The Slice

15 Differences Between Formal and Informal Company Meetings

December 30, 2022

Company meetings can be broken down into two broad categories: formal and informal.‍ Depending on the purpose behind holding your next meeting, one type might be much more appropriate and suitable than the other.‍ What exactly is the difference between informal and formal company meetings, though? How do you know which is right for the company meeting you're planning?

Company meetings can be broken down into two broad categories: formal and informal.

Depending on the purpose behind holding your next meeting, one type might be much more appropriate and suitable than the other.

What exactly is the difference between informal and formal company meetings, though? How do you know which is right for the company meeting you're planning?

1. Purpose

Typically, businesses will hold formal meetings and informal meetings for different purposes. Some common examples of formal meetings include:

  • Quarterly reviews

  • Board meetings

  • Committee meetings

  • Team or departmental meetings

  • Governmental debates

Examples of informal meetings include:

  • Post-formal meeting discussions

  • Training sessions

  • Talks on upcoming changes

  • Problem-solving meetings

If you are stuck trying to decide between a formal or an informal meeting, it can be useful to understand which is best for different purposes.

For instance, formal meetings are typically best for:

  • Holding recorded votes

  • Disseminating information

  • Featuring guest speakers

  • Engaging in negotiations

  • Making significant decisions that impact the company or its employees

  • When a topic or situation needs to be discussed in detail

Informal meetings aren't as great for the above purposes as they lack the necessary structure. However, they do excel at the following:

  • Encouraging creativity

  • Brainstorming

  • Receiving feedback

  • Problem-solving

Formal meetings include a highly structured schedule and agenda. Time is often broken down into blocks, and the meeting schedule is usually handed out to participants in advance of the meeting.

Some people might find formal meetings to be kind of stodgy and old-fashioned, but the highly structured design of these meetings can help to ensure that the important points are communicated in an efficient and effective way. 

Informal meetings, on the other hand, can look a lot different than formal meetings. While they still frequently focus on a specific purpose, the whole experience is much more casual. 

2. Structure

Formal meetings are highly structured. In the agenda that is distributed ahead of time, blocks of time are assigned different items or events.

For instance, a formal meeting might have a handful of speakers that are each given a thirty-minute time slot. Then, the meeting might break down into small-group discussions before coming back together to have a final discussion period.

Informal meetings have much less strict structures. They might still have a loose plan for what will be discussed and in what order, but the vibe is much more casual. For example, attendants often feel much more comfortable interjecting and offering ideas in the more laid-back setting of an informal meeting than a formal one.

While formal meetings usually stick to their schedule fairly rigidly, informal meetings might run shorter or longer than the initially stated span depending on the session's development.

3. Agenda

Both formal and informal meetings can have agendas, but an informal meeting's agenda is usually less strict and looser. The agenda of a formal meeting often focuses on a key speaker or a handful of them, and the people in attendance are more passive. While informal meetings can have a rough schedule they are working from, participants typically feel much freer to speak their minds, and the meetings often consist of collaborative discussions.

Depending on the policies and culture of your company, your weekly team meetings might be more formal or informal. Many modern businesses find that informal team meetings are a better fit in order to boost engagement, creative thinking, and morale. However, formal meetings can be the right choice if your meeting is largely going to revolve around information dissemination and presentations.

4. Protocols

The protocols for formal meetings are much more set in stone than with informal meetings. In a formal meeting, one designated person usually leads all of the discussions. There might be set rules for who is allowed to speak at what time and for how long. The person that takes notes also might follow a highly specific structure and use formal language when recording the minutes.

For informal meetings, there are less likely to be many specific protocols. At the same time, the group might decide upon a few conventions they utilize to keep the conversation efficient and flowing or to vote on certain topics.

There are actually a specific set of guidelines known as Robert's Rules of Order that are used to run meetings at organizations around the world. Henry Martyn Robert created these rules of order initially to add structure to loosey-goosey church meetings that were inefficient. While this meeting structure might seem pretty intense for a casual weekly meeting, the organization of Robert's Rules ensures that no vital information is passed over or forgotten.

5. Predictability

Though formal meetings might not sound like anyone's idea of a good time, they offer a number of benefits that shouldn't be overlooked. One of these is predictability.

Sometimes, information needs to be communicated to a team, department, or the company as a whole in a fairly one-directional way. Other times, a meeting might incorporate the ideas of more participants, but the group size or the topic's importance demands a more structured and formal meeting.

In these instances, the predictability of formal meetings is essential. A successful formal meeting doesn't leave very much up to chance or imagination– there is a set agenda ahead of time that is strictly followed.

Informal meetings are less predictable, which can be a good or bad thing depending on your purpose. Going into an informal meeting, you aren't as sure what's going to transpire. When holding a brainstorming meeting with your team about a new product launch, unpredictability can result in a golden idea you would never have thought of. If you're introducing the new CEO to the company, unpredictability isn't really what you're looking for.

6. Meeting Minutes

Formal meetings don't just have a rigid structure and set agenda; they also have an official notetaker that records meeting minutes. In these minutes, they aren't just jotting down the occasional interesting point or taking attendance– there is usually a specific structure to the notes themselves that must be followed. At the same time, the language used to take notes is fairly formal.

You don't have to take formal minutes when you hold an informal meeting, but it can still be a good idea to keep some record of what occurs. This can be useful for people to refer to later on or for someone who missed the meeting to be brought up to speed.

When hosting an informal meeting, it's still a good idea to give one person the job of taking notes. This can reduce confusion and ensure that the most important points are recorded.

If you conduct your meetings over video conferencing software, you also might choose to simply record the meetings and make them available to people later on.

7. Creativity, Brainstorming, and Problem-Solving

There is much more room for creativity in informal than in formal meetings. If you want your team to brainstorm ideas for increasing revenue in the next quarter, an informal meeting is a much better environment than a formal one.

On the other hand, if you're instituting a new company policy that you're sharing with every employee, you aren't necessarily looking to create a highly innovative space.

8. Flexibility

Formal business meetings have their place, but they aren't known for their flexibility. If someone has an important idea they want to contribute that isn't on the agenda, they likely won't be able to have their voice heard during a formal business meeting.

In an informal meeting, though, there's a lot more space to go "off script" and address pressing issues that didn't end up on the meeting item list.

9. Tools

The tools that you utilize during a meeting can also differ depending on whether it's informal or formal. If you're meeting virtually, you'll need video-conferencing software that you've tested ahead of time, regardless of how casual your meeting is going to be. However, you might find that a large formal meeting requires that you upgrade your software to meet your needs and give you peace of mind that there won't be any technical hiccups.

For formal meetings, you'll also need note-taking software or notepads and pens for the notetaker to be able to keep minutes. A stopwatch or timer will also be required, though you can also use a digital version. You'll most likely also want some type of screen-sharing software in order to best present the information to attendants.

You don't need to worry about keeping time precisely with a stopwatch for informal meetings. However, you'll still want some way of taking notes or recording your sessions if they're virtual. Casual meetings also benefit from collaboration software that includes features like task-sharing and document-sharing.

10. Location

These days, there's a good chance that both your formal and informal meetings happen using video conferencing software. If you're still old-school and holding in-person meetings, another distinction is the location where the meetings are held.

Formal meetings are commonly held in conference rooms. There's no need to rent out a room for your informal meeting, though– they can be held in the break room, an office, or even a local restaurant or bar.

Even if you're signing on to a meeting virtually, it can be useful to understand the different vibes of formal and informal meetings. For a formal meeting, it's best to wear business attire and have a neutral or professional background. Basically, this isn't the time to try out that new Star Wars background you've been excited about.

For informal meetings, you might have some room to be a little more casual. Obviously, you'll want to consider the company culture and what seems to be standard on your team before showing up in your PJs. However, informal virtual meetings certainly don't require that you green screen a prestigious library as your background.

11. Attire

While what is appropriate to wear to a formal or informal meeting will differ depending on your company's culture, it's common for people to dress in more formal business attire when attending a formal meeting.

For informal meetings, the dress code can be a lot laxer. 

12. Engagement

In some formal meetings, many participants might only say a few words, if any. When there are speakers involved or a presentation being given as the primary event, attendees end up being in a primarily passive role.

This isn't necessarily a bad thing depending on the purpose of the meeting.

Informal meetings, however, encourage a lot more engagement from all participants. Even if there is a set agenda with specific items that need to be addressed, participants typically feel a lot more comfortable speaking their minds, making comments, and raising questions. The entire vibe can be a lot more laid-back, which can be a positive thing for the culture.

13. Interaction

On top of allowing for more employee engagement, informal meetings also give individuals a chance to interact with their coworkers and peers. This can be particularly important when you're managing a remote team– it's a lot more difficult for people to feel a part of a cohesive community when working from home.

Formal meetings don't allow nearly as much opportunity for people to interact with one another. While they might include breakout room discussions, the structure of the meeting typically keeps conversation highly on point and not particularly relaxing.

14. Advanced Planning

Formal meetings tend to be highly organized and planned in advance. You likely won't ever attend a formal meeting that is spur of the moment or off the cuff. It takes careful planning ahead of time to create the agenda and structure of a formal meeting, and ample warning is necessary to make sure that all of the right people are in attendance.

Informal meetings, on the other hand, won't require nearly as much organization ahead of time. The person running the meeting might jot down a rough agenda and share it before the meeting, or they might choose not to.

15. Meeting Roles

In a formal meeting, participants often have assigned roles that they fulfill during the meeting. This is something that is determined ahead of time– it's not something that surprises participants as they walk in the door to sit down.

While an informal meeting might have a notetaker and a person leading the discussion, it's less common for there to be specific and strict roles that individuals are fulfilling.

Time to Take Your Virtual Meetings to the Next Level?

Virtual meetings are incredibly convenient, but it can also be difficult to really experience the same sense of togetherness you get from an in-person meeting. To help bridge the gap and bring all of your meeting participants together, consider sending a catered meal to each and every one of them.

Whether you're hosting a more formal meeting and want to serve coffee and breakfast, or a casual meeting that calls for pizza, you can start your order today and let us do the work for you.

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