Poor “Meeting Hygiene” Is Killing Your Soul, Productivity and Sanity
One-hundred-twenty hours. That’s how much productivity you lose from poor meeting hygiene.
Does it sound ridiculous? Let’s do the math. These numbers are estimates, but reasonable in my twenty-five years of experience.
- You attend, on average, three meetings per day.
- You work two-hundred-forty days per year.
- Each meeting starts five minutes late.
- Each meeting loses an additional five minutes of productivity due to idle chit chat, pointless tangents, late attendees seeking updates, and irrelevant questions for the sake of asking questions.
3 (meetings per day) * 10 (minutes) * 240/60= 120 hours
Terrible meetings result from poor meeting hygiene. Ineffective leadership and an apathetic attitude are the chief causes.
The symptoms of poor meeting hygiene
- Your meetings never start on time.
- You endure several minutes of chit-chat before you dive into anything of substance.
- You deal with constant interruptions.
- Discussion meanders from topic to topic without concluding anything of substance.
- Attendees ask pointless questions to give the appearance that they’re interested, engaged and adding value.
You may not notice these symptoms as a participant, but you experience the effects.
- Frequently peek at your phone
- Scribble lines on your notepad
- Daydream or lose yourself in deep thought
- Excuse yourself for a fake emergency
- The meeting ends, and you rush of the conference room on the verge of tears, craving a cigarette even though you’ve never smoked.
The surprising reason we don’t fix the problem
Everyone loves to complain about ineffective meetings, but nobody wants to fix them. It makes sense. If you spend eight hours a day in meetings, nobody could reasonably expect anything of value from you. It’s a bulletproof excuse.
Excessive and ineffective meetings allow us to act “busy” without doing the hard work of creating, building and serving.
On rare occasions, meetings produce useful results: decisions, refinement of ideas, action items, resolution of issues. This only happens in a culture of good meeting hygiene.
1. It starts and ends with LEADERSHIP
An effective leader creates ground rules for her meeting. She must assert her position when necessary and force attendees to stick to those rules.
Even seasoned leaders struggle to keep folks focused on the agreed-upon terms. Failure to take decisive action can send your meeting into disarray.
Leaders arrive prepared. They expect others to come prepared. They conduct their meetings as serious business, not as routine social gatherings.
Every meeting needs a leader with authority to reign in folks and steer discussion within the bounds of the meeting objectives.
2. Standing room only
When was the last time you attended a two hour meeting where all the attendees had to stand? Probably never. Standing creates urgency because nobody wants to stand for long periods. It forces us to dispense with the small talk and off-topic issues.
Whenever possible, create a standing room only atmosphere. It makes up for any leadership shortfalls you may have (we all have them) by encouraging participants to stay on track.
3. An agenda with a goal
Send out an agenda and stick to it. Most agendas miss a critical feature.
Every agenda must include a stated goal.
“At the end of this meeting we want to come to a decision on…”
“At the end of this meeting we will agree on the next steps for…”
Use your agenda to keep the meeting on track. Your ears should perk up when you hear this phrase.
“This is not on the agenda, but I wanted to bring this up…”
Be ruthless about veering off to unsanctioned topics. At the very least, tell the speaker he can bring it up after completing the agenda items.
4. Start on time. End early
Make it a habit of starting on time. Be known for enforcing punctuality. Someone might present a valid excuse for arriving ten minutes late, but you do not have to disrupt the meeting to accommodate the tardy participant.
If you finish up early, dismiss everyone. Nobody ever complained about getting back free time.
5. Silence is okay
Some workplace cultures expect input from each attendee, so we engage in value bluffing. We ask irrelevant or unnecessary questions to give the impression we’re adding value or at least engaged with the discussion.
The leader can make it clear that questions are welcome when a participant seeks clarification or offers a different perspective. The leader must also dissuade participants from value bluffing. Respecting your peers’ time should be a valued virtue.
6. No recap courtesy
This time killer happens almost exclusively on conference calls because nobody would stand for it in an in-person meeting.
There are two scenarios: meetings planned far in advance and emergency meetings with little prior notice.
If it’s an emergency meeting, mention in the invite that you’ll be providing a summary update every X minutes. That will prevent most folks from interrupting. You cannot reasonably expect everyone to show up on time on short notice.
Take a stricter approach for pre-planned meetings.
Be firm. Don’t try and embarrass the offender, but remind him you are pressed for time, and let him know the information he requested will be in the meeting minutes.
What do you do if the offender is above you on the org chart?
Don’t do anything stupid. It’s not worth losing your job over maintaining order in your meeting.
I prefer to use the one below. It gives the senior person the information they request but avoids interrupting the flow.
“Sure. I’m about to wrap up this point. I’ll summarize everything we’ve talked about thus far once I finish.”
The above phrasing allows you to get to a logical stopping point before you break.
7. The technology conundrum
Anyone who suggests a technology ban ignores reality. It’s unrealistic, especially if you lack authority to enforce it. It’s even harder to enforce when some of the participants dial into your meeting.
Instead, urge attendees to limit their tech usage to emergencies only.
Do this when you notice someone’s head peeking at their phone.
Ask him to chime in with an opinion. He’ll ask you to repeat your question, and realize you caught him. The minor embarrassment will register, and he’ll refrain from glancing at his tech again.
8. Give notice
When you send an invite to someone ten minutes before a meeting begins, you signal a lack of respect for their time. If you miss someone and realize it too late, preface the invite with this.
I apologize for not sending this to you in a timely matter. It was my oversight. I don’t expect miracles from you given your lack of time to prepare, but your participation would be useful to you and the group.
If the attendee agrees to join, announce to the group that you invited her late and did not provide her adequate time to prepare. It sets the right expectation. Your peers will appreciate this courteous and straightforward handling of the situation.