Why? Because most meetings are really not necessary. Before you call a meeting, think about whether you can accomplish your goals through email or a quick phone call. You rarely need to call a meeting if you’re just planning on sharing information or issuing action instructions. By contrast, meetings may be needed to debate issues or to develop new approaches.
You also shouldn’t feel the need to attend every meeting to which you’re invited. Quite often, you can politely refuse an invitation by pointing out your imminent deadlines. Even if you can’t avoid the meeting completely, it can give you a good excuse for bowing out after a set time limit (30 or 60 minutes, for instance).
Even if a meeting is necessary, you can still reduce the employee-hours spent in meetings by limiting invitations to only those employees who are vitally necessary—letting as many people as possible avoid the meeting entirely. Empirical research suggests that a smaller group (five to seven) is more effective at decision-making, so making your meetings smaller should make for a more productive meeting as well.
Most importantly, you should keep your meetings as short as possible. Meetings rarely need to last for more than one hour, and virtually never past 90 minutes. After that, employees will lose concentration and little more will get done. One way to enforce time limits is to take the chairs out of the meeting room; when standing up, participants get down to business very quickly.
When there are meetings, good preparation is the key to their productivity. When some participants don’t prepare for a meeting, the first part must be devoted to getting everyone up to speed. This is a disincentive for anyone to prepare for future meetings.
To encourage good preparation, the leader should send out background materials and an agenda, at least a day in advance. If you find that a particular leader often forgets this step, you can make your attendance conditional on receiving these materials with enough lead-time. But be sure to fulfill your end of the bargain: if the leader sends out advance materials, read them carefully before the meeting.
If everyone prepares, you can have a more productive meeting. After brief introductory remark by the leader (15 minutes or so), participants can debate the issue in question or develop new approaches. But often the introduction goes on and on, leaving little time for discussion. That totally undercuts the primary purpose for having a meeting.
Long introductions are particularly irritating when they take the form of PowerPoint presentations. We have all been bored to death when someone marches through 20 or 30 PowerPoint slides, reading every word on each slide. If that starts to happen, nicely say, “Your points are really interesting, so I hope we can have as much time as possible to discuss your presentation.”
In short, you cannot eliminate meetings totally. But you can get rid of most of them, limit their size, and keep them short. And you can structure the necessary meetings to maximize their productivity.