Why you need to ban meetings if you want to get anything done

Barnaby Lashbrooke discusses how shying away from meetings can be a tonic for your small business.

Around 95 per cent of meetings are completely pointless but there’s a general consensus that meetings must, nevertheless, be had. Perhaps we’ve just never stopped to question their necessity.

Our love-hate relationship with The Meeting is summarised best by that oft-muttered line that has become an office adage: ‘I had a day full of meetings, so I got nothing done.’

It’s why it is not unusual in trendy workplaces to see people in having quick ‘stand up’ meetings while passing around a conch, or an equivalent.

Whatever your views on stand up sessions, it is important to question whether longer meetings are really needed. A survey by Office Broker finds the average office worker spends 16 hours a week in meetings – that’s two whole days of your working week. It also finds that four hours of that is seen as a total waste of time.

By my calculations, that means employers are losing in incredible 23.5 days a year per staff member, on useless meetings, almost as many days per person as is taken in annual leave.

And I’d argue that people are massively understating those wasted hours, for several reasons:

1. Some enjoy the downtime that meetings can bring – they can be a welcome break from your screen

2. Meetings foster a sense of ‘togetherness’ and if you’re sitting in front of a computer all day you might as well just work from home.

Getting the office culture right

But there are better ways to achieve the above that don’t involve hour-long meetings. Tweaking your office culture, encouraging people to take screen breaks, or chat to colleagues around them or over a cup of tea without feeling guilty about taking a short break is something employers must encourage.

As for fostering ‘togetherness’, assign an office social secretary, and put some fun stuff in the diary. With the time you’re saving by banning meetings, you can probably afford to shut the office at 3pm once a quarter to go bowling, clay pigeon shooting or put some money behind the bar at your local pub.

It’s for this reason why I asked everyone who works for me if they’d be up for a blanket ban on meetings. The answer is yes, except for urgent meetings to discuss how to deal with a sensitive or unprecedented situation, and HR meetings.

There is a consensus that time is better spent doing something rather than talking about how it’s to be done. And if you have a succession of meetings in one day, you inevitably forget all of the good intentions and action points discussed in the first.

And, finally, many of our staff work from home, so were being unfairly excluded from most discussions. Skyping someone in is well and good, but that rarely happens when you’re diving into meetings spontaneously.

The other exception to that blanket ban is brainstorming. Sometimes, the collective brainpower of your team can result in fantastic ideas, but only if the session is well chaired.

Google’s Eric Schmidt and Jonathan Rosenberg, in their book How Google Works suggest that a meeting, including brainstorming sessions, should have a leader that must ‘call the meeting, ensure that the content is good, set the objectives, determine the participants, and share the agenda (if possible) at least 24 hours in advance’.

Keep focused with ‘nuggets’

Indeed, structure is right and proper but I’ve also found the best way to keep on track is work to a time deadline and use what I call ‘nuggets’. These are research-based facts that you make a key focus of the session to keep people on track.

For example, I figured out that if we brought customers on by offering clients a choice in their virtual assistant, they were much more likely to spend more and stay a client for longer, accelerating our growth by 200 per cent.

I went into the meeting, stuck this fact up on the wall and, before we started brainstorming, I made sure everyone in the room had seen it. It meant we all knew why we were there and what the prize was if we made this work. People seemed more motivated to share their best ideas.

It also meant we didn’t veer from the subject, as we had something to refer back to and keep us focused.

For brainstorms, we use conferencing technology to bring our remote workers in but we make sure they are invited to contribute by the chairperson – as it can be much harder to cut in when there’s a slight delay, and when people can’t see your body language clearly showing you are itching to have your say.

My tried and tested tips for brainstorming are:

  • Don’t have too many people in the room – four to six is enough
  • Set a time limit for the session – 25 minutes is ample
  • Come armed with a ‘nugget’: print it out, stick in on the wall, and keep referring back it
  • Pick one person to chair the brainstorm, keep everyone on topic, invite remote participants to speak, and watch the clock.

Barnaby Lashbrooke is founder of virtual assistant platform Time etc.

Further reading on meetings

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