It’s time to talk about meetings.
Meetings are where teams come together to connect, collaborate, and move projects forward. Or at least that’s the intention.
Today, many of our meetings have morphed into something else. They’re unwieldy, boring, and burdensome. An ineffective time-suck that’s the first thing to get skipped or multi-tasked during when the going gets hectic. They drain our productivity and well-being, stifle engagement, and fast-track employee burnout. Oh, and most of them “could have been an email.”
If you’ve ever left a meeting feeling drained, frustrated, or even more lost than when you got there, you’re not alone.
Leaders consider 67% of meetings to be ineffective, yet we still manage to spend such a huge portion of our time in them. The average employee says they waste 31 hours in unproductive meetings each month. Forty-five percent say they’ve felt overwhelmed by the sheer number of meetings and 47% say meetings are their office’s number one time-waster.
Collectively, we waste $27 billion on unproductive meetings each year — with energy and time that could be better spent doing just about anything else.
So how did we get here? And what’s got to give?
Are our meetings worth saving and, if so, how do we get them back on track?
It’s time to take a long, hard look at meetings as we know them and begin the process of reimagining them for the unique needs, work styles, and possibilities that exist for our teams today.
Could meetings be sucking the life out of you and your team? Chances are, yes.
Oftentimes, teams default to meetings as the primary way to communicate with one another about projects and updates. And while meetings are certainly valuable for collaborating, addressing blockers, and connecting as a team, far too often — they stray from their intended purpose.
Here are six of the most common issues:
The following sections will dive into each of these meeting pain points and explore ways to solve for them. We’ve included stories from other companies who’ve fought the meeting battle and won, templates to pull ideas from, quick wins to get you started, and big picture strategies to help you reimagine meetings on your own team.
A great meeting leaves folks feeling energized, accomplished, connected to their team, and ready to tackle whatever’s on their plate. Here’s what that looks like in theory.
The elements of every great meeting:
While meetings may differ in topic, length, frequency, and a whole lot of other things, great meetings are made up of three key ingredients: effectiveness, efficiency, and inclusion.
23 hours — that’s the amount of time senior managers spend in meetings each week, according to research from MIT. Non-managers clock in around six hours a week (which the study cites as a conservative estimate.) Another study reports workers spend 21% of their work hours in meetings. Any way you look at it — it’s a lot of time. Especially if it’s not being used effectively.
“A lot of engineers will state ‘I don’t like meetings,’ and understandably so. This is because they’ve been exposed to a bad or poorly-designed meetings process, not a process that facilitates them getting done what they need to get done.” — Kimber Lockhart, CTO, One Medical
Folks often feel like their time is wasted when meetings don’t have a clear purpose. Purpose is what you're trying to achieve during the meeting. It helps folks connect time together to daily work and larger goals, and can make your time together more effective because you’re aligned on why you’re there and what you’re trying to achieve.
Evaluate each meeting on your team’s calendar by asking yourself the following:
If you can’t identify a purpose, you may want to re-think whether you need a meeting in the first place.
Meetings shouldn’t exist in a vacuum. Connecting what you discuss during meetings to work happening outside of them reinforces the value of time spent together and reminds folks that collaboration drives daily work forward. Effective teams use what’s going on with individuals and projects outside of the meeting to shape more meaningful discussions when they come together to meet too.
Here’s an example of how you might tie a weekly team meeting back to the work your team is doing on a daily, weekly, and even quarterly basis.
Your meeting’s purpose can (and should) inform what’s on the agenda. When the agenda is purpose-driven, it keeps the meeting on track and ensures productive and effective use of everyone’s time.
At One Medical, project teams hold ‘What’s happening’ meetings to gain alignment. They use the purpose of the meeting (sharing context and building accountability) to structure their agenda — something CTO Kimber Lockhart says makes their time together most effective.
Meeting: ‘What’s Happening’ meeting
Purpose: Help everyone on a particular project understand the full context of the work and build accountability.
1. Build accountability: One Medical kicks off each What’s Happening meeting with a review of the team’s goals and metrics. According to CTO Kimber Lockhart, this “keeps everyone in the meeting up to date on how the team is actually doing against their OKRs, and it also creates a structure that forces regular updating of those OKRs.”
They structure this section very intentionally — doing a quick review of a team’s metrics and goals, and then moving directly into project updates from that team. That way discussion is focused on the work that supports those metrics and goals and ties back into the bigger picture.
2. Share project context: Since the What’s Happening meeting’s primary purpose is to share context, they spend the majority of time on dedicated updates about what’s happening on each team. They use a stoplight system to standardize how everyone shares and get everyone on the same page quickly.
Each team shares the context behind their rating, including whether they need additional resources or what’s caused the shift in status.
This section is also a time for leaders to share context from other parts of the business. It’s not company-wide updates — One Medical has a separate meeting for that, but rather, specific learnings or knowledge that would be useful to the team. Leaders also share constructive feedback or “nudges back in a different direction.” By doing this in a team meeting, other teams see and hear this context too, empowering them to make connections and provide support as needed.
Put it in writing
Kimber says once you have a purpose-driven structure in place for your meeting, it’s just as important to write it all down. This helps hold the team accountable to the structure, and it also helps explain things to current and future team members.
“Documenting the meeting goals and structure is simple, but we didn't do it for a long time. Without this documentation, new hires often didn’t understand what they could expect and what purpose each meeting filled. We made a lot of progress by writing it down.” — Kimber Lockhart, CTO, One Medical
In a perfect world, meetings run on-time, never stray from topic, and tee up teams to get more done. In the real world though, that’s not always the case.
Inefficient meetings drain our energy, waste valuable work hours, and ultimately decrease employee engagement and output. The average employee attends 62 meetings each month and says over half of those are a complete waste of time.
How to tell if your meetings are inefficient? The following signals might point to problems with meeting efficiency:
Not only are inefficient meetings draining, they can also take a major toll on your team’s engagement, productivity, and overall well-being. Left unaddressed, they can lead to much bigger problems: exacerbating employee burnout, decreasing output, slowing progress on goals, and lowering overall team effectiveness.
Having an agenda in place beforehand gives structure to your meeting, helps steer it back on track when side-topics come up, and ensures everyone comes prepared for a productive discussion. Creating an agenda beforehand (and sticking to it) can decrease meeting time by up to 80%.
Encourage folks on your team to create an agenda for every meeting. If you’re invited to one with no agenda, ask the organizer to create one and share it. Empower your team to decline meetings without agendas.
Tip: Use templates to make agenda-setting a no-brainer. No time to create an agenda? Not a problem. We put together template agendas for many common meetings — sprint planning, weekly 1:1s, scrum meetings, post-mortems, and more — to help get you started.
Meetings don’t run themselves — or at least they shouldn’t. Without a meeting facilitator, meetings are more likely to get off track, run long, and lose sight of their intended purpose.
If you’ve ever used any of these phrases to describe a meeting, chances are it could have benefited from having a facilitator.
“We talk about this every week”
“This isn’t going anywhere”
“I wish more people would speak up”
“What are we talking about again?”
“My topic always gets punted to next week”
“This could have been an email”
A meeting facilitator is a designated person in the room assigned to keep things on track and spark more productive discussion during meetings. Having a facilitator can help fuel greater teamwork during meetings by using tools to foster trust, collaboration, and engagement.
Tip: The key to being an effective facilitator is knowing what to say to get folks back on track without distracting or offending. Check out our meeting facilitation cheat sheet for some go-to responses you can use for different challenges.
A meeting facilitator is different from a meeting sponsor or team leader. They help the group reach a decision point, but do not make any decisions for them. Ideally, the facilitator role should be held by someone who’s seen as a neutral party to help balance power dynamics. For instance, if you’re meeting to brainstorm new ideas for a big launch project, the project lead should be in the room but wouldn’t be the best person to facilitate the discussion because they already have a high stake in the outcome. They might also have biases or preconceived notions about what the outcome should be already.
You’ll want to pick a teammate who can comfortably guide conversation and effectively keep things on track. It’s important for the facilitator to understand that they’re primarily playing a supportive role — asking questions to engage the whole group and sussing out concerns, without influencing what’s actually being said.
Here are a few traits to look for in a meeting facilitator:
Facilitation is a skill, so having some training or guidelines in place for this meeting role can be useful too.Check out our meeting facilitation cheat sheet
Status updates and project context aren’t meant for meetings. In fact, when it comes to meeting topics, people say status reports are their number one pet peeve. (We don’t blame them. Meeting time is too valuable to be wasted on updates that could be handled asynchronously.)
If you’re spending time on topics that could be covered offline, you’re cutting into valuable discussion, decision-making, and collaboration time… and probably getting on everyone’s nerves. Let’s look at some strategies to help change that.
You’ve got the whole team together for a reason – so why not use it? Meeting time should harness your collective time and brainpower to accomplish things that wouldn’t be possible otherwise. Think: collaborative problem-solving, group discussions to inform the direction of a big project, or connecting and bonding as a group.
“But how will we know what everyone’s working on?” For starters, moving some of your agenda topics to an asynchronous format (written updates) can help.
5 reasons async status updates make meetings better
Moving status updates out of your meetings (and into an async format) can have a powerful, positive impact on your team’s effectiveness and well-being. Teams who try it report a number of other benefits too:
“As a leader, what I love is that it doesn’t make the meeting less effective. In fact, it makes it more effective. I think I had mistaken the length or intensity of a meeting with the effectiveness of the meeting,” — Harper Reed, Modest Inc.
Pick a recurring meeting on your team’s calendar for next week and try sharing async updates beforehand with the following templates. Your updates might take the place of the meeting altogether (like for a daily standup) or serve as a pre-read to enhance meeting time when you come together (like for a team meeting).
Meeting: Daily standup
Purpose: A quick daily pulse check.
Meeting: Status update
Purpose: Sync up on a certain project or initiative.
Meeting: Team meeting
Purpose: Align beforehand with a pre-read to fuel a shorter, more engaging discussion in person.
Meeting: Sprint retro
Purpose: Prep ideas before you meet for a shorter, more productive retro
Purpose: Make 1:1 facetime more about personal growth and development
When making decisions, brainstorming solutions, or collaborating on a project, it’s important that everyone has the full context – but you shouldn’t be wasting valuable meeting minutes on it. “Just a few slides” later, and suddenly you’re halfway through the meeting with little to show.
This is where pre-reads can help.
A pre-read is a written report or summary that meeting attendees are expected to read through before the meeting begins.
Pre-reads are used by companies like Amazon (Jeff Bezos is a big champion of this concept) to get everyone aligned and fuel a more productive, engaging, and efficient discussion when they come together.
4 reasons to use a meeting pre-read
Sure, nobody likes homework. But ensuring everyone prepares before the meeting can actually save the team time and maximize the minutes you’re spending together.
Pre-reads can be used for all types of meetings. (Our team has found them especially useful for recurring meetings — like our weekly team meeting or sprint review meeting — because they help get the “who’s working on what” portion out of the way so we can focus on bigger discussion topics and collaboration.) Some teams do the pre-read before the meeting. Others prefer to do it during the first few minutes of the meeting (like Amazon) to ensure everyone’s taken the time to do their homework and no one’s “faking it”.
Think back on some of the best meetings you’ve been a part of. You likely felt bought into the discussion, responsible for the outcome, and energized by the fact that your opinion and actions made a difference in driving it forward. This is called meeting accountability.
Meeting accountability means everyone in the room is responsible for the meeting and its outcomes. It means the meeting is driven by every attendee — each with an equal role in actively participating and stepping up to take on tasks that help the group get work done.
Meeting accountability is important because it improves engagement, ensures everyone gets value out of time together, and helps maximize the effectiveness of your time together. A meeting where everyone is engaged and driving towards the outcome will ultimately deliver better results in less time.
One powerful way to build meeting accountability is through action items — which require team members to take ownership of a task and hold themselves accountable by reporting on it the following week.
Done right, action items offer a number of other valuable benefits too, such as:
Action items should be documented as soon as they come up during a meeting — with details on what the action is (be specific about what “done” looks like) and who it’s assigned to. If you use an app for daily planning or task management, make it as easy as possible to add action items directly to that tool.
There should also be a clear path for following up on them. For regular meetings, like a weekly team meeting and staff meeting, we recommend adding a recurring agenda topic at the beginning of each meeting to check in on last week’s actions.Find more tips and a template in this blog post
Taking notes during a meeting isn’t necessarily ground-breaking, but chances are, even if it’s something your team already does today, there’s room for improvement.
Too often, meeting notes lose some of their value because teams don’t build a consistent practice around them. It’s important to stay consistent in:
Sharing consistently helps build a habit around meeting notes — both for the note-taker and for those following along. If your team uses Slack religiously, share your meeting notes in Slack. If email’s more your thing, share with your team alias there.
Keeping it all in one place means it’ll be easier for stakeholders to find and access info whenever they need it. This will help you avoid having the same meetings or conversations over and over, as you’ll always have a source of truth to clue folks in on past conversations.
Topics and notes
Eng weekly meeting
Topics and notes
Review bug tracker
Teams today look a lot different than they did 10, five, or even two years ago. The following sections will explore strategies to help you design better meetings for everyone on your team — no matter how or where they work.
Diverse perspectives are essential to every meeting and it’s crucial to ensure everyone feels included and heard. Unfortunately, only 35% of people say they feel able to contribute in a meeting when they want to, according to a study cited in the Harvard Business Review.
Poorly run meetings can contribute to folks feeling more excluded. Without proper facilitation, it’s all too easy for conversation to get dominated by certain individuals or groups. Without an agenda, folks who like time to prepare for discussion don’t get the chance to and might not feel as comfortable speaking up.
On a remote or hybrid team, this problem can be exacerbated even further — the loudest voice on Zoom gets all the screen time or teammates at HQ dominate the conversation without considering teammates who are not.
Prioritizing meeting inclusion means focusing on diverse perspectives and making sure everyone in the room (or on the Zoom meeting) feels welcome, heard, and valued.
“For quieter folks who tend not to speak unless prompted, the larger the meeting, the higher the perceived barrier of bringing your topic to the table. We use dynamic agenda-setting – which means the facilitator goes around and everyone gets a chance to add a topic to the agenda if they have something (no pressure if they don’t).” — Harper Reed, Founder of Modest Inc & former CTO of the Obama 2012 Campaign
Meetings look a lot differently these days. They happen virtually, across time zones, and often from the comfort of our own homes. 74% of professionals say they expect remote work to be the new standard, which comes with its benefits (hello sweatpants!) and its challenges.
When you don’t have serendipitous snack kitchen chats and can’t swivel in your chair to diffuse tension with a teammate, being intentional with how you meet and share information becomes all the more important.
Teamwork across time zones and continents
Across the US and India, Kristen Toole and the Adobe Content Experiences & Innovation team rely on meetings to stay connected and aligned. Kristen, who manages the team, is based in San Jose, California. The rest of the team, made up of designers and a content strategist, is based in the company’s Bangalore and Noida, India offices.
They use asynchronous check-ins as a way to eliminate daily standups, which are difficult to coordinate across time zones. They supplement them with video meetings — which happen less frequently — as a space to bond and collaborate.
How it works
Cadence and format
1. Try a speedy opening round: Working on a remote or hybrid team can take a toll on the sense of team belonging and, in turn, performance. Building small “get to know each other” moments into your meetings can help solve for this. Try starting each meeting with a round-robin team-building question. You can alternate between personal topics (What’s your favorite thing to cook? Where do you want to travel next?) and work-related ones (How do you like to receive feedback?) to get to know each other at and outside of work. Bonus: When someone speaks at the beginning of a meeting, they are more likely to engage throughout.
2. Use expert facilitation tactics: Managing a virtual or hybrid discussion can be even more difficult than an in-person one. All the more reason to have a facilitator in the room (or Zoom). To facilitate a great virtual discussion, make sure to test the audio and video beforehand, and familiarize yourself with whatever technology you’re using so you can help troubleshoot questions quickly if they come up. During the meeting, present your screen to the group so everyone can follow along with the discussion. If your group is hybrid (some in-person, some over video), make sure to call on video participants to speak just as much as in-person ones, and keep an eye on the screen to check in on body language and any cues from your virtual audience just as much as you would the in-person group. If the conversation gets derailed, use this cheat sheet to get back on track.
3. Always end with feedback: Before you close Google Hangouts, Zoom, or Microsoft Teams, take a moment to assess how things went in terms of process and if there's something everyone would like to do differently in the next session. Iteration is an important part of the process.
4. Invest in the right tools: Tools make collaborating across spaces and timezones easier (and more fun). In addition to whatever you choose for your video platform (Zoom, Microsoft Teams, Google Hangouts, etc.) here are some tools that can help you run remote or hybrid meetings smoothly.
Back-to-back (to-back-to-back-to-back-to-back…) meetings. They’re both a mentally draining and costly problem. Take a daily standup meeting as an example. A 30-minute standup for a group of 12 takes away 120 hours of focus time from your team each month. Plus, meeting overload can be draining and take a toll on people’s ability to focus — so even after the meeting wraps up, it might be harder for the team to dive back into their work at full speed. (And if you’re meeting over Zoom, you’ve got Zoom fatigue to deal with too.)
If you’ve felt like you’re drowning in meetings, you’re probably not the only one at your org who thinks so. Too many meetings is a team problem that is best remedied with team-level solutions.
But what exactly does that mean?
When teams try to solve the “too many meetings” problems, they try to solve it with tips like — “stick to the agenda” and “institute no-meeting Wednesday.” While these are solid actions folks can take to make meetings more effective or reduce the number of meetings temporarily, they won’t have the same impact on reducing meetings as foundational changes at the team level will.
The trick to getting meetings under control is to stop fighting them head-on. Instead, consider excess meetings a symptom that points to underlying problems in your organizational structure and culture.
1. Roles and responsibilities are unclear
A big reason people bring up topics in meetings is to ask for input, feedback, and approval. There’s nothing wrong with that in principle. But we’ve all been in meetings that feel like a waste of time because everyone is weighing in on some small detail. You might wonder, “Why are we even talking about this?”
Teams waste time talking about unimportant topics because they haven’t agreed on how decisions get made.
How to solve it:
Assign a DRI (Directly Responsible Individual) for each project. Make it clear that the DRI is responsible for making decisions on the project, and that they can use good judgement to involve other people in decisions as necessary.
To clarify responsibilities even further, try a responsibility framework like RACI for each project. These more detailed frameworks help reduce meeting load by clarifying who needs to be consulted for major decisions, and who just wants to be informed of the outcomes.
2. People don’t know what’s happening
Oftentimes, teams over-rely on meetings because they don't have good alternatives for communicating updates, staying in sync, and getting work done. When teams and individuals don’t know what each other are up to, meetings get added to the calendar to sort it all out.
Status meetings are a big red flag. When you have a lot of status meetings, it’s probably because there’s no other way to figure out what’s happening.
How to solve it:
Set up a regular cadence of written communication to replace or shorten existing meetings. On small teams, you can have individuals write a daily update, much like a standup meeting. When you grow to several teams, each team can send out a weekly newsletter. And at a larger scale, leaders can send an update to the whole company. These levels of communication cadence will lay a groundwork of context that helps to reduce your overall meeting load.
Shifting as much of your communication as possible to an asynchronous format can cut down the number (or length) of meetings on your calendar each week, which can have a real and lasting impact on your team’s effectiveness, happiness, and well-being.
3. You’re doing too much at once
Every project has communication overhead. When your company tackles too many projects at the same time, the coordination overhead grows, and it can start to take all your time just staying in sync.
If you’re spending more time talking about work than actually doing work, you’re probably juggling too much.
How to solve it:
If your company is juggling too many projects, call out the inefficiency, decide how many projects you can handle at the same time, then make some tough calls prioritizing what projects get done first, and what projects will have to wait. When you limit work in progress, you’ll lower your meeting load.
4. People don’t trust each other
Having a problem with trust doesn’t mean you’ve got a Jerry Springer situation where people are screaming and throwing chairs. It’s usually much more subtle. Imagine a sort of cold war situation, where everyone is cordial, but secretly gathering information about each other and playing the angles.
When people don’t trust each other, they tend to hoard information instead of sharing it openly. You get more misunderstandings, and more meetings to untangle those misunderstandings. When project teams don’t trust each other to follow through with commitments, you get more meetings to make sure everything is still on track. And when managers don’t trust their team to do quality work, you get more meetings to micromanage.
If you’re discussing the same things over and over again, and people don’t follow through with commitments, then you’re likely suffering from a lack of trust.
How to solve it:
Look for ways to build trust on your team and throughout the company. To get started, you might add an opening round to the start of your team meetings. It’ll help everyone understand each other better, see each other as full human beings, and over time, it can build a foundation of trust and psychological safety.
“[Team questions] are everyone’s favorite part of the meeting, and that’s why we give them time. Other people might do that for a few months and then say, ‘OK, we’re a team now, we’ll skip that and be all business.’ We said no, this is crucial to who we are as a team.” — Kristen Toole, Adobe
For whatever ails you, troubleshoot some of the most frequently heard meeting pain points with these quick remedies.
Problem: "Nobody's paying attention"
Problem: “We always run over time”
Problem: “Only one or two people are speaking”
Problem: “Everyone’s talking over each other”
Problem: “Things are getting derailed”
Problem: “It’s impossible to take notes and follow-along”
Problem: “Action items aren’t being acted on”
Problem: “We’re always covering the same topics week after week”
Just like problems with meetings tend to slowly creep in over time, redesigning your team’s meetings, especially if they’re deeply ingrained, doesn’t happen overnight.
Challenges with meetings can drain energy and productivity from your team if left unchecked. Ineffective, inefficient, and poorly focused meetings slow you down. A lack of meeting accountability means you’ll get less done. And when meetings become non-inclusive or way-too-prolific, they’ll zap the life and engagement out of everyone on the team.
Reinvesting time to adapt what you’re doing today can breathe new life into old meetings — it’s well worth the investment. You’ll see greater productivity, engagement, and teamwork. Your team will feel energized and excited to come together. And ultimately, you’ll get more done.
Having an initiative mindset when it comes to meetings is the key.
You don’t have to tackle it all at once. Take what you’ve learned here and try applying it to one or two meetings on your calendar. You might start by focusing on one major problem area, use strategies from this guide to troubleshoot it, and go from there with the momentum you’ve built. Even small changes, over time, can make an incredible difference.
Solving challenges with your team’s meetings will never be a “one and done” fix because it’s an inherently iterative process. Meeting should be malleable — see an opportunity, try something new, observe the outcomes, and iterate. By allowing yourself to be open to making adjustments whenever you learn something new, you’ll get more value out of your time together and provide the most supportive forums for your team possible.