Making most of meetings

Meetings often are dreaded, but well-run ones can reinforce goals and aid decision-making


We have all been there.

The boss calls yet another staff meeting, where your mind quickly wanders. You start to zone out. So you doodle to keep busy. Even the clock seems to be ticking slower.

Employees love to hate meetings, which have developed a bad reputation in the workplace for eating up valuable time. That's no surprise, given that most managers don't know how to run productive and useful meetings, business and organizational experts say. When handled properly, however, meetings can be a way to motivate and include workers in decision-making, according to several business leaders.

"Most meetings are a waste of time because they're ill-structured, ill-defined, and there are no boundaries and nobody runs them," said Helen Rothberg, associate professor of strategic management at Marist College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., who trains companies to run effective meetings. "They either become an open feast for people to dump stuff or a meandering, boring dissertation on what people are doing."

But managers love them because "it's what they're supposed to do," she said. If done right, meetings can play a crucial role in the workplace by promoting communications skills, fostering common goals and helping management make decisions, experts say.

"Meetings are needed to share information and create social connections and brainstorm and resolve things," Rothberg said. "Sometimes, there are situations where it's much better to meet and talk about stuff, instead of e-mailing and telephoning. The problem is they don't know how to distinguish when they should be meeting face-to-face."

More than 11 million meetings occur in U.S. businesses every day and employees attend an average of 61.8 meetings a month, according to a study commissioned by telecommunications company MCI Inc. Of the 660 people in the study who kept a two-week diary to record their meeting behavior and attitudes, 91 percent acknowledged daydreaming, while 39 percent said they dozed off.

Harry Bosk knows the meeting scene all too well. He spent countless hours attending meetings in his many years as a spokesman for several local universities and the Maryland Department of Human Resources.

"I'll start daydreaming and going into Walter Mitty-type episodes," said Bosk, who now heads a public relations firm in Towson. "The only scary thing about that is suddenly someone calls on you to comment on something."

Business experts and meeting facilitators agree that planning and organization are key factors to holding productive meetings.

Whether meeting in person, or via video- or teleconferencing, an agenda is a must-have item, because that means the manager calling the meeting thought about its purpose and intended outcomes, experts say.

It also helps to distribute the agenda a day or so before the gathering so that "everyone is on the same page," said Paul Tesluk, an associate professor of organizational behavior at Robert H. Smith School of Business at the University of Maryland, College Park.

"That makes things run much more efficiently and cuts down on frustration," he said.

With that in mind, managers need to closely follow the agenda and set a time limit. Designate a timekeeper and never run late, experts advise.

"The person who's running the meeting has to have the ability to balance getting contributions from everyone and sticking to the agenda and timeline," said Paul Riecks, president of the Inner Circle of Baltimore, which organizes and facilitates support meetings for Baltimore-area business owners. "Many times, people will feel a meeting is valuable, even though there's no substance, if the agenda is followed and the meeting starts and ends on time."

While there's no hard rule on meeting times, "nowadays, sitting longer than two hours is pushing one's limits," said Scott Cohen, a leader of talent management at Watson Wyatt Worldwide, a global consulting firm.

Joe Chamberlin of Chamberlin Mediation & Consulting in Lutherville facilitates business and team-building meetings for various organizations, including Catholic Relief Services and Johns Hopkins Hospital.

Chamberlin said his job involves making sure participants stay focused and are clear on the objectives of the meeting.

"People need to believe in the meeting," he said. "The person running the meeting should want to run the meeting."

A well-run meeting, experts say, will leave employees feeling empowered about their role in the meeting's outcomes.

Equally important for managers is following up with meeting minutes and an evaluation.

Bosk, who works in public relations, now holds meetings with his clients. Most of them are structured with specific issues to address, such as discussing a project's status or coming events to monitor, he said.

Nothing is a worse waste of time than going to a pointless meeting, Bosk said.

Or as he put it, "It's like when someone says, `We're here to talk about the weather.'"

How to do it

Tips for holding productive meetings:

Have a clear purpose and goals for meeting.

Create and distribute an agenda before the meeting.

Designate someone to lead the meeting; it doesn't have to be the manager who called it.

Stay on track and keep participants focused.

Set a time limit and stick to it.

Evaluate how the meeting went and find improvements.

[Source: interviews with experts]

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