The 7 inviolable laws of business meeting etiquette

The 7 inviolable laws of business meeting etiquette
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Most people don’t love meetings. But they’re absolutely necessary for successful teamwork. 

Effective meetings offer at least seven key benefits:

  1. Cut down on email
  2. Reduce or eliminate irrelevant tasks, goals, and processes
  3. Boost camaraderie, team cohesion, and teamwork
  4. Foster transparency
  5. Increase alignment on mission, goals, and strategy
  6. Reinforce company culture
  7. Enhance team cohesion

Our friends at Atlassian note that the top contributor to workplace happiness is feeling like you belong. With more of us working remotely, it’s easy to forget that we’re part of a team. Great meetings offer the time and space to foster that sense of belonging and replace a feeling of disjointedness to one of connectedness. Great meetings help teams build trust and stronger workplace relationships.

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At the same time, poorly run, ineffective, unproductive meetings are incredibly expensive for organizations. According to Bain & Company, a single weekly meeting of mid-level managers cost one organization $15M per year. They absolutely kill morale. According to Harvard Business Review, “Poorly run meetings contribute to employee dissatisfaction, drain cognitive bandwidth, and cost organizations billions.”

A full third of our meetings are unnecessary. Workers who feel they spend too much time in meetings report decreased well-being, increased fatigue, and increased subjective workload.

So, how do we waste less time in meetings while making the meetings we do attend as impactful as possible? 

Meeting etiquette!

Meeting etiquette makes meetings more efficient, which saves time and increases the team’s overall productivity. And it helps people feel heard, respected, and liked. 

Whether it’s an all-hands meeting, weekly team meeting, or one-on-one, the following seven meeting etiquette tips will help you rock your next meeting.

1. Know the norms

Different organizations have different expectations around meetings. These norms often act as unwritten rules. The first step to better meeting etiquette is to notice and conform to these expectations. 

Notice how your bosses and colleagues dress for meetings. Are bare shoulders normal? How about rips in people’s clothes? Are people wearing tee-shirts or button-downs? Are the expectations the same whether you’re in the office or Zooming in? Notice what is normal and then try to emulate that style of dress.

For virtual meetings, what’s the expectation around your background? Is it okay to have other people walking in and out of your frame? If your workspace background is messy or there are others around, consider using a custom background. And if you do, consider whether others are using one that’s more whimsical or “professional.” When teammates ask questions do they raise their hand or just jump in? Does it differ based on whether the meeting is in-person or virtual?

Notice and emulate customs around when and whether to have your camera on or off. Whether in-person or virtual, pay attention to whether it’s okay to eat during a meeting. 

Lastly, some people love meeting icebreakers while others consider them a waste of time. Figure out what your company and team prefers. 

2. Be punctual

Starting the meeting if you’re leading it (or showing up on time if you're attending) shows the team that you don’t think your time is any more valuable than theirs. It’s a show of respect. 

Showing up late disrupts the flow of the meeting and may require the facilitator to repeat what’s been said, wasting your more punctual colleagues’ time.

The same goes for ending the meeting on time. It’s best to assume other attendees have commitments after the meeting is supposed to end. 

To help ensure you get through the agenda before time runs out, try not to do things in the meeting that are better done over email, Slack, or Loom. These include business updates since the last meeting or reviewing key metrics such as sales, revenue, net retention, or NPS. Anything that could be as easily conveyed electronically and/or is only relevant to 70% of the company or less should go. This will help you end on time and help ensure everyone stays engaged. 

3. Stay engaged

Sometimes the meeting will get off track from the agenda. Unnecessary tangents and discussions that don’t pertain to the entire group are hardly anomalous in business meetings. 

One Clockwise survey found that off-topic conversations are the biggest meeting challenge for many meeting-goers, followed by one person dominating the conversation and a lack of clear next steps. Unsurprisingly, these challenges contribute to workers’ nightmares everywhere: a bad meeting.

Instead of pulling out your phone or doing some busywork, be the person who gently guides the conversation back to the agenda. Try a phrase like, “While this is interesting, since time is limited we might want to circle back to the budgeting requirements for the halo feature.” 

Another way to stay engaged is to ask good questions. Helpful questions are on-topic and relevant to everyone in the meeting. It’s good to try to avoid questions that lead to tangents, only concern you or a few other people, and/or come off as critical or aggressive. 

How you ask your good questions is also important. Indeed recommends asking questions while they’re pertinent to the discussion rather than waiting until the end of the meeting when time is running out and people are itching to leave. 

4. Show up prepared

If you’re leading the meeting, be sure to send an agenda and any useful prep out before the meeting. An agenda helps everyone show up ready to contribute and helps invitees decide whether they really need to attend. Our friends at Fellow live by the motto, “No agenda, no attenda.” 

If there’s something everyone needs to have read before they can contribute, send it out beforehand. In fact, if you’re presenting, consider recording a Loom and sending it out before the meeting and using the meeting to discuss. Those minutes you’re all gathered together are very expensive. It’s most efficient to only do what you can only do together during that time. 

If the facilitator sends out an agenda and prep materials, consume them before the meeting. Showing up prepared signals to the team that you respect their time. 

5. Get to the point

One of the best ways to show respect to your colleagues while saving time in meetings is to, well, zip it. 

Practice mindfulness of how long it takes you to get your point across. As pointed out in the intro, meetings are incredibly expensive. Every bit of unnecessarily verbosity costs the entire organization dearly. One way to be a good steward of your company’s resources and respect everyone’s time is to get to your point as quickly as possible.

“Most likely, the group sitting around the table with you doesn’t need to know the entire backstory behind your interaction with a customer, for example,” writes the Robin blog. “They only need to know what the customer’s problem was and how you resolved it.” 

If you’re someone who can tend to dominate conversations, it’s a good rule of thumb to talk no more than 50% of the time in a two-person conversation. In a ten-person conversation, you should aim to talk about 10% of the time. These guidelines take into account that different people have different styles of speaking. On average, Japanese people are comfortable with eight seconds of silence between speakers. By contrast, Dutch people will only go for four seconds. Some people are fine with the other person jumping in before they’re actually done speaking. Others need a bit of space between speakers to consider what they want to say. Purposefully spending less time speaking helps give colleagues who aren’t quite as quick on the draw time to contribute their own thoughts. 

Another way to ensure you’re being concise is to avoid repeating yourself. The Robin blog recommends watching out for keyphrases like “As I said” and “Again.” They’re a signal that you’re probably being repetitive. 

Remember, if leaving out some bit of detail means your point isn’t entirely clear to the other attendees, they can always ask follow-up questions. But if you waste time with unnecessary explanations, there’s no way to get that time back. 

6. Don’t be annoying

One easy way to build camaraderie and trust among your team while also running your meetings more efficiently is to actively listen to your colleagues when they’re speaking. It destroys trust and goodwill when you feel like you’re being talked over, dismissed, and interrupted. 

So what is active listening? First, it’s not interrupting them when they’re still speaking. It’s also trying to understand them without inserting your own criticism and judgment.

But you can also take it a step further by putting their ideas in your own words to make sure you’re understanding them.

Indeed offers a few other moral-eroding behaviors to try to avoid during meetings:

  • Tapping your fingertips, pen, or feet
  • Fidgeting with your hands or feet
  • Swiveling in your chair
  • Rustling your papers loudly
  • Making noises such as humming or clicks

7. Schedule considerately

One way that meetings are costly is that they carve up your Focus Time. You had several blocks of two hours or more to get real work done. Now your calendar looks like Swiss cheese, with 15- and 30-minute blocks between meetings. 

Clockwise allows you to attend all the meetings you need and enjoy plenty of Focus Time. When you schedule with Clockwise, and mark your meetings as flexible, we’ll stack them back-to-back to open up long blocks of uninterrupted time for you and your team. And if something comes up, we’ll automatically reschedule to the next best time with no manual effort. 

Now when you need to schedule a meeting, Clockwise will rank the open slots by their impact on everyone’s Focus Time, lunch, working hours, timezone, and more. So you can know you’re scheduling as considerately as possible. 

Going forward

Meetings are expensive for organizations and for individual workers. But they’re also incredibly valuable when done well. So it’s important to get the most value out of them as possible. One key way to do that is to know and implement good meeting etiquette. These seven tips should help you build trust and camaraderie among your team members at your next meeting. 

Read next: 5 types of meetings that are worth the time

About the author

Cathy Reisenwitz

Cathy Reisenwitz is the former Head of Content at Clockwise. She has covered business software for six years and has been published in Newsweek, Forbes, the Daily Beast, VICE Motherboard, Reason magazine, Talking Points Memo and other publications.

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