Opinion: the emerging science of meetings has a number of pointers on how to have meetings which achieve something

I have worked at several universities, but one stands out vividly in terms of the mind-numbing and soul-destroying meeting culture. The entire department faculty (25 to 30 professors) met every week for two hours to deal with issues that ranged from important to absolutely trivial. In one meeting, this group spent the entire two hours debating the wording of the preface to our department’s code. 

The code itself is a pretty important document because it specifies how important decisions have to be made, deadlines and standards. However, the preface is the sort of harmless and pointless boilerplate that every department puts at the beginning of documents like these, and it is filled with flowery and meaningless prose ("our department’s goal is to provide world-class education and do cutting-edge research"). There was pretty clear agreement at the end of this meeting that it had been a massive waste of time, but we were all back in our conference room for another two-hour gabfest the following week.

In his recent book The Surprising Science of Meetings: How You Can Lead Your Team to Peak Performance, Professor Steven Rogelberg notes that there are 55 million meetings every day in the US workplace alone. Many of these meetings happen for no clear reason, there is often no clear agenda and no clear idea of why everyone is meeting. There is almost universal agreement that there are too many meetings, but less agreement about precisely why.  

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Professor Rogelberg suggests that people often meet out of force of habit or because they think they should be meeting. Others think that meetings are a sort of substitute for work. That is, people who go to meetings seem like they are busy and involved in the important work of the organisation, even if they do not participate or contribute to the meetings.

The good news is that there is a substantial body of research on ways to make meetings better and some of the simplest and most effective strategies for improving meetings are as follows:

(1) Meetings need mindful leaders. The first responsibility for improving meetings rests with the person or group that calls the meeting. One of Professor Rogelberg’s most important insights is that the leaders of meetings often fail to respect the time or the contribution of the people who participate in the meeting.  

People who go to meetings seem like they are busy and involved in the important work of the organisation

The worst meetings are those where the leader dominates the conversation and the participants are forced to sit through a lecture from the meeting leader. If you are going to call a meeting, your first thought should be that everyone’s time is valuable and that every minute they spend at a meeting with you is a minute your employees could be doing something useful. If employee time is treated like a valuable resource, long and pointless meetings will be less frequent.  If employee input is treated like a valuable resource, leaders will carefully structure meetings to engage and solicit meaningful input

(2) Make them smaller. Large meetings almost always fail. Meetings with many participants face two choices – to force most "participants" to sit still and be quiet or to dissolve into endless and pointless group chats. The optimal size for a meeting is not necessarily that same in all settings, but it is rare for a meeting with more than four to six participants to work well. Amazon has the "two pizza" rule, that no meeting should be larger than what two pizzas can feed.

(3) Get out of your seat. President Barack Obama and Steve Jobs were both fans of the "walking meeting", a quick meeting done while on the move. An alternative is a "stand-up meeting": many technology start-ups favour short meetings where everyone stands, but this is hardly a new idea. By tradition, the UK’s Privy Council meets standing up. The advantage of a meeting where nobody sits down is that it will necessarily be short and probably small, and participants will be focussed on accomplishing something. The last thing you want to do is to let people get comfortable at a meeting

Employees react to the new that the company is borrowing Amazon's "two pizza" rule for meetings

(4) Design the agenda carefully. Having an agenda by itself does nothing to make meetings better.  The best agenda is a sceptical one: in designing a meeting agenda, the question you should ask yourself is whether a meeting is needed at all. If a report can be read rather than being described to a passive set of meeting participants by a leader, have people read it ahead of time. Focus carefully and ruthlessly on those things that require groups to get together, discuss and decide, and focus the entire meeting toward gathering the information and input needed to make a decision and actually making it

(5) Train your leaders. One of the surprising findings in Professor Rogelberg’s book is that less than 20% of employees receive any training on how to lead meeting. As his research shows, there is a substantial and robust science that can be applied to making meetings more effective

There are two things organisations desperately need: fewer and better meetings. The emerging science of meetings may point out a number of ways of achieving these goals.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ