Years ago I read an article about female faculty members who were frustrated that meetings at their university started late and ran long. The article was about gender bias at work. At the time I remember thinking, “How are poorly managed meetings a women’s issue? Aren’t they just the plight of workers everywhere?” Actually, they are both. The poorly planned meetings impeded the faculty members’ ability to leave work on time and get home to their families.
If you are a working daughter, trying to balance career with eldercare, and possibly childcare too, meetings matter. One of your most valuable resources, if not the most valuable, is time. So you need to spend that time wisely. And cubicle dwellers everywhere know meetings can be both a time suck and waste of time.
While starting five minutes late or running an extra 10 minutes might not seem like a big deal, those minutes add up. Say you have 14 meetings a week (the average middle manager spends 35% of her time in meetings) and each of those meetings runs over by 5 minutes. We know that it takes the average worker 23 minutes and 15 seconds to refocus when interrupted, so that means if 14 meetings start five minutes late, there is no way a worker, who prepared to go to a meeting on time then heard it was “pushed back” can get anything meaningful done while they are waiting for the meeting to start. So there’s an hour of wasted time right there. What could you, working daughter, do with an extra hour every week? Nap? Run errands? Visit your parents? Read a book? And then there is the time after the meeting. If the meeting runs late, leaving you 20 minutes rather than 30 before your next meeting, what will you really be able to accomplish? You can see how the wasted time adds up.
So it behooves you to learn how to run an effective meeting. And even if you are not the one calling and leading the meeting, you can still learn and encourage good meeting habits in an effort to make them more effective and efficient. Here’s what makes meetings work well:
- Lose the table and chairs. Standing only meetings have proven to be more efficient and more effective. Not only are people less inclined to linger in a meeting when they are on their feet, they are more likely to be engaged and creative while standing up. If your meeting is with just one other participant, consider a walking meeting. Walking is another way to spark creativity. Plus, it helps you move and breathe fresh air – two things office workers never do enough of.
- Distribute the agenda in advance. Most of the meetings I attend are mysterious. I don’t see the agenda until I get there. That’s just not smart. Distribute your agenda in advance (or ask for the agenda if you are a participant) so that all meeting attendees can come prepared to get work done. Don’t be that meeting leader who uses precious meeting time to discuss what the meeting will be about. And an added bonus: often when you distribute the agenda in advance, some of the issues can be resolved before the meeting.
- Build in buffer time. Do you work in an environment where meetings are scheduled back-to-back? News flash: people need to use the restroom from time to time. If your coworkers are booked solid from 10 a.m. straight through 4 p.m., your meetings will not start on time. Start your meeting at ten past the hour and give everyone a chance to check emails, refill their coffee mugs and take a bio break. Your attendees will be less distracted and their bladders will be grateful.
- Keep meetings to 50 minutes or less. For the reasons listed above, you should keep meetings under an hour. That will give meeting participants a break before their next meeting. Also, while I don’t have any statistics on this, having spent an estimated 25,000 hours of my life in meetings I can say with absolute confidence that nothing gets done in a meeting after the hour mark.
- Tell people their role in a meeting. It’s not enough to state the objective of a meeting at the outset – although that is a smart way to kick off a meeting. You also need to tell people why they are in the meeting. Are you briefing them? Are they the note taker? Do you want their ideas? Make sure each person in the room knows why they are there.
- Turn off Wi-Fi. I’m all for efficiency so I believe meeting facilitators should allow participants to take notes on laptops or tablets. However, if you don’t think those note takers are also checking their email or Facebook account, you are naïve. Limit tech interruptions by disabling Wi-Fi in the room. It would be great to ban cell phones in meetings too, but caregivers are on call. Instead ask for ringers and buzzers to be turned off and tell participants to keep their phones on the table – not in their hands.