According to Buffer’s State of Remote Work 2023 report, 75% of remote workers spend between one and ten hours weekly in work meetings. With so much time spent in meetings, making the most of meeting time is vital, but unfortunately, effective meeting management isn’t always as easy as it sounds without the right tools in your toolbox.
In this guide, we’ll walk you through:
- How harmful inefficient meetings can be
- How to set clear meeting objectives
- Tips for streamlining meeting attendance
- Serving as a strong meeting facilitator
- How technology and tools can help make meetings more efficient
- Implementing time-saving tips (like timeboxing)
- Continuous improvement techniques
The Impact of Inefficient Meetings
An efficient meeting goes off without a hitch. It starts promptly, runs smoothly, is a productive use of time, includes only necessary participants, and attendees achieve the desired objectives within the allotted time frame. Sounds like a dream, right?
Efficient meetings also have significant, positive impacts. They provide collaboration opportunities, give teams a venue to generate new, groundbreaking ideas, and help drive decisions to make forward progress.
And on the flip side, inefficient meetings negatively impact teams and company cultures. Bad meetings are time suckers, costly, and mentally exhausting. E-commerce giant, Shopify, understands the ramifications of inefficient meetings all too well. In early 2023, Shopify announced that it deleted 322,000 hours of meetings across its 10,000-person organization. They created a bot to go into everyone’s calendars and delete recurring meetings with three or more people to provide more work time.
More specifically, Chief Operating Officer Kaz Nejatian wrote, “Let’s give people back their maker time. Companies are for builders. Not managers,” to describe the idea that companies are filling calendars with schedules to give managers enough work.
Inefficient meetings aren’t just a waste of time; they’re also a waste of money and resources. Following their meeting purge, Shopify rolled out a calculator tool that integrates with team members’ calendars and adds an approximate price on meetings with three or more people. This tool aims to show how costly some meetings are and encourage employees to consider whether the meeting is essential. If you’re curious to see how expensive some of your meetings are, you can try Fellow’s meeting cost calculator for your calculations.
Combine lost time and money with meeting recovery syndrome (MRS)—the period after a bad meeting to adjust and return to the zone. Symptoms like fatigue, stress, and decreased productivity are byproducts of time spent in bad meetings.
The good news is that team members can take many preventative measures to limit the time spent in bad meetings and turn inefficient ones into great ones.
Set Clear Meeting Objectives and Agendas
The significance of clear objectives and robust agenda can’t be overstated. These pillars are core to the success of every meeting, and they’re often the first to go as calendars fill with last-minute and urgent meetings.
Below are some tips for defining goals and creating detailed agendas to help you achieve your goals during a meeting.
Define Meeting Goals and Desired Outcomes
All meetings need a clear purpose. Meeting organizers must clearly articulate why they’re asking the team to gather. Every attendee should be able to clearly explain why they are attending a meeting and what goals the meeting organizer hopes to achieve during the time spent together. If the meeting organizer or attendees can’t explain the purpose of the meeting, there’s a gap to fill before asking folks to come together and give their time to the meeting.
A quick rule of thumb when considering meeting goals: discussions and idea generation are great reasons to conduct a meeting. Discussions and feedback sessions, such as one-on-one meetings and sprint retrospectives, are examples of purposeful meetings that build relationships, foster teamwork, and create a space for all employees to share their voices. It’s tough to have detailed conversations at the one-on-one level via Slack or asynchronously, and it makes sense to meet so long as the meeting is structured well.
Below are some examples of goals for a one-on-one meeting:
- Provide constructive feedback on recent tasks and overall performance
- Review progress on ongoing projects, discuss roadblocks, and address any hot issues
- Discuss opportunities for growth and skill development
The same goes for idea-generating conversations, such as brainstorming, project planning, and mapping solutions to complex business problems. These types of activities and discussions typically need to happen in real time, and it helps colleagues to gather together and bounce ideas off one another. Meeting facilitators can even run collaborative exercises in person using sticky notes and markers or virtually with tools like Miro.
Below are some examples of goals for a brainstorming session:
- Complete a problem exploration exercise in pairs to gain an understanding of the current challenge, identifying underlying root causes
- Generate a diverse range of creative solutions to address our current challenge, with no limit on the number of ideas
- Assess the feasibility of each solution
Need some help formalizing your meeting goals and putting them into words? Try using ChatGPT as a starting point with a prompt like: Provide some example meeting goals for a [type of meeting] where we plan to achieve [XYZ].
Create Detailed Meeting Agendas
While it might seem obvious, you should create an agenda before your meeting. Every day, meetings across the working world kick off without an agenda. And many meeting organizers show up with an agenda consisting of bullet points that loosely summarize what topics they hope to cover.
Thorough, detailed meeting agendas are critical because they provide a framework for using time productively and achieving the best results. When creating a meeting agenda, Fellow recommends including talking points, supporting documents and graphics, past decisions, and space to capture action items.
Here’s how to create an effective agenda and an example template to help you get started:
- List the meeting objectives and purpose at the top of the agenda to ensure a shared understanding of the goals
- Add the agenda topics and discussion points next, providing enough detail that all meeting attendees will understand what topics to plan and prepare for (Pro-tip: Breakdown large topics into smaller subtopics, especially if you need to reach multiple decisions about one topic)
- Sort the agenda topics and discussion points into the proper flow (by importance, urgency, or both) and add reasonable time limits for each topic
- Assign owners for each topic, taking into consideration who will speak about each discussion point, lead presentations, and answer questions
- Add relevant materials (supporting documents, presentations, links, etc.) and context to catch everyone up to speed before the meeting
- Include a meeting follow-up tracker to capture action items, document decisions made, and note any other follow-ups
Let’s take a look at what this could look like:
Meeting Name: [Insert the name of your meeting]
Date: [Insert date]
Time: [Insert time]
Attendees: [List names of all attendees]
- Generate as many innovative solutions as possible to address our client service challenge
- Prioritize and evaluate the solutions based on feasibility, cost, and impact
- Narrow down proposed solutions to the top three we want to share with the Leadership team
- Introduction and icebreaker (5 minutes) [Add meeting facilitator name]
- Icebreaker: Would you rather go on a relaxing vacation or an adventurous hike in the summer?
- Review the meeting objectives and ask if anyone has questions
- Outline the plan for the meeting
- Problem exploration and background context (10 minutes) [Add topic owner name]
- Present a mini slide deck with background on the client service challenge
- Present the problem, key challenges, and paint points to address as soon as possible
- Open Q&A for clarifying questions
- Brainstorm activity (20 minutes) [Add meeting facilitator’s name]
- Conduct a facilitated, interactive brainstorming session to generate solutions
- Goal: generate as many solutions as possible, even if they seem out of reach
- Save the last seven minutes to discuss the ideas
- Prioritization activity (15 minutes) [Add meeting facilitator’s name]
- Identify the most promising and realistic solutions that are feasible, cost-friendly, and will drive impact
- Narrow down solutions to the top three
- Next steps (10 minutes) [Add topic owner name]
- Confirm action items, deadlines, and task owners
- Discuss the timing for presenting the top three solutions to the Leadership team
You might not go into this level of detail when creating your agenda, and that’s okay! But you need to have enough information to know what results you want to obtain by the end of the meeting and how the time you spend together will get you there.
Streamline Meeting Invitations and Attendance
You may have heard the “seven, plus or minus two” rule for determining who to invite to your meetings. The rule essentially encourages limited meeting attendees to avoid groupthink and interpersonal friction.
Unfortunately, this blanket rule isn’t one-size-fits-all, nor applies to every unique meeting scenario. There aren’t any hard and fast rules around the “right” number of attendees in a meeting, but there are some considerations you can make to increase your chances of planning a meeting with too few or too many participants.
Identify Key Meeting Participants
Be thoughtful and intentional with your meeting invite list. When determining who needs to attend the meeting, consider the following questions:
- What is the minimum number of people I need to invite to achieve the objective of this meeting?
- Who has the relevant knowledge and expertise related to the meeting topic?
- Who are the key stakeholders with the authority to decide and approve the next steps?
- Do I have a diverse representation of departments and voices on this list?
- Are there team members who don’t need to attend the meeting but should be informed afterward?
- Are there team members who should be added as optional attendees and can participate at their discretion?
Use your best judgment and answer the questions above to determine who your key meeting participants truly are. Consider doing a gut check with a colleague to confirm your thought process and bounce ideas off.
Use Calendar Invitations and Reminders
When planning a meeting, calendar invitations and reminders are your best friend! Attach the meeting agenda and other relevant supporting materials when sending a calendar invite to meeting participants. Add a description of the meeting so your teammates know exactly what to expect and can quickly recall what the meeting is about when they review their calendars.
Here’s an example of a Google Calendar invite:
Many calendar tools, including Google Calendar, have notification functionality that allows you to receive reminder notifications about upcoming events. Consider using these features, but don’t be afraid to send upcoming meeting reminder notifications via Slack or email if those are better channels for you and your team.
Embrace Your Role as Meeting Facilitator
Being a good meeting facilitator might not be easy, but you can quickly become an expert meeting facilitator with time and practice. The best meeting facilitators keep conversations on track, foster active participation, create psychologically safe environments, and guide the group toward progress. Here are two easy ways to practice your facilitation skills and run a more productive meeting.
Start and End Meetings on Time
Live by the power of the clock and respect everyone’s time. Nothing drains the energy and productivity from a room like waiting for critical stakeholders to show up to a meeting. Things come up, and there will always be instances where someone runs late, but meetings should always start and end on time.
When meetings don’t start on time, it can convey that attendees’ time isn’t valuable and that wasting time and resources is acceptable. In addition, meeting participants may view it as rude and insensitive to waste their time.
As the meeting facilitator, consider communicating to meeting participants in advance (perhaps in the calendar invitation or meeting agenda) that the meeting will start on time, even if some participants are missing.
Ending on time is just as important as starting promptly. Even if there are more topics on the agenda, the meeting facilitator’s role is to pause conversations and discussions, determine the next steps, and ensure that additional meeting time is scheduled (if needed). Meeting facilitators can use a “minutes remaining” reminder and announce to the group when there are 5-10 minutes left to guide the group toward discussing action items and the next steps.
Foster Active Participation and Engagement
Active participation and engagement are the magical key ingredients that help ensure the group reaches its desired outcomes by the end of the meeting. Without participation, the room is likely to talk in circles and not achieve real progress. Or worse yet, half the room will drive work forward, and the disengaged participants will discover the next steps later, only to wonder when that conversation happened and why they weren’t part of it.
The world of remote work can make it more challenging to schedule meetings at a time when all participants can be fully engaged. When working with globally distributed teams, some team members may join the meeting first thing in the morning, while it could be the last meeting for others. When scheduling meetings, be aware of time zones and try to find a reasonable time in the workday for all attendees. Clockwise can help you find a time that works well for everyone.
But even if you find a time on the calendar open for all attendees, that doesn’t guarantee they will join the meeting and not feel distracted or be their best, creative selves. Set meeting ground rules to level set expectations and make it difficult for participants to not engage in the meeting. Ground rules for being an active participant might include the following:
- Encouraging participants to take the first 2-3 minutes of the meeting to “dump” their thoughts on paper so they can return to them later
- Leaving the meeting if there’s an urgent matter to address instead of multitasking and doing both
- No laptops (for in-person meetings) or phones in the meeting room
- Mute notifications and avoid all chat tools during the meeting
- Participants must add their thoughts to the Miro board, Jamboard, etc.
Leverage Technology Tools for Meeting Efficiency
Using technology tools helps meetings become more organized, accessible, and effective for everyone involved. Many tools are available that help meetings run more smoothly and streamline various aspects of the meeting process.
Utilize Video Conferencing Platforms
Video conferencing tools like Zoom, Google Meet, and Microsoft Teams are necessities for facilitating remote meetings. Tools like these allow participants to join from anywhere in the world. Even if you are working in a hybrid model, or some group members are working together from an office or coworking space, it’s helpful to have virtual meeting links ready and available for those who might join remotely.
In situations where some team members are co-located but some members are not, consider keeping the meeting as equal and fair as possible and ask all attendees to join the meeting remotely, separately. This encourages equal participation and helps prevent one room filled with multiple people from dominating the conversation while other attendees sit back and watch.
Share Documents and Collaborate in Real-Time
Collaboration doesn’t only have to happen in person, and in fact, it shouldn’t. One major perk of remote meetings is that the entire team can work together on a document, slide deck, or brainstorming board in real-time. Online collaboration platforms like Google Workspace and Microsoft 365 make it easy for teams to create, share, and collaborate in real-time. When using these tools, checking the permission settings and ensuring all team members have access and editing capabilities is essential.
If you plan to use a visual platform like Miro and want meeting participants to add to it during the meeting, make sure you set up the template in advance so it’s ready for use. You may also need to account for a few minutes to explain to everyone how to use the tool if attendees are unfamiliar with it. Some helpful Miro templates for group meetings include the Sticky Notes Pack Template for group input, Quick Retrospective Template for post-project reflection, and the Impact/Effort Matrix Template for prioritization.
Streamline Meeting Notes and Action Items with AI Tools
AI tools can significantly streamline the meeting notes process and help organize and manage action items. AI tools like Otter.ai and Briefly (amongst many others out in the market) can generate meeting transcripts without the distraction of manual note-taking.
When your meeting notes are complete, you can ask ChatGPT to extract the action items for you and write a quick email so you can ensure everyone is on the same page about what they are responsible for. (Briefly uses GPT to pull out key insights and action items and lets you generate and send follow-up emails.)
Image source: Briefly
Implement Time-Saving Meeting Practices
Make it your goal to save as much time as possible (or even end your meeting early!) Follow these tips to save time (and energy).
Practice Timeboxing and Time Limits
Timeboxing is a time management technique in which you predetermine how long you will spend on a task—or in this case, a meeting topic. Meetings can’t and shouldn’t last for as long as you need them to. Instead, we have to make it a point to use our time together wisely and make the most of it.
The best way to use timeboxing during meetings is to assign time limits to each topic on the agenda and stick to them! That means a designated timekeeper may need to be responsible for monitoring the time. You can also try tools like 123Timer, a simple online timer you can display during meetings so speakers know how much time they have left to discuss the topic.
Encourage Concise and Focused Discussions
Meeting facilitators should encourage participants to be concise when sharing their thoughts. If a valuable idea is unrelated to the current discussion, create an “idea parking lot,” jot down the idea, and let participants know you captured it so you can get back on track and move on. Kindly remind participants that this time should be used to address the current objectives but that great ideas won’t get left behind and will be followed up on later.
Be aware of those who share lengthy monologues when conveying their points and outspoken individuals who might dominate the conversation. While neither of these behaviors is necessarily wrong, they tend to take up excessive amounts of time, so it’s important to ensure everyone feels like they have an opportunity to share.
Document and Share Meeting Action Items
Capturing action items provides clarity to all participants about what work needs to get done after the meeting. Documenting tasks is key to ensuring there is no room left for misunderstandings and miscommunication. Share out the action items in a format that works well for the group and is easily accessible by all.
Follow Up and Track Progress
Don’t set action items and forget them! Schedule regular follow-up meetings and check-ins to review progress on the action items. Schedule daily standup meetings to keep things moving if the action items are urgent. If action items are nonurgent, allocate time during regular team meetings and 1:1s to review their progress.
As folks progress on their action items, encourage them to update the status and ensure everyone who needs to be aware of the updates is in the loop. And finally, don’t forget to pause and celebrate one another as work gets crossed off the to-do list.
Evaluate and Continuously Improve Meeting Effectiveness
Don’t hesitate to change things up if a meeting isn't working! To continuously improve your meetings, implement feedback mechanisms to gather continuous feedback and input around the effectiveness. Even if your meeting is standalone, you can still ask for feedback to help improve similar standalone meetings in the future. Here are some questions to use as a starting point:
- Did you understand the purpose of today’s meeting?
- Do you feel that today’s meeting achieved its intended objectives?
- Did the meeting agenda help you prepare for today’s session?
- Was the meeting well-organized and focused?
- Did we use our time well and stay on track?
- Did we include the right people? Is there anyone else you’d recommend we include next time?
- Did you feel encouraged to participate in today’s meeting actively?
- Do you understand what’s expected of you regarding action items and next steps?
Create an open dialogue amongst all meeting participants and prioritize continuous improvement as a team. You’ll be on your way to more efficient meetings in no time!