Meetings are a key part of business, and that holds true whether your team is all working in the same bank of cubicles or they're distributed remotely across the country or around the world. Remember, everyone who attends your meeting should be getting something out of it that helps them do their job. If they aren't, every minute spent in that meeting is a minute you're paying them to waste their time. Unless your business loves paying multiple people's salaries to have them sit around and do nothing, you need to optimize your meetings.
How many of your team, staff, coworkers, or peers could drink their coffee out of a mug like this? "A meeting that could have been an email" is a common trope amongst office workers for good reason. All too often, managers and department heads love to call meetings for the most trivial of discussions, which often could happen over email, in a Slack channel, or on a quick phone call. Worse, they're often all-hands meetings when they should really just involve a few people instead.
There are many reasons for this.
And, of course, the big one:
Meetings are a key part of business, and that holds true whether your team is all working in the same bank of cubicles or they're distributed remotely across the country or around the world. No business will ever fully get rid of meetings, but they can take steps to improve their efficacy, reduce time spent on frivolous meetings, and generally boost productivity.
Before we dig in, we have to point out one thing: poorly-planned, poorly-structured meetings cost money. Tangible, actual money.
Remember, everyone who attends your meeting should be getting something out of it that helps them do their job. If they aren't, every minute spent in that meeting is a minute you're paying them to waste their time. That cost adds up.
"A survey of 6,500 people from the USA, UK, and Germany found that among the 19 million meetings that were observed, the ineffective meetings cost up to $399 billion in the US and $58 billion in the UK. Ineffective meetings cost up to $70 to $283 billion to the US economy. Suppose an average employee is making $60,000 per year and a company has 100 employees. In that case, the cost of meetings rises to $2,250,000, while the cost of unproductive meetings per year is $751,500." - Statistics from Otter.ai.
Unless your business loves paying multiple people's salaries to have them sit around and do nothing, you need to optimize your meetings.
While you might not initially think it, there's a pretty significant difference between a virtual meeting with a remote team and an in-person meeting in an office.
For one thing, certain kinds of meetings are better handled one way than another. HBR recommends that task-focused meetings (like discussing project goals and deadlines, introducing training, or other business direction) can be handled with a remote meeting, while "relationship-focused" meetings are better handled in person.
Of course, in-person meetings are more difficult to arrange if your team is partially or fully remote, and with the pressures of the pandemic pushing businesses to hire more remote workers, this is becoming the norm faster than ever before.
Remote meetings face many challenges.
This is not to say that remote meetings are all bad. For one thing, they facilitate communication across a widely distributed team, and they can host many more participants than is often convenient or even possible in a physical meeting space.
The core of the issue, however, is not the venue or channel or technology, but the framework of the meeting itself. Even the best in-person team can be bogged down by ineffective meetings, and even the least engaged remote team can find a lot of benefit from a remote meeting structured properly.
"The best remote meetings have a session agenda set beforehand so that people come in knowing what it is they will be talking about. If the meeting doesn't have that, then you spend 15 to 20 minutes just figuring out what it is you are even trying to do." – Bryant Galindo, CEO of CollabsHQ.
Every single meeting needs to have an agenda, a purpose, a goal. What are you gathering people to discuss, how are you going to discuss it, who needs to contribute, what are the conclusions to hope to reach, and when are you cutting it off? These questions formalize the structure of a meeting and ensure that it can be productive with a minimum of distractions and inefficiencies.
Anyone who has ever attended a meeting where the first half an hour was spent figuring out the purpose of the meeting knows exactly what we're talking about.
Here's how to develop a successful meeting agenda.
Your meeting logistics need to be pinned down in advance so that everyone attending the meeting can plan the rest of their day around it. A good meeting never runs over time, gets in the way of other tasks, or veers wildly off-track.
Bear in mind that, even if some of this is covered in other ways (like an expectation that everyone on a team attends the meetings, or that the date and time is in the calendar invite), the information should be present in the agenda, so there's a secondary reference and a minimum of ambiguity. The last thing you want is to have to hunt down people who "didn't know they were supposed to attend" or "the meeting was never added to my calendar, somehow." Tech issues happen, so plan for that and add redundancy.
The key objective for the meeting is what the meeting is meant to accomplish. Are you discussing onboarding a new hire? Are you discussing the last month's financial reports? Are you going over the projected development timeline for the third quarter? Are you leveraging the synergistic specialties of your service engineers to develop a timeline for the participation of ongoing attendance in organized discussions? (Don't do that one, if you can even figure out what it means.)
By defining the key objective, you do three things.
Without these details, a meeting becomes an interminable slog with a manager holding everyone else's time at ransom.
As an added bonus, assigning a key objective avoids the problem of meetings trying to do a little of everything. When you define the key objective, you may determine that the list of people to attend the meeting is longer than is necessary; let those people free up their schedule and hold the meeting only for the people who need to attend.
While the key objective is critical, it's not enough to fuel an entire meeting. Think of it like a thesis statement, not a list of key points.
Your meeting agenda should also include a list of the key points you need to make throughout the meeting. Each one should have a time slot and, if necessary, an indication of who on the roster is responsible for leading the discussion.
By the very nature of discussion, these can be flexible. However, there's a difference between planning for flexibility and not planning for structure. You want structure that can shift. The point of the topics list is to be a bare minimum, to ensure that every key point is touched upon throughout the meeting, and no details slip through the cracks.
Next, look over your list of discussion topics and arrange them in an order that makes logical sense. Anything that will require information from a previous point needs to be arranged after that point, and so on.
While this might sound like obvious advice, you'd be surprised at how many people overlook the concept of linear time when planning meetings.
It can also be worthwhile to assign a fixed duration for each discussion point. Some companies and teams work well with a rigid timeline, so the meetings have a guaranteed end point. Others prefer more flexibility to let discussions go where they will until everyone deems it resolved. For some, it may depend on the nature of the discussion.
Finally, your meeting agenda should include any potential "homework" your attendees will need to have done ahead of time. If they need to generate reports to present, if they need to read documents to discuss, if they need to come up with a proposal, all of this needs to be mentioned and planned ahead of time.
Remember, as well, that the more frequent the meetings, the larger the attendance, or the lower the importance of the topic, the shorter the meeting should be. You as a manager may have plenty of time to spend half the day in meetings, but your employees do not.
We've given you a framework, but now you need to see it in action. There are thousands of templates for meeting agendas available online, so rather than present one of our own, we're going to give you resources instead. You can always just develop your own as well, using the framework we've provided.
Here are some of those templates you can follow:
The truth is, there's no singular agenda for every virtual meeting, so there's no single template that will solve all of your problems. The key is to know what you want to get out of a meeting, how you can get there, who you need to get you there, and how long it will take. From there, you can put together an agenda for any meeting, for any purpose, with ease.
Once you have meetings down to a fine science, you can work on optimizing everything else about your business.