you need some meeting norms, so that your meetings stop sucking

Everyone hates meetings – there are too many of them, they go on too long, they go off track, and they often end without clear decisions.

One way to combat overly lengthy and unfocused meetings is to align your team (or whole organization) around a common set of expectation about how meetings should work. By creating one set of meeting norms that everyone knows they should adhere to, you can dramatically overhaul how meetings operate … and save tons of person-hours in time and frustration.

Sticking to one set of meeting norms doesn’t mean that all meetings must be conducted in exactly the same way. To the contrary, you should continue to adopt the style that works best for whatever the purpose of your meeting is. But a good set of meeting norms will address the following:

  • When meetings should and shouldn’t be held. You might state, for example, that meetings should be used when discussion and input is needed, but generally not for simple updates that could instead by conveyed in an email.
  • What kind of prep is expected. Should organizers send background information beforehand? How far in advance? (You might say, for example, that any background info should be sent at least a day in advance and that participants are expected to come to the meeting having read it – so that you don’t spend the first 15 minutes catching everyone up on what the materials said.)
  • What meeting invites should include. For example, you might specify that meeting invites should make the purpose of the meeting clear, indicate whether attendance is optional or not, and include both a start and an end time.
  • Agendas. If you do nothing else on this list, at least require an agenda to be created in advance. Thinking through the agenda – even if it’s a short one – will help ensure participants’ time is spent as effectively as possible. In addition to encouraging the meeting organizer to create the agenda ahead of time, you might also encourage organizers to cancel meetings that they realize are no longer needed.
  • Timing. Ideally, your norms would note that all meetings will start and end on time, and that in service of that goal, conversations that don’t involve the majority of the participants will be held for another time.
  • Facilitation. You might note that every meeting should have a facilitator who’s charged with opening the meeting with a clear statement of what the group is there to accomplish, moving the agenda along, redirecting conversation as needed, capturing next steps and other takeaways (including possibly sending an email to participants after the meeting to confirm next steps, where relevant), and ensuring that the meeting wraps up on time.

Try suggesting that your team create a set of meeting norms and see if it doesn’t change your meeting culture for the better.

I originally published this at Intuit QuickBase’s blog.

{ 34 comments… read them below }

  1. Eric*

    In hindsight, it was when I realized that all meetings at the new job lasted an hour (or more!) regardless of actual business to conduct/discuss, the non-work meeting time being filled with inane chitchat, sometimes for 20 minutes, that the job lost me.

    1. Merry and Bright*

      I feel for you. Some meetings in my department are booked for two hours and then overrun because the same points are rehashed over and over. It depends who is chairing though.

  2. Bostonian*

    These are great. I’d add that in addition to having end times and being willing to cancel meetings if they are no longer needed, it should be fine to end meetings early if the purpose of the meeting has been achieved. Some groups have a way of just letting things drag out to fill the allotted time because no one stops and says “it seems like we’re done here, so let’s wrap up.”

    I’ve also found it very helpful to put time estimates on the agenda items for all but the most informal meetings – definitely for myself when I’m facilitating and sometimes on an agenda that all the participants can see. It makes you stop and think about what you need to accomplish and how long each thing is likely to take, what scope or level of detail you really want the meeting to dive into on a particular topic, whether something really is just a 2-minute update. It also means you aren’t asking people to block out two hours when you only need one, or trying to cram 90 minutes’ worth of stuff into 60. Plus seeing the times listed can help a facilitator move things along by pointing to the times on the agenda. If things get totally derailed, the facilitator can either a) make a conscious decision that the derailment is due to an important issue and is a good use of time, or b) move on and kick that issue to a different meeting, delegate it to one or two participants, or otherwise find a different way to handle it.

  3. T*

    One place I worked had a strict policy that no meetings could be held on Fridays which was awesome. It’s the most likely day when a participant will take personal time and miss the meeting plus it lets everyone concentrate on wrapping things up before the weekend. The calendars for meeting rooms were actually blacked out on Fridays so you couldn’t even schedule them.

    But it’s a slippery slope so there can be no exceptions. We had a new manager that tried to ignore this policy because her meetings were “critical to the operation of the company” and we heard they called her into HR to explain the policy again. It’s like Walmart deciding it would be great to be the only store open Thanksgiving Day. It doesn’t take long before every other store feels like they have to do it too just to keep up.

    1. OhNo*

      Interesting logic behind the Friday meeting ban! I worked at a place that banned meetings on Monday afternoons, and I was always curious what the logic behind that time slot was. Unfortunately I never did find out.

  4. JC*

    Another good tip is to have a short default meeting time. Where I work now, the default meeting time is a half hour. This is perfect for us. Most meetings take less time than that, and when we know a meeting needs more time we schedule more time. Where I used to work the default meeting time was an hour, and often meetings stretched to an hour when they didn’t need to.

    1. Honeybee*

      Yeah, I’ve noticed that too – at my current company the default meeting time is 30 minutes, and that’s really great because when I book the meeting I have to actually think about whether we need an hour or whether we can do what we need in 30 minutes. (The answer is usually 30 minutes. But I haaaaate meetings, although I have hated them less since I started working here.)

  5. Mimmy*

    YES to all of this, especially the timing! It irks me to no end when one group I’m in gets stuck on a particular topic, with many more agenda items to go…and it’s 30 minutes before we’re supposed to end, lol. Then those last few agenda items get rushed, leaving no time for productive discussions.

    I’d also like to make a suggestion for a post on conference call etiquette. With many teams being more widespread these days, meetings via conference calls have become very common. I just got off of a call earlier and it’s so hard to get a word in edgewise when everyone else is talking over one another.

    Finally – kudos to whoever chose the stock photo for the article!

    1. nofelix*

      It’s ‘edgeways’, like if you were to write the word on a piece of paper and try and wedge its edge into the conversation. I used to make this mistake too, thankfully someone let me know.

  6. Devil's Avocado*

    I’m known in my small office as a staunch anti-meeting advocate – people always joke about how much I dislike meetings (which is true. I’m all about efficiency.)

    I had a conversation last week with a colleague/friend that really opened my eyes, though: I was facilitating a budget meeting with 5 people where we had a ton to get through. She kept starting side conversations, and I raised it to her afterwards, telling her that I thought it as disrespectful and that it slowed down progress. (Not so bluntly – I said it nicely!) She responded that since it was such a small group, she thought there was room for conversations, and that she didn’t think we had to be all business all the time… that minor side conversations were just a way of being friendly in meetings with the other participants.

    I realized that we see the purpose of meetings as fundamentally different – I see it as a time to get work done, and she sees it as a time for people to come together, work together, and build stronger relationships. Realizing this actually shifted my perspective – most people in my office (I think) tend to see things more her way than mine, which is a valid working style for them. It is still endlessly frustrating for me, though.

    1. Stranger than fiction*

      Interesting example of the task-oriented mindset vs. the people-oriented mindset. I’m more like you, but it seems your coworkers mindset is more popular these days.

      Is the devils avocado spicy?

      1. Devil's Avocado*

        I work in the not for profit arts sector, which is full to the brim with people-oriented people. I feel like the odd-lady-out much of the time.

        1. Artemesia*

          I was on the board of a national professional organization that met once a year and was endlessly NOT task oriented — drove me bonkers. There were two of us on the board who wanted to use the time to advance the goals of the organization and everyone else was there to build relationships. The organization eventually crashed and burned when not enough attention was paid by the board to the people they hired to manage the funds and run the organization’s business.

    2. Ad Astra*

      That’s a great point. My company is big on meeting chit-chat because it’s part of the culture, and that does mean we sometimes take an hour when we could get it done in 45 minutes. It’s not my favorite. We do have some good project managers who can keep the bigger meetings on track, though. It’s the four-person “informal” meetings that drag on forever.

      1. Devil's Avocado*

        Yeah, same here. I feel like such a scrooge because I am always thinking “No! Stop talking and laughing and just work!” But it just doesn’t feel like a good use of my time.

        1. Daisy Steiner*

          It’s like when my family tries to play a game together. Half of us are chit-chatting between turns, losing track of what’s going on (but still having fun), and the other half are getting exasperated: “Stop having fun! We’re supposed to be playing a game!”. Some people take their fun very seriously.

  7. schnapps*

    We run meetings for elected officials. I highly recommend the John Cleese movie “Meetings, Bloody Meetings”. Funny, but has really good basic points in it. It’s on YouTube too.

  8. AndersonDarling*

    I don’t want to sidetrack the comments, but I was wondering if anyone had problems with deciding who will schedule the meeting. We have a terrible problem with people assigning meeting scheduling to other people, such as a manager telling someone outside the topic to set up the meeting (they don’t know who should come or the reason for the meeting). I’m trying to come up with guidelines as to who should set up meetings:
    1. The person who wants to hold the meeting
    2. Except if the meeting is with HR. Hr’s schedule takes precedence.
    3. If the person requesting a meeting has a secretary or assistant, then they set up the meeting
    3. If an attendee has a blocked calendar, then they need to set it up (If you want to block your calendar for no reason, then you need to do the extra work.)
    It’s funny this topic came up today, I’ve been trying to work this out for a while and need to make guidelines this week. This is part of our Outlook Calendar training.

    1. Connie-Lynne*

      Everywhere I’ve ever worked, this is the general description of the order of operations for choosing who will set up a meeting, but it’s never been spelled out so formally.

      Usually what happens is whoever is asking for the meeting says “I’ll set this up” [or “I’ll have my assistant set this up”]. Sometimes they specifically call out a person, “John, can you do a google cal invite?” It doesn’t even need to be the person with the most authority in the situation, just the person most invested in the meting. Occasionally they’ll throw over responsibility, “Gina, your calendar is the busiest, can you find a time and do an invite?”

      1. AndersonDarling*

        Thanks for the feedback. Everywhere I’ve worked before, it was common knowledge that the person invested in the meeting (I love that wording!) sets up the meeting. It’s so strange that folks here push the responsibility off and I need to spell it out.

    2. Devil's Avocado*

      I would take out the bit about the blocked calendar – that doesn’t make much sense to me. The person with the blocked calendar also might not know the reason for the meeting, or who needs to come. (Which is the problem you originally stated.)

      If someone has a blocked calendar, they should either be expected to accommodate necessary meetings… or better yet, don’t allow people to have block their calendars. (Which might be outside of your power. But IT could likely help.)

      1. AndersonDarling*

        Anyone with a blocked calendar needs to accommodate the meeting- I like that even better. Thanks!

    3. Artemesia*

      I worked for a guy for awhile when I was a grad student whose actual talents and job were a mystery to us all. We jokingly said he had the Pan American Chair (you can see how long ago this was). He got funds from foundations, he flew around the country and he did absolutely nothing that any of us could discern. On one occasion he asked a junior colleague to set up a meeting with a bunch of important people around some vague topic (he only did vague). So we are sitting around the table waiting expectantly for him to begin and he looks over at the junior colleague and says ‘Lee, I believe this is your meeting.’

      Made a very good living being funded to do nothing anyone could discern.

      1. CM*

        This has happened to me! (Being asked to schedule someone else’s meeting and then when everyone gets there, the person turns to me and says, “So tell us why you called this meeting.”)

  9. msbadbar*

    The meeting culture at my current job is one of my least-favorite aspects of working here. I came from a really disciplined office to this one where start and end times are just gentle suggestions, and my manager prints a map of his European vacation on the agenda so we can be sure to talk about that.

  10. A*

    I work with a very small non-profit and we have the most amazingly efficient and productive meetings. Every two weeks we schedule an hour to provide intros, orientation and updates to new volunteers, go over agenda items, discuss topics that need discussion, make decisions and assign action items.

    We come to the meetings with a rough agenda and everyone invested in the meeting not going longer than one hour. We have an informal policy that if a topic is complex and we’re not able to make a decision quickly, we will have more discussion via email and move on to the next topic. We generally circulate any materials that need to be discussed via email so that everyone has had a chance to get up to speed before the meeting. If a project is being worked on by a subset of the group, we do updates and action items and then the sub-committee or individuals do their stuff outside of the meeting.

    I think most importantly, everyone who participates has a shared understanding of the purpose of the meetings, has similar goals, and is self aware and respectful enough to not take up a lot of space or derail the meetings. We often finish before the allotted time, and have gone over only once in two years.

    This is in stark contrast to the many other non-profits I’ve worked with, where regular meetings were disorganized, meandering, and often felt frustrating and unproductive.

  11. T3k*

    My boss tries to hold meetings… they don’t work very well though. She once held an impromptu meeting when she realized most of us were in my tiny office… then to top it off, called the last person who wasn’t in there to come in. This person had no hand or input in what we were discussing (we were discussing the size of a design to be printed on a teapot when she just took teapot orders), so I had to really stop myself from face-palming at the stupidity of it.

  12. Victoria Nonprofit (USA)*

    As evidenced by some of the comments above, I think the topic of meetings actually taps into a much bigger and more interesting set of questions. What ARE meetings for? Not any specific meeting – you set each agenda as needed – but meetings in general? Why meet rather than delegate a task to one person? Why meet rather than creating a group document and collecting thoughts there?

    This is probably my people-oriented bias, but I feel like getting these basic things right – have an agenda, start on time, etc. – are like Level 1 of good meetings. Level 2 is knowing when and how to bend those rules. Sometimes you go over time because you’re really in a good groove. Sometimes you spend more time just checking in with each other than you otherwise would because people need to feel connected to their team. Sometimes you throw the agenda out the window because you realize halfway through the meeting that something you hadn’t thought of is more important.

  13. The Bimmer Guy*

    Oh, yes. This is good. It’s especially relevant when you need to curtail that one person that thinks he/she needs to comment on every point that’s brought up (you know the one), thereby dragging the meeting out…

  14. Polka dot bird*

    If you have a lengthy discussion in order to make a decision, be sure to actually make the decision! I don’t want to meet twice for the same discussion. Ban Groundhog Day agendas.

  15. nofelix*

    One thing I’d like advice on: who should facilitate the meeting?

    An issue I have is when I facilitate the meeting is I don’t feel I have the clout to tell more senior people to wrap up or move on.

    If the most senior person facilitates, they’re spread between facilitating and participating and things get forgotten.

  16. Solidus Pilcrow*

    Another couple of annoyances:

    * Be mindful of lunch hours, especially across timezones, if you can. I’m in the Central timezone, my management is in the Eastern timezone, and the people in the Eastern timezone continually schedule meetings for 11 am their time. Over my lunch hour in other words (yes, yes, I know, take my lunch at a different time as I’m in the minority, but it gets old). A previous company (from people in the same area!) would schedule lunch-time meetings deliberately because “it’s free on everyone’s calendar”.

    * Don’t rehash half the meeting for the people who join the conference call 5, 10, and 15 minutes late! One group I worked with was very bad at this. They’d start the meeting 2-3 minutes late, then rehash everything for the people who joined 5 minutes late, then rehash again for the people 10 minutes late, etc. I think they went up to 30 minutes one time, for a one hour meeting! Meanwhile the people who joined on time are practically in tears. All it did was train people to not join on time.

    * Don’t make people delay the start of meetings if you’re late. One company never seemed to end meetings on time, so the participants were late to their next meeting and delaying the start. It would just get into this cycle of each delay causing more delays down the line. It also didn’t help that the company seemed to foster the idea that “I’m have back to back meetings, I’m double, triple, quadruple booked!” was something to be proud of.

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