CXO

10 ways to eliminate or reduce time wasted in unnecessary meetings

​Meetings are a way of life in company culture, but not all of them are necessary. Learn some methods to ensure you make the best use of your time on company hours.

Company meetings can be helpful to communicate ideas, establish project goals, and identify responsibilities, but they can also be a huge drain on your productivity if misused. This is especially problematic in larger companies.

It's understandable why there is a strong corporate mindset to "get everyone in a room" (whether physical or virtual), but a lot of time can end up wasted if the appropriate resources aren't present, unnecessary attendees are invited, or the discussion is inadequate or goes awry. As a hint: You can tell people's attention spans are suffering if they drag out their phones or ask questions, which need repeating.

SEE: Leadership spotlight: How to make meetings worthwhile (Tech Pro Reseach)

I'm opposed to unnecessary meetings because I work in IT where every moment of the day counts. I don't have a lot of spare time, and I need to make the most out of the hours I put in.

I've also observed (from a cynical standpoint I admit) that more and more people seem averse to reading and writing and consider a face-to-face discussion or phone call a preferable alternative.

Lastly, the concept of a meeting fits poorly into the global society we're slowing merging with, such that we often have coworkers and contacts spread around the globe, making it difficult to conduct a meeting during a timeframe appropriate for all.

Here are ten ways I've saved my sanity by avoiding meetings, which either don't need to happen or don't need to involve me.

1. Promote a minimalist schedule

Many companies send out generic meeting invites for events or discussions that may not be relevant to every proposed attendee. For instance, a recurring problem incident analysis or upcoming change review, which may have no bearing upon your responsibilities or workload, or perhaps even an obscure holiday celebration or social activity, which may not hold interest for you, or which you might not attend.

Carefully vet out the details of any meeting invite and if it's not related to you or your position, or you're not going to be present anyway, just decline it.

2. Schedule work activities on your calendar

If you have important work coming up, book an appointment on your own calendar to finish it. This reduces your availability for potentially irrelevant meetings and also ensures you dedicate blocks of time to work on your commitments and deliverables.

However, I'm not advocating that you create fake meetings just to fill up your schedule so your availability is limited, but instead, prioritize what needs to get done on which day by assigning your own time to cover it.

3. Determine your role in the meeting

Find out the roles and responsibilities of the meeting before accepting. Are you a critical participant whose input is needed, or are you someone being invited just in case?

If the former, you probably need to participate. If the latter, I advise you to decline and inform the inviter that you're available as needed during the meeting for any questions which may arise but that you need to attend to other priorities. Suggest that they use email or instant messaging to loop you in as needed where such situations may occur.

Which brings me to my next point...

4. Leverage technology

In my view, many better alternatives for sharing information other than meetings exist. There are collaborative websites like G Suite and Office 365, project management sites like Trello and Rally, and options such as email or instant messaging to communicate details. These all work well with the global society concept I mentioned above.

So many potential meetings have been proposed to me, which could simply have been conducted by an email and a follow-up reply. My mantra is if the issue can be addressed via a three-minute email exchange, skip the thirty-minute meeting and save the extra time. I certainly don't mind reading or typing if it makes me more efficient.

There's also the fact that in general face-to-face or phone meetings leave no written record so one must either take notes or rely upon a sharp memory to retain the details. The beauty of using technology is that ideas, strategies, assigned tasks, and other important content are saved by default. In my view, the only reason for a phone call is when sharing confidential information.

SEE: Cost comparison tool: Google Apps vs. Office 365 (Tech Pro Research)

5. Delegate, delegate, delegate

If possible, find out if you can assign someone else to attend the meeting and request them to do so. This doesn't necessarily have to be an underhanded dodging-the-bullet move; it might be better for a new hire to attend to learn more about their role, or perhaps a person with better qualifications (no offense) than you who might be a better representative.

6. Get rid of recurring meetings with a poor track record

I've often been invited to recurring meetings of low value, which repeat every few days or on a weekly basis. In many cases, these meetings either didn't happen due to staff unavailability or other priorities taking precedence.

If meetings aren't actually happening at least half of the time—or don't yield beneficial results—I delete them. There's no point in showing up or getting on a conference bridge if the existence of the meeting—or it's benefits—remains uncertain. If they're important, someone will reschedule them.

7. Just say no

It may sound absurd, or it may seem like the simplest solution, but where possible decline unnecessary meetings and explain why. Don't make a rude confrontation, rather issue a polite clarification as to the reasoning behind your refusal to attend.

For instance, I once experienced some confusion with a problem ticket web interface used by an organization I worked for, and the site administrator wanted a thirty-minute phone call to review. "That's all right, I'll read the help file," I said. The help file listed the fields, which needed to be filled out, and I resolved the issue on my own. Simple and easy.

As a tech journalist, I often receive requests for meetings or conference calls to discuss potential article material. I always inform the requester that email chats work better since I can copy and paste replies, there is no confusion on my part when taking notes, this fits my freelance writing schedule whereby I often work during early mornings, lunch, or late at night, and there is no need to transcribe said notes into an electronic format. In short, it's simpler and easier, and I genuinely believe works best for all involved.

Now, these seven tips explained how to get out of meetings with little or no value. The next three can help streamline the meetings you do attend in order to preserve your productivity.

SEE: Smart office technology: What's working, what's failing, and what users want out of it (Tech Pro Research)

8. Prepare or request discussion topics/ideas in advance

Avoid going into meetings blindly with no clear agenda or specifics. Each meeting should present a list of objectives and concepts (even the ones geared towards identifying said objectives and concepts.) in order to prevent the meeting from going off-course. Speak up to ensure this happens.

Avoid "Scope creep." Meaning, if the concept rears its head, and the meeting suddenly threatens to expand, recommend to reserve the topic for another meeting. I realize the purpose here is to avoid unnecessary meetings, so, determine just how necessary the details of the scope creep are to see if it merits further discussion.

9. Stick to the schedule

Meetings which run over their allotted timeframe are often poorly conducted and not curtailed by the above tips I've discussed. If the discussion will take half an hour, limit it to half an hour. If it needs an hour (or might), book the full hour. Regardless, ensure that the meeting starts and ends on time, no matter what.

Conversely, avoid the strange trend I've seen in some corporate environments, whereby the meeting must go the full length scheduled. If it only took fifteen minutes to make a few decisions, cut the cord. There's no need to waste another fifteen minutes based on the mindset of: "Well, as long as we're all here..."

SEE: Electronic communication policy (Tech Pro Research)

10. Book meetings adjacent to other meetings

What is my last trick to make sure I don't get delayed or restrained from focusing on important tasks due to droning meetings? Book them in a time slot adjacent to another meeting (either on my own calendar or on the conference room being used, where applicable).

For instance, if I have a 2 p.m. meeting I might book a 1:30-2 p.m. meeting, which guarantees that I can only invest thirty minutes, maximum, in said meeting.

Nothing ensures that people stay on point than a reminder that "I've got five minutes, and then saying that "I have to be somewhere else," or "In ten minutes this room will be occupied by someone else." You might call it the ultimate motivator to streamline the discussion.

Also see

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Image: fizkes, Getty Images/iStockphoto

About Scott Matteson

Scott Matteson is a senior systems administrator and freelance technical writer who also performs consulting work for small organizations. He resides in the Greater Boston area with his wife and three children.

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