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Balancing act: Survey offers tips for keeping meetings short, productive

Throughout my career, I've had a love/hate relationship with one unavoidable part of the average office worker's life: meetings.

As a reporter, I was often sent to cover meetings for the newspaper, handling everything from city councils and school boards to legislative committees and utility commissions. I've sat through hundreds of hours of such meetings, dutifully taking notes and searching for stories to write.

Occasionally I'd get a decent story out of a meeting. Sometimes I'd get an idea for an even better story. But often, I'd wonder why I went. I'd leave the meeting feeling frustrated, commenting to my sympathetic reporter wife, "There went another three hours of my life I'll never get back."

Flash forward a few years, and I became an editor, managing teams of writers. While still not a huge fan of meetings, I am now the person not only running them but also forcing others to attend them.

With this new perspective, I must grudgingly admit that meetings are not inherently evil. It's just that we rarely do meetings right, and that means we end up wasting precious time. For someone who is always looking for ways to improve his or her own work-life balance and to support others in their similar quests, such time-wasters are public enemy No. 1.

I know I'm not alone in feeling this way. For example, one woman on the team I manage now is so famously opposed to meetings that we've jokingly named the art of skipping a get-together after her.

For further evidence, I offer the results of a recent survey by Robert Half Management Resources, a provider of finance, accounting and business systems professionals on a project and interim basis. The survey, which was conducted by an independent research firm, was based on interviews with more than 400 U.S. office workers age 18 and older.

Those workers were initially asked, "In general, what percentage of the time you spend in meetings is wasted?" The mean response was 25 percent.

Would you agree that, for every hour you spend in a meeting, about 15 minutes is wasted? I probably would.

As a follow-up question, people were asked which mistakes meeting leaders most commonly made. Two responses tied for the top spot: "not having a clear purpose or agenda for the meeting" and "not sticking to an agenda." Those two were followed by "not ending on time," "not starting on time" and "inviting people who don't need to attend."

Before I go any further, I must confess that I've been guilty of all of these meeting sins. And I'll probably commit similar transgressions in the future.

However, I try to avoid these problems. When I started my new career about three years ago, I was holding a weekly one-hour meeting with my team. After a while, I realized that much of that time was filled with updates that could be handled in smaller groups, so I cut the meeting back to once every other week. I was thrilled to give my team the gift of time, and no one has ever complained that we're not meeting often enough.

Paul McDonald, senior executive director for Robert Half, said in a press release about the survey that misguided meetings can do more harm than good.

“An unnecessary or poorly conducted meeting can bring everyone down, because attendees feel like their time is not valued,” he said. “Leaders can avoid this situation by clearly establishing the purpose of the discussion, ensuring the right people attend and providing them an opportunity to contribute.”

Robert Half offered several tips for leading effective meetings in its press release and a related blog post, and I think many of them are worth sharing. For example:

  • Review the invite list. Only send it to people who have a stake in the outcome of items on the agenda. If attendance is optional for some people, make that clear.
  • Keep on track. Prepare and distribute your agenda in advance and make sure the discussion remains focused. This means the meeting leader also needs to be ready to cut off an unrelated conversation. I struggle with that sometimes, but I know it's important.
  • Consider stand-up or walking meetings. The Robert Half blog post points out that stand-ups are ideal for brief updates that need face-to-face interaction, and keeping people standing limits idle chitchat. Getting people out of the office and walking while meeting also tends to speed things along and can provide a definite end time.
  • Plan accordingly. Make sure there are enough seats in the room for all attendees (if you're not having a stand-up), and plan enough time for setting up technology. I always get to meetings I'm running at least five minutes early to make sure I can remotely log in to my computer and get the documents I'll need up on the projector.
  • Monitor time. Keep meetings short. If there's not much to discuss, cancel the meeting and try sending your message in an email instead. I've found that canceling an unnecessary meeting is always popular with my team.
  • Finish strong. Make sure people know what their next steps are as the result of a meeting: "Allow time for people to ask questions, and determine who has responsibility for each follow-up item," the Robert Half press release suggests.

I like these suggestions, and I could add more. For example, I include a 10-minute "housekeeping" item first in each of my team meetings. This gives us a few minutes to chat with each other and go over the team calendar before getting into the meat of the agenda. Some people may consider those 10 minutes wasted, but I have found the transition time is helpful for my team. I'm interested to hear your thoughts on this subject. How much of the time you spend in meetings is wasted? Why do meetings at your office get off track? And what tips would you share to keep meetings moving quickly and in the right direction?

Please send me your ideas, and I'll mention some of them in a future column.

Email your comments to or post them online at Follow me on Twitter at gkratzbalancing or on Facebook on my journalist page.