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Managers, make your meetings more productive by changing the physical layout

Still having long and pointless meetings? Think about your physical setup.

Managers, make your meetings more productive by changing the physical layout
[Photo: nortonrsx/iStock]

People love to complain about meetings. They’re often pointless, and attendees feel like there is always more important work they can do in its place. 71% of senior managers believe that meetings are unproductive and inefficient, according to a survey from Harvard Business Review. Another study from the University of Nebraska at Omaha found that Americans waste $37 billion a year attending meetings.

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But maybe part of the problem isn’t the meetings themselves, but the physical environment and the social norms we’ve constructed around them. For instance, most conference rooms today are anchored by a long table and rolling chairs for a dozen people. This setup doesn’t exactly invite people to get comfortable and creative. It signals the expectation to comply and follow along. The words and phrases we use to describe meetings also imply sedentary behavior and passivity. “I’d like to sit down with you and talk about this.” “We’re going to sit here until we figure out a solution.” “Grab a seat and let’s get started.”

So if you’ve experimented with every agenda format imaginable and your meetings are still unproductive, consider rethinking your physical meeting space and layout. Here are some ideas that you might want to try.

1. Ditch the standard table-and-chairs setup

Apple CEO Tim Cook said on the David Rubenstein show that 100% of employees would receive standing desks to help promote a healthier lifestyle. This policy is a significant first step, but this thinking needs to extend beyond the cubicle farm and into the conference room environment. Integrating choice and movement into every office space will help people see their options differently and break the long-ingrained habit of sitting. Research supports this. A 2014 study shows that meetings where participants stood up generated a greater sense of excitement about the work than meetings where participants sat down.

2. Don’t stick to one location

When you use same space for every team gathering, you’ll notice that everyone tends to get into “default” meeting mode. Think about it like doing the same workout day in and day out. You might see progress at the beginning, but at some point, you plateau. Now, there are some meetings where being on autopilot isn’t necessarily a bad thing (like a routine update meeting), but when you need your team to solve hard problems, debate complex issues, or develop a fast, thoughtful solution to a client emergency, you need people to think outside the box and get off autopilot. I’d encourage that you either move your meetings elsewhere or establish a “war room” that carries the vibe of action and planning. Going outside might also help your team cultivate new ideas and perspective. When you need to have sensitive conversations, consider going offsite. You’ll be more likely to have an honest dialogue.

3. Cut meetings in half (and then in half again)

Many of you probably think of the day in 30- or 60-minute blocks. As a result, you overestimate how much time you need to achieve the meeting objectives. Challenge the “hour-long” meeting. For status meetings or check-ins, block just 15 minutes to run through the highlights (and encourage people to stand). For more strategic meetings, start by stating the top two or three objectives and use a whiteboard to capture progress. Schedule for no more than 45 minutes for this meeting, and leave a 15-minute buffer for colleagues to make it to their next meeting on time.

4. Encourage colleagues to get up and move around

Research shows that 10 minutes is all it takes to increase mental focus, and another study found 71% of employees reported feeling more focused when they reduce their sitting time by one hour. Encourage your people to get up and move during meetings, whether it’s a long brainstorm or a recap of last quarter’s results. For instance, here at Ergotron, we augment our existing conference room setup with height adjustable furniture, and it’s “normal” in our office for a person to sit or stand at any given point during a meeting.

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Take your meeting on the go with a walking meeting, or gather your team together for a quick standing huddle to run through priorities for the week. When they walk away from their desks, employees are forced to leave their technology (and distraction) behind, and they’ll be in a better state to focus on the discussion at hand.

5. Make sure that you implement those changes yourself

Ultimately, employees won’t feel empowered to change their behavior in a meeting if their boss isn’t practicing what they preach. To reap the benefits, you need to lead by example. If you’re in the position to do so, create company policies that support an active workday, like a scheduled movement break during long meetings. When you walk into a meeting, remain on your feet. When you’re running a meeting, explicitly tell people that they should be free to stand up and move (and acknowledge those that do at the end).

Meetings are an inevitable aspect of teamwork. To move a project forward, you need to communicate regularly and work through problems together. But there is no need to make everyone miserable by sticking to a physical layout that doesn’t work. By breaking away from that, you might find that your meetings can be efficient and productive after all.


David Denham is the VP of global marketing at Ergotron. 

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