One key area for increasing productivity through Smart Working involves rethinking meetings. Most of us are familiar with hour(s)-long meetings that are not especially productive, and which often generate cumulative hours of unproductive travel time.

And though meetings may sometimes now take place via conference calls, often the basic structure and expectations of the meeting are based on the traditional meeting-room based event.

Having new technologies doesn’t in itself make a difference. It’s what we use them for that does. Combining the most appropriate use of locations, technologies and most of all new behaviours, we can both reduce the number of meetings while at the same time interact more effectively.

The use of technology to promote more effective collaboration falls into two categories:

  1. Replacing meetings by doing something else, and
  2. Holding meetings without physically meeting.

Replacing meetings by doing something else

First step is to make the meetings you have more effective and reduce the need for additional meetings.  That can mean doing some of the activities normally carried out in meetings outside of them. 

One good way to do this is to follow the somewhat exaggerated maxim: “Never use a meeting to provide information!”  Meetings are much more useful if people already have the information they need and have had time to digest it, in order to use it effectively and make informed decisions.

That means effective use of shared documents, email, instant messaging, or business social media to share information and comments in a timely fashion before a meeting, or to establish the need to meet or not.  Doing this can reduce the number of meetings, and/or reduce the length of them.  Virtual collaboration in this way can substitute for meetings, or at least for routine parts of meetings.

Many meetings are held for routine updating about work in projects (and often generating a great deal of paper and a deluge of emails in the process). Having better workflow or project management systems where everyone can clearly see what work has been done and progress on workstreams can reduce the need for meetings – and increase efficiency too.

Holding meetings without physically meeting

Using Skype or Teams means we can have meetings based on virtual rather than physical presence, or combining the two. 

These technologies not only help to reduce travel for meetings, but they can also be used to transform the nature of meetings, for example by:

  • Having participants on standby to address particular parts of a meeting. If someone is not needed for a whole meeting, they can be messaged a few minutes before they are on, and then just participate for the portions relevant to them. At that point, they can be given control of the screen if needed, Meanwhile, they can get on with useful work
  • Extend a two-way call into a brief ad hoc meeting by adding new participants, in order to get the right expertise involved at the right moment
  • Saving a recording of a meeting and presentation slides in shared areas so that people unable to participate can get the necessary information later
  • Allowing colleagues working in different places to keep a conferencing line open for long periods while they work, to support ad hoc business and social interaction.

All these techniques can be used to:

  • Reduce the number of formal meetings
  • Make formal meetings shorter and more focused
  • Open up new possibilities for flexible collaboration and information sharing.

It’s worthwhile for teams to consider setting targets to reduce the time spent in formal meetings if they feel they are suffering from a ‘meetings culture’.

More tips for shorter and more purposeful meetings

Here are some further tips to make meetings shorter and more effective:

  • Meetings should have a purpose, not a title. This focuses thinking on the actions and outputs, not just turning up.
  • Never use a meeting to provide information”. Information sharing should happen beforehand, with the meeting reserved for value-added activities like debate and decisions. The exception is where information is very complex and the participants need to be taken through it. Even so, it is better to have it in advance. Cancel meetings if the information hasn’t been circulated.
  • Don’t have a default time of a half-hour, an hour or two hours. People tend to fill up time. Some organisations schedule unusual allocations of time, like 17 minutes, just to make people think. Use of time-limited meeting rooms can also add urgency.
  • Have paperless meetings. This creates equality between people in a meeting room and people joining remotely. And it also prevents people from turning up with information to hand out.
  • When people are working in the same building, wherever possible make use of the range of breakout spaces available to have short, purposeful interactions rather than booking a meeting room.
  • Avoid generating reams of email. Meetings can also spawn a lot of emails before and afterwards. Instead, a single copy of documents should be kept in shared online areas, and people can be alerted to them via messaging and have instant discussions about them as needed.

When should meetings be physically face-to-face?

With all these methods of interacting without actually meeting, when should meetings be physically face-to-face?

In short, they should be physically face-to-face when that adds significant value to the interaction.

Virtual face-to-face may be sufficient for many activities, and may even add a different kind of value, e.g. the ability to easily include other participants.

To work through the possibilities, check out the resource How much should meetings be physically face-to-face?  [link to resource M13] and work through the exercises there, preferably in discussion with your team or with other managers.