Your roadmap to getting the most out of meetings

Oliver Stohlmann’s Corporate Survival Hacks series draws on his experiences of working in local, regional and global life science communications to offer some little tips for enjoying a big business career. In this post he reinforces good meeting practices to ensure productivity, avoid waste of time and resources and empower everyone to meet the desired business outcomes.

Are you back to your corporation’s intense agenda? With the business year in full swing, the time we typically spend in the meeting room, audio or video calls is mindboggling. While some are necessary, others aren’t and should be replaced by alternative methods of trading information and getting to decisions.

However, for those strictly necessary gatherings here are some simple recommendations to get the most out of your business meetings without exhausting participants or, even worse, the entire organisation. Imagine just how much more you could get done – and the quality of life you could enjoy – if you didn’t lose as much productive time to badly prepared, poorly conducted or redundant meetings!

Before the meeting

First, establish clear meeting objectives. What do you want to accomplish: make decisions? Share information? Brainstorm ideas? Inspire participants? If you’re not the host but have been invited, request those objectives from the meeting organiser.

Decide whether a group meeting is the best way to achieve these objectives. If not, replace it with a short email, a 1:1 call with just the person concerned, or another appropriate format.

Schedule wisely

Only invite essential attendees required to achieve the meeting objectives. If any invitees are optional, let them know – or better: don’t invite them in the first place.

Instead of a full-hour meeting or call, consider 30 or 45 minutes to create focus and allow people time to refresh, prepare or simply get a little work done between their many commitments. When you’re back to in-person meetings in the office, consider a standing or walking session to enhance the conversation, focus and outcomes through energising activity. For virtual meetings, make sure to respect non-business hours for colleagues based in other time zones.

Create a relevant agenda and provide it to attendees at least 24 hours in advance. Make roles and responsibilities clear. Be specific and allocate adequate time for information sharing and decision making. Mix up formats – open discussion, slides, questions and answers, interactive exercises – to keep participants engaged.

If people need to prepare, make that clear and send pre-reading materials at least three days in advance. Cancel recurring meetings if you have nothing current or new to discuss.

During the meeting

As the facilitator, show up, start and end sessions on time. I would not make special accommodations for late-joiners – for instance, by helping them catch up by summarising what happened so far – as this tends to incentivise and perpetuate lack of discipline.

Make introductions and, for everyone’s clarity, review the meeting purpose, agenda and expected outcome(s). Then manage the session flow to time and to stay focused on the tasks. Encourage participation from everyone as required. During long meetings, take breaks every 60-90 minutes to rejuvenate the discussion.

If only a subset of attendees needs to discuss a particular topic, have a breakout separate from the main meeting. End the meeting with a summary of decisions made, next steps and action items, including who is accountable for them and the deadlines.

As a participant, arrive on time, too. Be concise when you talk and leave time for others to contribute. Listen deeply, stay present and pay attention to the discussion – not an electronic device. Save sidebar conversations for after the meeting. Leave the room when you have to attend to a call or other urgent business.

Post-meeting actions

Following the meeting, as the host, provide action items to participants. There may be assemblies requiring more comprehensive minutes or detailed documentation. However, where possible I prefer to keep post-meeting materials focused on those must-know decisions and actions people need to focus on. Inflated minutes can easily obscure what’s really relevant and attendees may not screen the summary at all or, at least, those critical points won’t jump out at them.

Later on, make sure action items are tracked and completed against the agreed timeline. Ask participants for feedback on how to improve your meetings and consider some of these ideas for your next meeting.

Meet smart – be productive

When asked about meetings in their organisations, managers and employees alike commonly respond that they are invited to too many and most are a waste of time as they achieve little or nothing. This is a serious indictment given that many corporate employees spend a big portion of their working lives in meetings. It infers that large amounts of time and money are wasted on activities that are not necessary.

If you consider, for example, a weekly one-hour Monday morning check-in call with a team of 30, you’re talking around 1,500 working hours invested per year. A monthly two-day leadership retreat of 15 participants easily consumes well over 3,000 hours annually of highly paid senior executive time. These and many further investments may be creating tremendous value. However, you want to reflect on this from time to time to be sure that’s the case and that all these sessions are prepared and conducted for strong productivity and output.

As a general rule, if we only hold meetings that are necessary with just the contributors it takes, and ensure these are properly prepared and effectively led, this will bring out the best in participants, produce high-quality results and save employees and the organisation massive time to drive actual business goals beyond the meeting room.

• Establish clear meeting objectives
• Decide the best format to achieve the objectives
• Invite essential attendees only
• Consider a 30- or 45-minute meeting instead of an hour
• Consider a standing or walking session
• Respect non-business hours for colleagues in other time zones
• Share an agenda at least one day in advance, three days for any pre-reading
• Mix up formats to keep participants engaged
• Cancel recurring meetings if nothing new to discuss
• As the facilitator, arrive, start and end on time
• Review meeting purpose, agenda and expected outcome(s)
• Manage session flow to stay focused on the task
• Encourage participation from everyone
• During long meetings, take breaks every 60-90 minutes
• If only a subset of attendees needs to discuss, have a separate breakout
• Summarise decisions, next steps, action items and accountabilities
• As a participant, be concise when you talk
• Listen deeply, stay present and pay attention
• Leave the room when you have to attend to other urgent business
• After the meeting, provide action items
• Make sure actions are tracked and completed
• Ask for feedback and consider improvements for your next meeting

About the author

Oliver Stohlmann is a communications leader with more than 20 years’ experience of working at local, regional and global levels for several of the world’s premier life-science corporations. Most recently he was Johnson & Johnson’s global head of external innovation communication.