The Weekly Meeting: Necessary—Or Evil?

Some businesses can't function without a weekly staff meeting, while other offices are overscheduled. Here's how to find the balance.

The weekly meeting is a staple in many offices. It’s the way new managers learn to lead teams. But is it worthwhile? Weekly meetings have their defenders and haters. Here are three arguments for and against them, and how to manage them if they’re bound to happen anyway.

The Case for the Weekly Meeting

Meetings ensure communication. Every team has items that must be discussed. Standing meetings ensure there’s a time and place. Jenni Levy, a Bethlehem, Pennsylvania doctor, instituted a regular meeting when she was the lead physician in a three-physician practice. “I realized that staff was approaching me at random times with questions about workflow and other issues and I was giving them off-the-cuff answers, because I was always in the middle of something,” she says. Or, just as bad, “they didn’t ask, because I was busy, which caused different and still predictable problems.” So she created a weekly staff lunch (the docs bought). She was able to respond in a “more thoughtful and skilled manner because that was my only responsibility at that time.”

Meetings bring everyone to the table. These days, many teams have virtual members. Since you won’t bump into these people in the hallway, a recurring meeting ensures cohesion. Melanie Nelson recently started her own company after more than a decade in biotech management. “We did a lot of work with contractors who weren’t always on site,” she says. Having a once-a-week meeting meant that decisions got made. “If you need more than three people to make a decision, the only way to get that to happen is in a standing meeting,” she says. People are busy, and sometimes Nelson would assure herself when she couldn’t schedule a meeting with someone in a different department that, “He will show up on Wednesday morning!”

They prevent disasters. “People have multiple projects,” Nelson says. “I’ve never worked in a place where people get to focus on just one project.” Without the regular deadline of a recurring meeting, people forget things, because “people are human.” In situations with standing meetings, she’s never lost more than a week. Without it? “We lost two months on a project once,” she says. The team member in question hit a political snag he couldn’t resolve. It wasn’t easy to bring up, and he never had to. That turned out to be a problem.

The Case Against the Weekly Meeting

If recurring meetings have upsides, they have their drawbacks, too.

People have too many of them. Precisely because people work on multiple projects, and sit on multiple committees, their schedules become so cluttered with recurring meetings that there’s no time to actually work. I’ve had hundreds of people keep track of their time for me over the years, and I’m no longer surprised to see time logs with seven or eight hours of meetings per day. A woman once told me she analyzed her schedule and found that in any given month, she was booked for 100 hours of recurring meetings before she even got a chance to think about what she wanted to do with her time--a month is approximately 160 working hours. In these cases, any focused work or independent thinking must happen at night or during the weekends. Since recurring meetings don’t have to earn a place on the calendar, there’s little check on their proliferation.

Meetings have an opportunity cost. Meetings obviously take time, but the problem isn’t just the meeting itself. There are transaction costs as well. Sticking a 10 a.m. meeting into an otherwise clear morning means people won’t start projects beforehand that require concentrated blocks of time. When people return from meetings, they go through a transition cycle of checking email, favorite websites, and peeking at social media. (Please see “The seemingly harmless habit killing your productivity”) This time adds up, and time could always be spent on other tasks like finding new clients and pondering new efficiencies.

Recurring meetings shouldn’t be necessary. You’re generally checking to make sure everyone is still doing her job. But in high-functioning teams, this goes without saying. Nelson reports that she was always trying to kill recurring meetings. “Any time I could kill one I was always really happy,” she says. People would show up and find there was nothing new to talk about. “Everybody was communicating really well outside the meeting,” she says. With projects moving along, her immediate thought was that everyone should have that time back. Unfortunately, many managers never reach that conclusion, and let meetings limp along, zombie-like, sucking the life out of people’s schedules.

How to Manage Recurring Meetings If They’re Inevitable

Whatever you think of the recurring meeting question, there are ways to conduct them better.

Meetings need to be well managed. “Meetings have to start, move through a recognizable agenda, and they have to end,” says Levy. “All three parts need to be clearly delineated. The agenda should include an agreement or clear communication about the goal of each discussion. Are you making this decision here? Are we providing information for the person who will make the decision? How will the decision be made and communicated? What’s the next step? The facilitator needs to be able and willing to move discussion forward when it’s circular and manage conflict when--not if--it appears.”

They need to be short. One manager tells me she keeps the troops happy by blocking off 90 minutes, but keeping the meeting to 30 minutes more often than not. It’s not always possible to do, “but if we can, it gives people an hour of blocked-off time that they have to work on projects,” she says. Found time is always a plus.

They shouldn’t occupy peak hours. While Monday morning is popular, it’s not ideal. People are more focused toward the beginning of the week than the end of the week. Figuring out your weekly plan on Monday means you’re not executing it on Monday. Since most people slack off by Friday, that means you’ve only got three full days to work with. Scheduling a weekly meeting for late Thursday or on Friday, though, means you can look ahead to the next week during times that are often lost anyway. You cut the opportunity cost, and if you can’t cut the meeting, that’s the next best thing.

[Image: Flickr user Sebastiaan ter Burg]

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