When Meetings are a Waste of Time

Elaine Varelas offers advice on how to keep meetings productive.

Ask the Job Doc.
Ask the Job Doc. –Boston.com

Q: I’m on a team that regularly holds one or two full meetings per week. These meetings aren’t productive—most of the hour (sometimes longer) is spent discussing personal issues or venting about problems, not solving them. I’d rather use the time to actually do some work. Is it inappropriate for me to bring this up to my manager, who leads the meetings? What are some tips for running productive meetings?
A: Many people feel that the meetings that they attend—or even host—are less than productive. Having productive meetings takes planning, clear communication, and participants who are committed to using the time effectively. It is the responsibility of the participants and the manager to make sure meetings are productive.


What’s the purpose of these meetings? Making sure everyone knows the meeting’s objectives will set the tone… Is it to share information? A working session? To solve a specific problem or build support for a plan? Participants will behave accordingly based on the stated goals. A good meeting will have a specific purpose and be scheduled to achieve intended objectives, with preparatory information provided in advance.

Participants should know meeting rules—your situation may be that the team has no rules or that the rules aren’t clearly communicated. Is the start time held to? Should it be standard practice to say no email, no phone use, and no multitasking? Are conversations and comments additive, not repetitive? If the rules are clear and people get off agenda in a non-productive way, anyone in the meeting—including you—can suggest they take it offline. Some social time is expected at the start of any meeting, but it should be minutes—not more. Expectations simply need to be communicated clearly.

Many people would choose to skip all meetings. But group communication can build community, with all people hearing the same information and ensuring the opportunity to ask questions or raise concerns. Emails in place of a meeting won’t always cut it. Many people complain about working solo and being isolated and out of the loop, which is more likely to hinder employee engagement. If you are” in the know,” meetings may feel redundant. Keep in mind the benefit information sharing has for the group at large.


Talk to your manager about supporting him or her with the work needed to have standing meetings. Offer to develop or manage the agenda, write up the notes, and generally help (without pointing out that meetings need to be more effective): “We have so much to talk about at these meetings, would it help if I wrote up the agenda for you, and the action items?” If the manager says no, understand he/she is ok with status quo.

You might also consider if the whole team needs to be present for the entire meeting. Maybe the IT group comes to the first half, while Finance joins at the end. This will help individuals feel like the meeting they attend is valuable to them. You might encourage others to suggest these ideas to your manager if you do the offer of support.

Effective meetings (in person or via technology) in general have a start time and an agenda in advance; actively encourage balanced participation; and follow up on action steps. The end of the meeting is as important as the beginning. End on time or early. What have people committed to do? Is there someone who sends out minutes and action items to ensure follow through?

Meetings are a necessary part of any business, but successful meetings take practice and commitment. As a participant, your support is a great first step in creating the environment for a productive meeting!

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