When you're on your deathbed, you're never going to say you wish you'd attended more meetings. But at work, meetings are a necessary evil. Sometimes the only way to make a decision or convey information is to get people together to talk. But too many organizations suffer from meeting-itis: poorly-run and inefficient meetings that go on too long, happen too often and include more attendees than need to be there. When you calculate the true cost in person hours, you quickly see how meetings waste more time than they save. An hour-long meeting with 10 attendees actually costs an organization 10 person hours, an entire workday worth of productivity.
Keeping meetings brief, small, and productive isn't easy. But a few companies use unconventional techniques to make it work.
At Google, large meetings stay on track with the help of a four-foot-tall timer. There, meeting agendas are highly structured and allocate a certain amount of time to each topic. The timer is a simple program running on a computer and projected onto the wall so it's visible to all. It counts down the amount of time left for a particular agenda item or the entire meeting.
At a company in Los Angeles where meetings often ran too long, one team member suggested a radical way to solve the problem: get rid of all the chairs in the conference room. Instead, meeting attendees had to stand the whole time—and as a result, they kept conversations brief and to the point.
Some meetings go too long because attendees are distracted, checking their BlackBerries or using a laptop. Design firm Adaptive Path runs what they call "topless" meetings, where attendees check their handheld devices and laptops at the door, so that the agenda is everyone's singular focus.
The key to an efficient meeting is a strong leader. Their job is to keep things on track, not be afraid to cut off long-winded discussions, and be willing to end things early once the business is done. Brief and well-run meetings create an organizational culture of respect for everyone's time.
If you're an attendee and not the meeting leader, there's less you can do to cure meeting-itis, but here are some pointless meeting survival tips. First, ask for an agenda beforehand and confirm that you absolutely must attend. Second, carry a small paper notebook with you to the meeting. A former coworker of mine, who says she spends way too much time in pointless meetings, zones out by reviewing lists she keeps in her notebook and jotting down ideas that are unrelated work. At least that way you made a pointless meeting somewhat productive.
Last week: Work Smart: How to Write a To-Do List