How to Run Meetings That Won't Put Everyone to Sleep
Meetings are indispensable, except when they are a complete waste of everyone's time.
Last September, more than 70 employees from Honey Stinger – a sports nutrition brand that makes honey-based products – and its sister companies finished a 740-mile trek. Dubbed “the world’s longest staff meeting,” this adventurous group spent nearly three months traversing the Continental Divide Trail from Colorado’s southern border to its northern edge.
Logging 90 days together in the wilderness is a dramatic reminder that not all meetings are created equal. “Our team worked together and overcame huge obstacles from forest fires to pushing bikes over 13,000-foot peaks,” marketing director Garrett Mariano wrote in a company blog post. “We’re a stronger team that has a new understanding and respect for each other.”
Meetings have become a hot topic in entrepreneurial circles. In a leaked 2018 email to his staff, Tesla co-founder and CEO Elon Musk said large meetings are “the blight of big companies and almost always get worse over time.” Musk also advised employees to “Walk out of a meeting or drop off a call as soon as it is obvious you aren’t adding value. It is not rude to leave, it is rude to make someone stay and waste their time.”
Related: Why Elon Musk Hates Meetings
Set your meeting strategy
I didn’t worry about meetings when I started JotForm 13 years ago. It was just me and eventually, a handful of employees. We were bootstrapped, so there were no VCs or investors to update. As we’ve grown to employ more than 140 people on two continents, I’ve had to become much more strategic about how and when we communicate.
According to TED, meetings waste an estimated $37 billion each year in the U.S. alone. Fifty percent of people say they find meetings to be unproductive, and 73 percent of employees do other work while they’re in meetings. If you’ve ever written a grocery list during a conference call, you won’t be surprised to learn that nine out of 10 people also daydream during meetings.
I don’t want to waste my time or trap our employees in long, droning meetings. After all, they’re the brains and the engine behind the business. Yet, it’s so easy to get caught in a snowball of meetings and check-ins. You accept one invitation, then another, then 15 more. Before you know it, you’re deep in a game of Calendar Tetris.
Strategy is the antidote to a nasty case of meeting creep. Set ground rules around how, when, and how often you’ll have meetings. Create policies that allow people to hit “decline” without fear or FOMO, and then stick to them. Every organization is different, but here’s what works for us.
1. Stand down on the stand-ups
The premise of a status meeting or stand-up -- where participants, in turn, update the group on their tasks and progress -- seems reasonable. Good communication is essential for building a business. Add in several project check-ins across multiple days, however, and this seemingly-innocuous practice can drain precious resources.
“It’s hard to come up with a bigger waste of money, time, or attention than status meetings,” Basecamp CEO and co-founder Jason Fried wrote in 2016. I’m not sure I would call them a “scourge,” as Fried did in the same blog post, but I agree that they’re seldom necessary.
In May 2018, Pinterest engineering manager Brian Donohue outlined a three-day, no meeting schedule the company was testing with its product engineering teams. Software development demands long stretches of focused time, but as the company grew, so did the meetings. Making one small schedule change quickly produced big results, said Donohue. Over 91 percent of Pinterest developers reported that the switch made them more productive and 80 percent said their colleagues respected the no-meeting schedule.
Whether it’s a meeting-free day or a no-calls-in-the-morning rule, Donohue’s experiment is a reminder that, as entrepreneurs, we can make unconventional scheduling choices. You can take a stand to balance uninterrupted work time with necessary team communications.
2. Walk and talk it out
Mark Zuckerberg and Richard Branson are fans of walking meetings. So is Twitter’s Jack Dorsey. Barack Obama has been known to suggest walking meetings, too.
For example, researchers at Washington University in St. Louis found that workers who stood or walked during meetings were less territorial and more engaged in the discussion. In a Stanford University study, 81 percent of participants said their creative thinking expanded when they increased their exercise levels.
I’m also a big fan of stretching my legs and my brain at the same time. I often go for lunch and a walk with both new and current employees. We get to know each other outside of the office and, hopefully, they see me as more than just “the boss.”
Walking meetings are tough when the participant count is high or there’s a blizzard underway, but they can be a great option when the conditions are right.
3. Give people some space
By 2014, nearly 70 percent of all offices reportedly had open floor plans. These airy spaces are the hallmark of a modern, forward-thinking company, especially in the tech world, but they can also increase distraction, stress, and frustration.
At JotForm, our product-side employees work in small, cross-functional teams of four to six people. Every group includes a developer, designer, data scientist, UX specialist, and other appropriate roles. Each team also has dedicated office, with a big white board and a door that closes.
We’ve found that teams working in a private space don’t have to plan formal meetings. They can bat ideas back and forth and share feedback as necessary. When they need quiet work time, they can ensure that happens, too. It’s all up to the team.
I realize this arrangement isn’t possible for everyone, especially when you’re building a new company and budgets are tight. But consider what else you can do to trim long meetings, from creating “office hours” at a set time of day or using Slack or another instant messaging tool for quick requests.
4. Send email feedback instead.
Email has become one of the startup world’s favorite punching bags. People vent their inbox hatred across fuming blog posts, articles, and forums. I get it. At its worst, email can feel like a digital leash that never stops pulling. “After just one day away from our work inbox,” Bryan Lufkin wrote for BBC Capital, “we dread having to wade through the reams of new emails that await polite responses, thoughtful feedback, and half-hearted promises to ‘touch base’ or ‘loop back in.’”
However, in a cage match between emails and meetings, I’ll bet on email. Every time. It’s not because I don’t want to talk to people or engage with my employees, either. Instead, I want to provide thoughtful, considered feedback on my own time – which is almost always at the end of each day. That’s when I make a run for Inbox Zero.
5. Make every meeting count
Productive meetings have a clear goal. They should introduce new, useful, and actionable information, and they shouldn’t try to accomplish 11 separate things in one session. Following these rules is the best way to make sure every meeting achieves its purpose. Be ruthless with your guidelines and everyone will begin to expect a sharp, fast-paced gathering.
All the anti-meeting backlash can make it feel like any check-in is a complete waste of time. I believe that’s far from the truth. When meetings are quick and efficient, and they accomplish the stated goal, while aligning the participants, they can be incredibly valuable. After all, business is a team sport -- even if you’re not crossing the Continental Divide together.
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