Meetings are a fact of working life, a necessary evil. But when they’re badly managed, they waste time, money and place an even greater burden on already stressed employees


We’ve all been there: stuck in the interminable purgatory of a badly organised meeting, where the speakers ramble seemingly at random from one barely relevant topic to the next. All you can think about is that you’re going to have to work late, thanks to this pointless, mind-numbing exercise (if you manage to stay awake).

Don’, a website dedicated to the topic, encourages the public to post their biggest gripes, and some of the comments are telling: ‘You know a meeting is boring as hell when you tweet a picture of your granola bar’; ‘My strategy for this conference call is to play dead’; and ‘Let’s spend countless hours preparing for a meeting that will be delayed, cancelled or misrepresented.’

Our increasingly packed schedules mean that these gatherings need to earn their place in our diary. A global Microsoft survey states that people spend an average of 5.6 hours a week in meetings, and 69% feel that these gatherings aren’t productive.

‘The workforce has an addiction to meetings,’ says Forbes columnist Ilya Pozen. ‘As a manager and business owner, this doesn’t make much sense to me. Meetings are an extremely expensive waste of time, especially when the entire staff is involved in something that runs for more than two hours.’

On the other end, a concise, focused meeting can address issues that allow productivity to move forward and give participants a positive buzz.

‘Meetings encourage positive behaviour,’ says Johannesburg-based industrial psychologist Zurayda Shaik. ‘It is an opportunity for members of an organisation to engage others to discuss potential strategies, possible pitfalls, to rectify problems that may be occurring as well as encourage and reinforce organisational values.’ She adds that meetings play an enormous role in creating and supporting the culture of an organisation, particularly if it is going through a period of transition. ‘It is important to have communication sessions were information is filtered down to all staff members. This results in employees feeling a sense of value and ensuring greater alignment to the organisational culture.’


Luckily, it’s fairly easy to whip your meetings into shape and save everyone a lot of time and frustration. ‘Firstly make sure the meeting is absolutely necessary. It must have a clear purpose,’ says Johannesburg corporate coach Jacqui O’Bree. It sounds blindingly obvious, yet we’ve all been to meetings that seemed to lack a clear goal. Only resort to a meeting if an issue cannot be resolved via the communication mediums we have at our disposal, such as telephone or email.

It is also imperative that all who attend are given agendas beforehand, clearly detailing the goals of the meeting and any prep work required. These need to be in their inboxes well enough in advance that they are able to meet the requirements. ‘And make sure that you only invite people who absolutely need to be there,’ says O’Bree.

Once everyone is gathered, it’s the task of the meeting leader to make a statement that sets the tone for the meeting – preferably something positive – and reiterates the agenda. Meetings need a facilitator or chairperson to help keep it on topic, to work through the agenda and ensure that the goals of the meeting are achieved. A leader doesn’t necessarily dominate the meeting, but rather guides it, ensuring input and clarifying decisions. They need not be the most senior person at the gathering.


‘Make sure the meeting is absolutely necessary … only invite people who absolutely need to be there’


Avoid daydreaming by keeping participants engaged. ‘Ask for feedback, and if one person tends to dominate, make sure to ask others, by name, for their input,’ says O’Bree. If your meeting goes on for hours, nothing short of a poke with a cattle prod is going to keep everyone’s attention front and centre. ‘About 40 minutes is the ideal length for a meeting. Longer than an hour, and you’re going to have minds wandering,’ she says. If it’s going to be a marathon, be sure to take a break, and provide food and drinks so that participants are not distracted by thirst or hunger.

To streamline your meetings even further, why not try a standing meeting, sometimes referred to simply as a ‘stand-up’. The discomfort of standing means meetings are likely to be brief. This is great for routine status updates, or anything that doesn’t require more than 15 minutes of interaction. These meetings should have strict rules to be effective – no chitchat, mandatory attendance and absolutely no chairs. Even tables should be avoided (they’re too tempting to lean against or prop a laptop on).

Allen Bluedorn, a business professor at the University of Missouri, claims standing meetings are on average a third shorter than seated ones. The current trend towards this way of meeting can be traced to the growing use of Agile, an approach to software development that enshrines certain practices such as the stand-up.

Consultant Jason Yip of Australian software company ThoughtWorks, which employs the Agile approach, plays Bob Marley’s ‘Get Up, Stand Up’ at the same time every morning in anticipation of the company’s daily stand-up meeting. An extension of the stand-up is the walking meeting, which is taking off in the US.

With similar benefits to that of a stand-up, a walking meeting also has fresh air and a new environment, which is believed to focus the mind and boost creativity. The only drawback is that you can’t really have meetings with more than three people.

Another alternative to the traditional boardroom gathering is a social meeting where participants meet in a less formal environment outside the office, perhaps even after hours. Ideas and creative sparks are more likely to fly when participants are feeling relaxed and genial, though there is a greater danger that the meeting will stray off topic – which may not be a problem, depending on the goals of the gathering.

Social meetings can help people think differently, avoid office distractions, and there is new energy when off-site. They also establish a sense of camaraderie and fun, which can easily be lost in a pressured boardroom meeting.

You’re never going to look back on life and wish you’d attended more meetings. Plus, if you can find a way to avoid or shorten them, that means productive time is returned to the company.

By Rachel McGregor
Image: Gallo/GettyImages