Business meetings are a time-consuming part of many employees’ workweeks. There are specific strategies businesses can employ to conduct the best meetings, according to our survey of 400 full-time U.S. employees. Companies can improve by holding brief, focused meetings facilitated by trained managers.
You’ve been there: The meeting is running long and your attention is wandering. You haven’t learned anything new, haven’t spoken, and don’t even know why it was important for you to attend.
For companies, a meeting such as this one is a disaster, leaving employees feeling demotivated and unproductive. And if substandard meetings are a company-wide issue, businesses are losing serious time.
In fact, 69% of workers spent more than 1 hour of their workweek in meetings. To receive a return on this time investment, companies must conduct meetings effectively.
We surveyed 400 full-time employees in the U.S. to learn how often they have meetings and what benefits their meetings provide.
We found that businesses should hold quick, focused meetings with actionable agendas and effective facilitators, especially since so many meetings are being held remotely during the COVID-19 pandemic.
We also found that some people in companies have different relationships with meetings: Executives need to make sure they schedule meetings strategically so they can do the rest of their jobs, and HR professionals should be given the opportunity to use meetings to improve in their role.
- More than half of employees attend meetings focused on checking progress (53%) and solving problems (51%) in a typical week. Businesses should primarily use meetings as a venue where employees can share their accomplishments and troubleshoot their problems.
- Almost all business meetings (90%) last for 1 hour or less, suggesting that businesses should hold brief meetings.
- 61% of managers consider problem solving and collaborating a benefit of meetings, and companies should train all managers to conduct meetings effectively.
- Almost half of human resources professionals (47%) say that meetings help them do their jobs well. Businesses must remember that meetings are a skill building opportunity for employees in the HR department.
- 44% of executives and founders spend 10 more hours in meetings every week. Executive-level employees must anticipate and overcome the challenges of meeting-heavy days.
Tip 1: Focus Business Meeting Agendas on Checking Progress and Solving Problems
For some employees, boring, unproductive meetings are an unfortunate part of their job.
Businesses should center their meetings around sharing progress and solving problems to counteract employees’ skepticism about meetings.
Already, more than half of employees attend progress check meetings (53%) and problem solving or brainstorming meetings (51%).
Far fewer employees regularly attend meetings to make decisions (33%), give presentations (28%), and build skills (26%).
To conduct effective meetings, experts say companies should require an agenda.
“Without an agenda, a meeting is useless,” says Laurie Wilkins, founder of Call Outdoors, which publishes guides about outdoor gear and equipment. “You should have at least an outline of all the things you're focusing on to ensure a seamless flow of the meeting.”
Wilkins believes that before a meeting starts, meeting facilitators should ask:
- Is this meeting necessary? If the meeting will simply be a series of questions or a presentation that won’t help many of the people in attendance, it may be better handled over email or phone.
- What specific results are being discussed? To effectively provide progress updates, business need to have specific metrics. Wilkins suggests answering specific questions, such as “How many people were hired?” “How many page views did we receive?” “What was our monthly revenue?”
- What comes next? “The purpose of a meeting is to move forward with improved efforts in order to reach the company's goals,” Wilkins says. Every meeting should end with specific, actionable plans and objectives to solve problems.
Workers don’t want to host or attend meetings that don’t help their company perform, so companies should require that business meeting agendas focus on discussing accomplishments and solving problems.
Tip 2: Conduct Meetings in 1 Hour or Less
At productive companies, employees are busy.
Businesses should respect their employees’ time and avoid holding meetings longer than 1 hour.
Most companies respect this guideline: 90% of employees say that a typical meeting in their workplace takes 1 hour or less.
Scheduling long meetings is difficult because of the other responsibilities employees hold.
“Meetings take time out of busy schedules,” says Nick Farnborough, co-founder of Clavis Social. “They should only last as long as they need to.”
Experts say that planning for a meeting of more than 1 hour is challenging. Participants go on tangents, agendas are overlong and complex, and people lose focus and stop paying attention.
These concerns are compounded by the large number of employees currently working remotely.
Charlene DeCesare, who operates her own business coaching service, gives her clients 5 tips to keep meetings brief:
- Establish a no multi-tasking rule. Employees should be focused on the meeting and the meeting alone. This is especially important if employees are working remotely and have easier access to distractions.
- Set an agenda with clear goals. “Without an agenda, you’re just on a long, winding road to nowhere,” DeCesare says.
- Make sure every participant needs to be there. Meetings should be relevant to every attendee. If an employee can’t explain why they are in a meeting, they shouldn’t be there.
- Include interactive elements. Generally, meetings should have more than one participant. Consider one-person presentations separate, one-off events and make sure that regularly scheduled meetings have a variety of voices.
- Have a follow-up plan. Some meetings go too long because of time wasted debating when next to meet. Meeting leaders should come with a strong plan for next steps.
By keeping meetings brief and focused, companies respect their employees’ time and are more likely to hold their attention.
Tip 3: Train Managers to Conduct Meetings Effectively
Meetings depend on the competency of the people leading them.
Companies should train managers so that they can run meetings with comfort, direction, and ease.
Most managers see the benefits of meetings at their workplace. More than half of managers (61%) say problem solving and collaborating is a benefit of the meetings they attend.
Managers have reason to be enthusiastic about the benefits of meetings: They are often the people leading the discussion and setting the agenda.
To ensure that all employees feel similarly engaged, Alexis Wirth, operations manager at Swenson He, a digital product agency, trains managers to follow her company’s meetings standards, which include:
- Sending a clear calendar invitation: Wirth says managers should always send out a Google calendar invitation to necessary teammates. If employees are working remotely, the invitation should include a link to a remote video meeting platform such as Zoom or Google Hangouts.
- Coming prepared with visuals: Visuals help teammates keep track of a meeting’s progress and remain engaged. Also, visuals demonstrate that the leaders of the meeting are prepared.
- Designating a notetaker: Having a notetaker helps organize a meeting’s takeaways and ensures the notes can be shared with teammates who were not present.
- Asking for feedback about how the meeting was run: Wirth expects her managers to ask attendees what they thought about agenda, flow, and atmosphere of the meeting. This way, managers can run the meeting better next time.
- Following the “jellyfish rule”: Jellyfish float through the ocean, and ineffective meetings are similarly aimless. Wirth says that at her company, managers know to use the codeword “jellyfish” when a meeting is going off-topic. Then, facilitators can bring the meeting back on track.
Effective meetings require effective facilitators. To conduct the best meetings possible, companies must train their managers on a common set of meeting standards.
Tip 4: Remember That Meetings Build the Skills of HR Professionals
For most employees, meetings are an opportunity to showcase their development and personal progress.
For HR professionals, though, meetings are an opportunity to build the skills that enable them to do their jobs well.
Nearly half of HR staffers (47%) say that learning skills they need for their job is a benefit to meetings at their company.
Almost one-quarter of individual contributors (23%), by comparison, think meetings help them build skills. Managers (20%), executives (15%), and consultants (13%) are even less likely to believe in the skill-building potential of meetings.
HR staffers may value the skill-building opportunities meetings provide because meetings offer a chance to assess group dynamics and company culture.
Imagine the experience of a new HR staffer at a medium-sized tech company:
The business has around 65 full-time employees and is employing their first full-time HR lead, Kevin. Kevin begins to sit-in on meetings across the company. He will be able to answer questions such as:
- Who likes to talk?
- Who interrupts?
- Who prefers listening?
- Who is paying attention?
- Which teammates seem comfortable with each other?
Kevin will now have a sense of the team’s dynamics and what individual or group HR trainings are likely to be the most useful for his company.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, making such determinations can be more challenging.
Jill Santopietro Panall, owner of 21Oak HR Consulting, says that meetings held remotely on Zoom or Google Hangouts make it harder to build the people-reading skills essential for human relations.
“I'm missing the opportunities to watch the natural interactions in meetings that allow me to perceive issues and challenges,” she says. “When everyone is facing front and blandly looking at the camera, on their best behavior, there's no way to see whose eyes dart to a particular person or who is texting under the table. All of that is incredibly instructive.”
Without in-person staff meetings, companies may suggest that their HR staffers hold more regular, one-on-one meetings with employees. This way, employees feel supported and HR staffers can continue to build their skills.
When planning the development of HR professionals, companies must remember that for those working in HR, a meeting is a chance to get better at their role.
Tip 5: Executives Must Anticipate the Challenges of Meeting-Heavy Days
Employees sometimes look at their schedules with dread: 4, 5, or 6 hours of meetings on one day. When is the work supposed to be done?
Executives ask themselves that question frequently, and must devise systems to complete their work despite a meeting-heavy schedule.
More than 4 in 10 executives (44%) spend more than 10 hours per week in meetings.
Experts say that for founders and executives, meetings are a given, because they keep the company operating.
Justin Kerby, the founder of Something Great Marketing, a social media marketing agency, says his meetings represent the ongoing value he provides the company.
“Most of my meetings are business development opportunities, internal team reviews, and presenting proposals to potential clients,” Kerby says. “For our team to grow, sales opportunities need to get my full attention throughout the week.”
During a period of economic contraction especially, small and medium-sized executives may spend significant time in remote meetings focused on sales, fundraising, and overall cashflow.
Experts suggest two different time-blocking strategies to help executives manage their time:
- Daily no-meeting times: Kerby suggests that executives block time early in their days that are free of meetings. He blocks his own schedule from 6 a.m. to 10 a.m. and employees know he uses this time to focus on daily tasks.
- Meeting-specific days: Trivinia Barber, founder and chief executive officer of Priority VA, an executive assistant staffing company, schedules all internal meetings on Mondays and Wednesdays only. She would rather have large blocks of dedicated work or meeting time than toggle between responsibilities.
While the time-blocking strategies company leaders use to manage their schedules may differ, experts agree that an effective executive is one that empowers employees to make decisions without frequently seeking their boss’s counsel.
“Create a culture where decisions can be made quickly and effectively with as few decision-makers as possible,” says Sukhi Jutla, chief operating officer of MarketOrders, an online marketplace for independent retail jewelers.
By creating a company culture where middle and senior-level managers feel comfortable making decisions, founders can avoid being sucked into endless meetings about issues that employees could have figured out themselves.
Whatever their strategy, executives must find a way to guard their time against the pressures of having many meetings.
Businesses Must Conduct Effective Meetings to Succeed
Employees spend a significant portion of their time in meetings, and businesses must make sure that the meetings employees attend are a good use of their time.
The COVID-19 pandemic and the necessity of having meetings remotely makes it even more important that businesses employ the best meeting practices.
To conduct effective meetings, companies can:
- Focus meetings on recapping accomplishments and solving problems
- Hold meetings no longer than 1 hour
- Train managers to facilitate meetings well
- Use meetings to build the skills of HR professionals
- Help executives manage the rigors of meeting-heavy days
By conducting effective meetings, companies can get the most out of their employees in a challenging business environment.
About the Survey
The Manifest surveyed 400 full-time workers in the U.S. in June 2020.
Thirty-eight percent (38%) live in the South; 30% live in the Midwest; 20% in the West; and 13% in the Northeast.
Forty-four percent (44%) are male; 43% are female; 14% declined to answer.
Twenty-five percent (25%) of respondents are ages 18-34; 34% are ages 35-54; and 26% are 55 years old and above.