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6 Ways to Make Meetings More Productive

03/04/2015 12:57 EST | Updated 05/04/2015 05:59 EDT

Picture this. You are sitting in a meeting. By the end, you leave shaking your head wondering, "What just happened?" and "What went wrong?" How could something with good intentions turn out to be a complete waste of time? You and the entire group leave frustrated because this is the first of many meetings throughout the week.

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Meeting times are increasing

According to Industry Week, a survey of 2000 managers said at least 30 per cent of their time spent in meetings, was a waste of time. In a similar survey by Office Team, a division of Robert Half International, 45 per cent of executives said employees would be more productive if meetings were banned for at least one day a week.

Have we lost touch with the purpose of a meeting? According to Robert Posen, author of Extreme Productivity, we need to spend more time avoiding meeting and have better filters. For middle managers, it is estimated that meetings take up about 35 per cent of the workday. For top executives, it is as high as 60 per cent of the day.

When is it OK to have a meeting?

The reasons to hold a meeting are:

1. Build Relationships: If you need to establish a personal relationship with someone outside your company like a new customer, partner or influencer, then call a meeting.

2. Engage People: If you want to engage people in a lively debate, then face-to-face dialogue is the most effective way to arrive at an outcome.

3. Action Plan: Meetings should always result in an action plan. At the end of each meeting, attendees are assigned responsibility for specific tasks and decisions. Steve Jobs was known to assign tasks to a D.R.I. (Directly Responsible Individual) for accountability.

Companies that get things done find creative ways to make meetings more productive.

Here are 6 strategies your company can use to get more done.

1. Set a clear agenda with a purpose -- Set an agenda ahead of time and outline what attendees will be discussing. If background materials are required, they should be sent at least one day in advance. Make it a company wide practice to skip meetings if the agenda and background materials are not sent early.

2. Assign a note-taker for handwritten notes -- If attendees know a note taker is transcribing meeting notes, then everyone can focus on discussing and debating important issues. No need to remember important facts and outcomes. Notes can also be sent sent to those who miss a meeting.

A study by Pam A. Mueller and Daniel M. Oppenheimer published in Psychological Science (Journal of the Association for Psychological Science) wanted to know if a hand written note taking was better than on a laptop. The researchers compared notes taken on a laptop and by hand and found that recalling facts was equal. However, people who took notes performed significantly better in conceptual recall than those who took notes using a laptop. The longhand note takers seem to engage in processing and selective take note-taking for concepts. For conceptual ideas, note takes had much better recall even after one week compared to those associated with laptops.

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3. Schedule 15-minute meetings - We have all attended meetings that went much longer than expected. According to Jason Womack, author of Your Best Just Got Better, 15 minutes represents about 1 percent of your day. The expression, "work expands to the time you schedule it", rings true for meetings. The company Percolate takes their meeting time seriously. In a company blog post, they say, "People will find ways to fill what ever amount of time the meeting was scheduled for, so don't schedule more time than you need." If you need to extend the meeting, then the group can come to a consensus then and there.

4. Set a meeting timer -- One of the best ways to be accountable during a meeting is to set a time limit. The company, 37 Signals, believes that meetings are toxic to productivity. They argue meetings focus on words and abstract concepts instead of concrete real things. If a meeting must happen, then use a timer. When the timer rings, the meeting is over. Period. The benefit of using a timer has been traced to creative surges due to constraints around deadlines. If meeting attendees are aware of a deadline, they become aware of the need to perform within the allotted time.

5. Check computers and phones at the door -- If people are checking email, working on something, or using a computer or phone, then they probably should not be in the meeting. Being present helps people arrive at better outcomes if everyone is one the same page. If someone is doing something else, ask him or her to stop and pay attention to the current task on the agenda.

6. Have a standing meeting -- Standing meetings are popular for teams that have status updates. The logic behind a standing meeting is that the longer you stand, the more uncomfortable it gets. In a study, published in Social Psychological and Personality Science, Andrew Knight and Markus Baer discovered that standing teams are more excited, fired up and less protective of their ideas compared to those who sit. The quality of information sharing improves based on the configuration of the physical space. Knight encourages companies to experiment with their office space by removing chairs and adding white boards to encourage brainstorming and collaboration. Another option is walking meetings as described in this short TED talk by Nilofer Merchant.

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