time, otherwise, ditch them.

“This won’t take long”

Please don’t say this! People try to set positive expectations but I’ve lost count of the times someone wanted a “quick” meeting for it to run over 30 minutes! This doesn’t help trust and could affect your reputation if it happens regularly. I recommend not saying it at all, if the discussion actually doesn’t take long and the meeting finishes early then there’s bonus time back for everyone!

Lunchtime meetings

Basically, these should be banned unless lunch is provided. But even is lunch is provided they shouldn’t be commonplace because people need a timeout in the day to switch off and rest.

Learn to use meeting software

I did mention this before so the meeting can start on time without spending an age getting any remote people on. But also because too many remote meetings are interrupted by beeps of people joining or background noise of children crying or dogs barking. Yes initially it can be funny but the humour soon wears off. Continually saying can you mute yourself if you’re not speaking is not practical or professional. Most meeting software allows you to turn entry beeps off and auto mute people on entry. Learning to use these options and others will make your meetings better!

Change of perspective

Due to many of the reasons described here meetings have become a tragedy causing frustration and wasted time. This post is letting off a bit of steam but, in all honesty, I’m not totally against meetings, I understand their need, but I believe improvements need to be made. The fundamental part of this is the need to care about other people’s time if we do, then we can think about our meetings differently with the focus on how we are impacting the people in the attendee list. The responsibility of this comes down to the organiser of the meeting!

Also, our perspective can change for meetings we’re invited to, with the aim of understanding what the organiser needs from us and providing everything you can efficiently to speed the meeting along. This approach can make meetings a learning experience as you attempt to understand what other people need.

The reality is there is no getting away from meetings. As an attendee, we can change our perspective on the meetings we join to look for the positives (even if it is hard). Organisers can care about the people whose time they are using, try to make that time fun and keep people engaged. If all else fails, buy people’s time with cookies and chocolate!

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