Improving the efficiencies of meetings

All companies have meetings. From self-employed entrepreneurs to multinational companies, no one can work without more or less frequent meetings: project planning, meetings with suppliers, client meetings, weekly updates of work teams, etc.. And very rarely this practice is questioned. If ever, alternatives are sought in the following cases:

  1. Participants live too far away to invite everyone in person. In this case video-conferences are usually the alternative of choice. Only if the time difference completely prevents the virtual meeting, alternatives come into play.
  2. The availability of meeting rooms does not match the number of meetings planned. This situations usually does not result into less meetings, but rather into meetings at alternative places (such as the cafeteria, the company kitchen, or even the corridor). Again alternatives are seldom used.

But are meetings that not doing them should always be the last resort? How can meetings be improved to ensure the highest effectiveness and use of resources both for the company and the individual worker?

The cost of meetings

Meetings are not for free. Every meeting, even those taking place within the company with only company employees from the same location present, involves a cost which is rarely quantified. These costs include, but are not limited to:

  • Meeting location: in the case of SMEs or companies located within a business cebter, it is easy to know this number, as the meeting room is most probably rented. Either as part of the general company floor, or from the business center provider itself. However, even if the company has its own facilities, these represent direct costs (per square meter) as well as opportunity costs, since these square meters are not available for other offices or uses. Add light and heating system even for idle times and you have the total cost of availability.
  • Time use: a meeting involving 5 people for one hour has in fact not used 1 hour, but 5. Calculating the hourly wages of each employee and adding up these hourly wages for the one hour, you get the total cost of time availability.
  • Opportunity costs: In addition to being an hour at the meeting, the participants have not been able to work on their own projects. Therefore, we should also add the costs for not advancing on the daily work for each employee. If this results in overtime for the workers, it is easy to calculate. Otherwise it might be possible to calculate the delay in other tasks.

The above shows very clearly that a meeting to “let’s talk about it” entails more costs than usually thought about. Of course, meetings also are bonding opportunities, but in many cases they are poorly organized and thus result in a waste of time for employees and a loss of resources for the company. If your company has seen complaints about the lack of meeting rooms while the ratio of meeting room per number of employees is above 1/50, then you might want to consider the following ideas.

Guidelines to make the most of meetings

The above does not mean that all meetings are useless. De facto, they can be an excellent tool to advance projects and increase the motivation of those involved. But for the meetings to have a positive effect instead of resulting in a decreased productivity, it is necessary to re-evaluate how this time is used. Important note: These strategies cannot be imposed from one day to another. The company will have to invest into a clear meeting policy and communicate/explain the changes and the reasons behind it to its employees.

  • Purpose of the meeting. It is not enough to name the meeting (weekly department meeting). It is just as important to define exactly the reason of the meeting as well as the expectations from participants. Is it a purely informational meeting? (Can it be replaced by a detailed email?) Are there different proposals to be discussed? (Be sure to send around the proposals before the meeting.) Does the meeting serve to define some kind of strategy? Are there responsibilities to be assigned for a new project? Each participant has to be informed before the meeting about what is expected from her/him.
  • Participants. An increased number of participants usually extends the meeting. Refrain from inviting people just for their name, as usually everybody needs time to express themselves in the meeting. It is therefore important to first decide who needs to be present and who can be informed about the outcome per email afterwards.  Additionally there might be people that can give input beforehand without having to be present at the meeting.
  • Agenda and schedule. The agenda should always include the start time and, more importantly, the closing time of the meeting. A restricted timetable ensures that everybody keeps focussed on the issue at hand. In addition, the agenda must include all the topics which will be discussed. The meeting organizer will monitor that the meeting is not diverted to other fields.
  • Preliminary information. Before the meeting all relevant information needs to be sent to the participants. It is imperative that everyone reads the documentation, regardless of company hierarchy. If somebody is not able to read everything s/he should not hold up the meeting, but rather request a sum-up per email afterwards. In any case, there should be a written summary distributed.
  • Summary of the meeting. The written summary of the meeting will be sent to all participants and all stakeholders who were not invited because their presence was not absolutely necessary. The summary should include the next steps / responsibilities that were decided at the meeting.
  • If the meeting can be replaced by written information, the meeting should not take place. (Exception: important decisions that need to be delivered personally.) For the latter is important that the company implements a culture of actually reading emails (where needed a workshop for email management for all employees might be needed. This will save lots of time in the future).

In turning meetings into concise and efficient decision forums, it will take less time and resources to manage them. And a more efficient company automatically uses less natural resources, both in energy or office material.

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