Fixing meetings is the most low-lying opportunity to improve performance and worker engagement.
Illustration by Charter · Photo by iStock fizkes

Research consistently finds that people are in too many meetings that don’t move things forward and make it harder to get the rest of their work done.

One recent survey concluded that meetings are ineffective 72% of the time, and earlier research found that executives average nearly 23 hours a week in meetings, compared to under 10 hours in the 1960s.

Fixing meetings is arguably the most low-lying opportunity for most organizations to improve performance and worker engagement.

What can be done?

The challenge has driven some companies to take organization-wide measures, such as Shopify’s meeting reset (eliminating all meetings with more than three attendees from employees’ schedules) and meeting cost calculator. (You can read Charter’s step-by-step guidance for using meeting resets.)

There are other promising developments ahead.

The introduction of artificial intelligence opens up new possibilities, as automatic transcription tools make it easier for people to skip attending meetings and still get the information they need, by searching for it or accessing automated summaries. (Though, of course, someone still needs to attend the meeting for there to be a transcript.)

Read this next: The best way to adapt workflows for AI

Microsoft’s Jared Spataro, corporate vice president for Modern Work & Business Applications, describes meetings as “knowledge objects” that he can query using AI tools, and says he now attends fewer of them. Wharton’s Ethan Mollick says that coordination meetings used in agile project development matter much less when AI is introduced to a team’s workflow, as you can now prototype faster and get early feedback from an AI tool.

Charter is tracking these developments, and will continue sharing best practices as they emerge.

Sign up for Charter's newsletter to get the handbook for the future of work delivered to your inbox.

For helpful reminders of what individuals can do now to improve meetings, I spoke last week with Laura Mae Martin, Google’s executive productivity advisor and author of a new personal productivity book called Uptime. Here’s what Martin advises:

Avoid a meeting in the first place. “Let’s start over email and see if we need the meeting,” is how Martin often replies to colleagues requesting one-on-one time. She also encourages declining meetings when you don’t think it’s in the company’s interest from a zero-sum perspective, replying in the vein of “I actually have a project that it would be great to have an hour to work on, so I’m going to do that tradeoff.” Junior employees especially might feel like they don’t have permission to decline meetings, but Martin suggests, “Is your manager ever going to be mad that you’re using the company’s time wisely?” Reviewing your schedule for the next day each evening also sometimes allows you to identify meetings that are no longer needed.

Define the purpose and plan for the meeting ahead of time. A meeting organizer should establish “purpose, agenda, result,” says Martin. “The more you’re thinking about it ahead of time, the more you’re getting out of the meeting.” She sends agendas for meetings two days before and declines to attend meetings when an agenda isn’t provided beforehand (also known as the “No agenda, no attenda” approach.) Agendas are particularly helpful for attendees who are more introverted or less spontaneous in their thinking. “If you just announced what you want to talk about at the beginning of the meeting, you’re only basically getting 50% of the ideas,” says Martin.

Hold people accountable for pre-work and staying on time. You want attendees to think, “I always know that the action items in this meeting are going to come to fruition and I’m going to be asked about it at the next meeting if I don’t get it done or there’s going to be some circle back,” says Martin.

Block off time for prep and follow up to meetings. Many people don’t feel they have the time to prep for meetings (often because they’re in too many other meetings.) Before accepting a meeting, Martin puts one time block on her calendar to prepare for it and one after the meeting to do any follow-up.

Defer check-ins until one-on-one meetings. Research suggests that weekly one-on-one conversations between managers and employers are critical for engagement and performance. “What happens is a lot of people feel the need to communicate constantly about things that could wait until the meeting over email, over chat, or stopping the person in the hall,” says Martin. “If you have those standing meetings, I recommend making them your go-to place unless something cannot wait until that time to really up the value of them and then to leave room for anything unstructured.”

Standardize formats for decision-making meetings. Teams might have a template for product reviews, for example, that specifies the information people are expected to come with, such as what they’re deciding between and what their recommendation is. “I’ve seen people have a Google Form for meetings and say, ‘Before the meeting, make sure you have this filled out.’” says Martin. “Or, if you have pre-work, instead of just saying ‘Read this,’ say, ‘Make sure you add a comment at the end that indicates that you read it and any changes that you want to see.’” People sometimes also include their preferred meeting structure in user manuals for colleagues to see.

Close your other tabs. Microsoft research found a high level of multitasking during virtual meetings. Martin recommends closing other windows and tabs on your computer, and for meetings where she needs to be really focused she puts her phone on the other side of the room. People eventually realize, “’I actually can’t multitask. I’m thinking that I’m doing this well and I’m actually not getting a lot out of the meeting and not answering my email well either,’” Martin says.

Audit how you’re spending your time. The amount of time people need to spend in meetings varies by role. Martin recommends using time insights tools in your calendar software to see whether your actual weekly meeting time is appropriate. You can color code calendar invites to analyze whether your meeting time reflects your top strategic priorities or the balance of internal versus external meetings, for example.

“I am not against meetings in any way,” says Martin. “It’s just about really making them a good use of time.”

Some encouraging new data suggest time spent in meetings is finally dropping post-pandemic. Workers report spending an average of 14.8 hours a week in meetings, down from 21.5 hours a week in 2021, according to a survey from AI-calendar app

Read this next: What to do when protests come to your workplace

One more thing: As part of her executive productivity advisor role, Martin coaches Google’s leaders on how to more effectively use email. Her top tips:

  • Be clear where you want people to communicate with you. Pick email or a specific messaging service as the primary channel, so you can focus on that and not have colleagues reach out across multiple services about the same issue.
  • Remove anything you don’t need to see. Martin recommends searching your inbox for the word “unsubscribe,” which allows you to identify messages not sent to you individually.
  • Make priority messages “pop” in your inbox. “If the CEO of your company emails you directly, that should look different than the CEO emailing the whole company, and you should open it faster,” says Martin. “Have things like a VIP label.”
  • Treat email like handling your laundry. Martin suggests thinking of your inbox like a dryer with a load of laundry in it and recommends not handling incoming emails piecemeal, just like you wouldn’t take out dry shirts one at a time over the course of your day. “I’m putting [messages] in baskets based on what future me needs to do with it: read, review, respond,” says Martin. “Then take the time to read, read, read, read, read when you have that energy just like you fold, fold, fold, fold, fold real quick before you go to bed.”

Read a transcript of our conversation with Martin, including more discussion of productivity tools and how AI is changing meetings. Sign up for Charter’s free newsletter about the future of work.

Read more from Charter

The handbook for the future of work, delivered to your inbox.