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Meeting Fix #7: Best Practices for Scheduling Business Meetings

When scheduling business meetings, there are two prevalent approaches: comparing calendars to select a time when everyone is available or announcing the meeting time and expecting invitees to make scheduling adjustments so they can attend.   

Graphic Showing scheduling business meetingsThe former usually means long delays between the recognized need for a meeting and the meeting itself. The latter wreaks havoc on others’ schedules and has a trickle-down effect as other meetings are cancelled or rebooked. Neither is ideal. 

But that’s only the tip of the iceberg. When and how meetings are scheduled impacts the productivity during meetings, the morale of employees, and the progress made between meetings, too. To improve overall effectiveness in collaborations, use these best practices for scheduling business meetings. 

The Impact of Poor Scheduling Practices

In some organizations, everyone is at the mercy of their calendar. And their calendars are open to everyone, without boundaries or protocols for protecting their time. That’s why they end up double-booked, endlessly racing from one meeting to the next, multi-tasking during meetings in an effort to keep up with emails and deadlines, and burned out despite feeling that they’ve accomplished little.

Last-minute meetings and short-notice cancellations are disruptive. The agility to shift quickly from one mode/focus to another is not something that comes easily or naturally to everyone. Ambush meetings, for example, cause stress and disruptions that impact everyone involved and everyone who was counting on something else from the people who are suddenly sucked into those meetings.  

There doesn’t seem to be any relief. Most accept that meetings are the norm, that they’re necessary, and that putting up with them is essential. 

Although it requires discipline and forethought, it doesn’t have to be that way. We can’t ignore that: 

Unrestrained scheduling of meetings interferes with other work

  • In one study, 78% of respondents reported feeling that their meeting schedule is either always or sometimes out of control and most blame their crazy meeting schedules upper management (38%) or their direct manager (16%). 
  • In another study, 21% of workers say the single biggest thing that would help them do more with less is having fewer meetings to get through the week. (Workfront)

People have limitations. 

Over-scheduling of meetings forces people to make compromises and sub-optimum choices because they’re unavoidably limited by time pressures, competing priorities, cognitive overload, and human needs for sleep, meals, and time to recharge. 

Employees have other work to do

The “real work” of thinking, planning, evaluating, and doing isn’t done during meetings. When meetings consume a significant percentage of the work day, the time for doing everything else gets compressed. Oftentimes, people race through it or attempt to do it in fits and starts (between meetings). They aren’t able to do their best work because they haven’t been able to allocate adequate time or attention to the tasks at hand. 

Impacts like these are often overlooked in the moment when someone decides to call a meeting. A reflexive response to meet should be met with a reality check that asks “do we really need a meeting?

Fast & Easy Improvements for Scheduling Business Meetings 

For those times when a meeting really is needed, don’t stick to the status quo. Make these simple improvements to help team members be more productive during and between meetings. These are quick and easy improvements anyone can make, regardless of meeting norms and culture in the organization.

Evaluate what types of meetings team members are currently attending. Consider, too, how much time they spend in these various types of meetings. For comparison’s sake:

  • The types of meetings respondents have on a regular basis include: internal collaborations and meetings (73%); external meetings with customers, vendors, or partners (56%); presentations (57%); events and webinars (42%); and training (51%). (Blue Jeans Network by Verizon)
  • In an average week, respondents meet in a huddle room (in-person or digitally): one time (21%), 2-5 times (33%); 6-10 times (13%); or 11+ times (7%). (Blue Jeans Network by Verizon)

When scheduling a meeting, let people know what type of meeting it will be. This clarifies expectations and improves preparation and participation. 

Be realistic about the amount of time needed for agenda items. Packing too many topics into an agenda is a surefire way to diminish the quality of the discussion, disengage participants, and waste time. Rushing through a variety of topics requires people to proceed before thoughts are fully formed and inherently limits depth of discussion and the quality of decisions (if any actually get made). Conversely, a single, stand-alone topics will enable dedicated focus and is more likely to yield productive discussion, action items, and desired outcomes.  

Take time to thoughtfully schedule meetings

Consult calendars in advance and set meetings well in advance except in truly urgent situations. 

Be sure, too, that the right people are included in meetings (and only the right people!). According to Circle Research and Barco, 51% of employees are invited to meetings that are irrelevant to them, a misuse of time and resources.

Schedule follow-up meetings in tandem with action items. End every meeting with a clarifying recap that includes next steps and action items. Be sure everyone knows who will do what and set deadlines for those action items. Subsequent meetings should be scheduled in relation to those deadlines. 

Keep in mind that status update meetings are usually not productive or necessary. With check-in meetings, you risk “kicking the can” rather than getting deliverables. 46% of respondents in one survey said that “most” or “all” of their meetings focus on project status updates (Wrike study with 1,464 business professionals). However, 35% of status meeting attendees called status meetings “a waste of my time” (Clarizen survey).

Setting Company-Wide Norms for Scheduling Meetings  

In addition to individuals adopting best practice for schedule business meetings, organizations should also consider their meeting culture. Left unchecked, meetings become costly and may not yield a good return on investments of time and money. 

Here are three meeting scheduling strategies for company-wide adoption. Each of these will help to tame meeting overload.

Block meeting times (meet, don’t meet) for certain times of the day or certain days of the week

Protect employee’s valuable work time by prohibiting meetings during certain times of the day or certain days of the week. For example, reserve the last two hours of the day or every Monday for priority focus and work… no meetings are to be scheduled during these times. 

In a Toluna group study with over 1,000 U.S. office workers, 23% of respondents selected regular “no meetings” days as a way for their employer to reduce workplace distraction. 

To implement meetings-free times/days, consider when people in your organization would prefer to have meetings. Here are some thought starters:

  • When asked “What’s your favorite day for a meeting?” the largest group in one study chose Tuesday (29%), followed closely by Wednesday (25%). Alternately almost half of respondents (47%) felt that Monday was the worst day for a meeting, with most of the remainder (40%) choosing Friday. (SurveyMonkey survey of 757 workers in the U.S.)
  • 70% of respondents prefer morning meetings and 76 percent wanted face-to-face meetings. (Doodle survey with 6,500 customers in the U.S., Germany, Switzerland, and U.K.)
  • Mornings are overwhelmingly the best time to hold a meeting – with 70% of professionals preferring meetings between 8am and 12pm.  (Doodle survey with 6,500 customers in the U.S., Germany, Switzerland, and U.K.)

End meetings on :20s and :50s

No more dashing from one meeting to the next. Provide breathing room in between meetings by asking that they start on the :00 and :30 marks and last 20 or 50 minutes (example: 1:00-1:50 instead of 1:00-2:00). This allows “passing time” between meetings for bio breaks, returning urgent calls, and transitioning mentally from one group/topic to another.

If you implement this strategy, be sure to include these expectations:

  • Being on time to meetings is a heightened expectation. After all, no more excuses like “I needed a bio break between meetings” since that’s already built in. 
  • No slipping 10-minute meetings into those passing time slots. That adds to the cognitive burden instead of providing relief. 
  • Honor the blocked times. They only work if there’s universal adoption of them.
  • Model the replacement activities you’d like to see during these blocked times. Is this a time for independent work and accelerated output? If so, show others what that looks like.

Set company-wide expectations for meeting standards

In most organizations, there are unspoken norms for when, where, and how meetings are conducted. Unfortunately, those norms may perpetuate bad habits like people routinely being late to meetings.

Issuing meeting standards and teaching people how to conduct themselves during meetings can reset your meeting culture.  

To dramatically improve the quality of meetings and reduce wasted time in meetings, shift to outcome-based meetings with assigned roles and responsibilities.

In your standards, set criteria for determining whether or not a meeting is actually needed. Help people understand and use alternatives to meetings. Educate others about the high cost of meetings so they won’t default to unnecessary or unproductive meetings.

Develop templates for meeting agendas and provide best practice guidelines when and how agendas will be used.  

Standards of professional conduct may also be needed if your meeting culture has become overly casual or if people are accustomed to attending meetings without fully and effectively participating. People First Productivity Solutions can help you create and share these standards in a way that’s uplifting and appreciated across the organization.  

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