Meeting

Peter Otto, product strategy and design director at Condeco, on why business meetings will never stop happening.

Two of the tech world’s biggest names have been talking on the subject of meetings in the last week and their tips couldn’t be more different.

First Tesla boss Elon Musk told his employees that they should walk out of long meetings and hang up on boring calls. Then Jeff Bezos, Amazon’s chief executive, explained that he prefers to start his meetings with half an hour of silence, where executives are forced to read a six-page memo at the start of every congress, before a discussion ensues.

Bezos also shared his “two pizza rule” for meetings. This does not mean that he won’t go to a meeting that does not offer tomato and mozzarella sustenance, but rather that he won’t go to a meeting where two pizzas are not enough to feed everyone present.

Without going to either extreme, I think we can all agree that a three hour meeting that is circular, vague and irrelevant to some people in the room can be a waste of time. Yet there is still a huge advantage in bringing people together that can’t be ignored.

We recently surveyed 500 business leaders from some of Europe’s biggest companies, including Lloyds Bank and Nestle, and most of them do not expect meetings to go the way of the fax machine.

The majority think that their organisation has the number of meetings “about right” but it was perhaps surprising to find that some business leaders, particularly in Australia, think there should be more meetings not fewer.

Meetings are places that companies thrash out ideas, come up with great policies and concepts and help develop camaraderie among workers. Nothing beats face to face contact.

Since increasingly people are working flexibly, either from home or elsewhere,  it’s even more important to exploit the actual time you have with colleagues fully.

My preference is that meetings should have a laser-like focus on the task at hand. I have seen lots of tricks for making meetings run smoothly and more quickly. For example standing meetings are one of the best ways to keep things short.

Other tips include starting a meeting at an odd time – like 8.48am – to make attendees remember it.  While another company I’ve come across limits meetings to 30 minutes and removes the chairs after that time.

In the UK we have seen office design come on in leaps and bounds in recent years, using ideas from modern university design to pioneer collaborative working.

Meeting spaces are better designed than ever to encourage creativity. Chairs are comfortable, natural light is valued and devices are more akin to what we would use at home and consequently, user friendly. Increasingly, people are joining a meeting by video conference or online, through Skype or Google Hangouts and you need to take that into account, when fixing the location for the meeting. If someone is always dialling in at the end of their working day, they’re likely to be tired. Vary things a bit so the burden of doing a late-night or early morning call is shared.

So, should you do as Musk suggests and walk out of a meeting or hang up on a call if you are not contributing? In reality, few of us can do that without consequences.

Instead of walking out, make the meeting work. Meetings are a driver of conversation and if the conversation is right, it will be productive and add value to your business.

Make sure everyone is prepped for the meeting and has time to read documents before hand.   Set the mood of the meeting. Let people know that you want to achieve a resolution. Be upbeat and energetic.

Generate input positively by giving people a minute to jot down their ideas or reaction – you might get more considered responses. You will also send a message that everyone has to contribute, no one is a passenger.

Work hard to make sure all voices are heard. Meetings are a great place to test out ideas, before they’re put in front of the customer. There’s something to be said for generating a little bit of paranoia – it keeps people on their toes – but not too much.

A poor meeting culture can damage your business in more ways than just wasting time. It can hurt employee loyalty and trust, and ultimately harm your efforts to keep staff.

Productive meetings, that engage the whole team, will not only get the work done but will also help build teams and set long-term goals.

We can’t all be as productive and successful as Elon Musk or Jeff Bezos but it is possible to make meetings work for you. And that means putting communication at the top of the agenda.

But let’s not schedule a meeting about it.

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