The 30-minute meeting: Why shorter meetings can be more productive

Long meetings, and too many meetings, can be a source of employee dissatisfaction. Here's how to get more out of meetings in less time.

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In 2016, Daniel Russell, a former marketing consultant who created Attentiv, a time and meeting management platform, blogged about the toll that meetings took on organizations. After examining studies done on the topic, Russell found that, by far, staff meetings were the most common meeting type, followed by task force meetings, and information sharing meetings. The most common complaint about meetings was that they don't result in any decisions getting made. Other complaints were that meetings were disorganized or dominated by individuals. Russell also concluded that the average meeting costs an organization $338 in paid staff salary time. That's a lot for something many employees consider unproductive.

This meeting discontent has been known by organizations for years. Some companies have tried to do something about it by instituting the idea of "the 30-minute meeting." I saw this in action a couple of years ago, when I was consulting with a major West Coast utilities company.

The meetings that I was asked to attend concerned strategic planning for a smart energy grid. Central to these discussions were conversations about IT infrastructure and what needed to be re-architected, goals of the company and its stakeholders, and of course, regulatory issues and the overall regulatory climate.

All of these are meaty issues in themselves. They were difficult to discuss comprehensively in a 30-minute timeframe, but the company stuck to its meeting start and end times, using the clock like an egg timer. If we got into a complicated thicket of discussion during the meeting, the discussion was tabled and advised to continue offline—with a resolution being presented to our steering committee group at the next meeting. This meeting strategy worked rather well, because the culture of the company was such that every senior and middle manager in those meetings was personally interested in getting back out on the floor to solve the issues and the fires they were fighting that day. They bought into taking meeting "offline" times to resolve issues, and coming back to the next steering committee meeting with succinct summaries.

So what can managers do to make sure meetings run more smoothly and accomplish desired goals?

The first, and possibly most important step is to ensure beforehand that all meetings are planned and purposeful, so that participants leave with a feeling of accomplishment and purpose. Distribute an agenda several days in advance, and specifically list what you expect the meeting to accomplish. The meeting agenda should also list anyone who's presenting facts or recommendations in the meeting. This lets presenters know they should come prepared.

Second, it's important to acknowledge that there is such as thing as meeting fatigue. It seems that many companies already inherently recognize this. According to Russell's research review, 64% of meetings last more than an hour, with 39% of all meetings exceeding 90 minutes.

A simple approach for avoiding meeting fatigue would be to abolish all meetings over 30 minutes or even 60 minutes—but it can't be done.

For example, if your design team is meeting to architect a suite of applications and how these apps will interact with each other, or if your database or network team is meeting to re-architect IT infrastructure, the need to focus on and discuss the details of these projects cannot wrap up in 30 or 60 minutes.

Nevertheless, this doesn't change the fact that meeting participants begin to lose focus and mental acuity after 60 or 90 minutes of intense concentration.

SEE: Time management tips: How to create meetings that work (ZDNet)

In these longer meetings, it is advisable to take breaks of at least 30 minutes between 90-minute meeting sessions so that participants can stretch their legs, get back to their offices to catch up on emails and phone calls, and in general, just clear (and rest) their minds.

Meeting participants who are focused on the details of database, network and application design are are not likely to think about the engineering of "breaks" into long meetings—but their managers certainly should be.

The process can be started by instituting not-to-exceed 90 minutes meeting slots on company calendars—with longer meeting times granted only by exception.

Does this kind of forced meeting scheduling really help?

In 2011, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign conducted a study that showed that brief mental breaks from long tasks (like meetings) improves performance. The leader of the study, psychology professor Alejandro Lleras, called the phenomenon of mental exhaustion and losing focus during long and uninterrupted tasks "vigilance decrement."

"We propose that deactivating and reactivating your goals allows you to stay focused," he said. "From a practical standpoint, our research suggests that, when faced with long tasks (such as studying before a final exam or doing your taxes), it is best to impose brief breaks on yourself. Brief mental breaks will actually help you stay focused on your task!"

Survey results such as those researched by Russell appear to indicate that nothing has substantially changed about human behavior since the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign study—all the more reason for middle and senior managers to take steps to ensure that meetings of all durations are well orchestrated and scheduled for best results and optimal performance from participants.

Also see:
How to make meetings productive - not boring (ZDNet)
Tech leaders: Here are six ways to take charge of your time
5 styles of project collaboration and when to use them
Three reasons not to ignore one-on-one meetings in IT

About Mary Shacklett

Mary E. Shacklett is president of Transworld Data, a technology research and market development firm. Prior to founding the company, Mary was Senior Vice President of Marketing and Technology at TCCU, Inc., a financial services firm; Vice President o...

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