The Slice

FAQ: What Is the Ideal Length of Time for a Remote Meeting?

March 21, 2022

Meetings are rife with wasted time and poor, unengaging discussion. Remote meetings are even worse. If you're managing a remote team and you're guiding meetings, you probably want to know how to make them more effective. How long should the meeting last? What should you cover? Are there any surprising tips to make meetings more valuable to your team?

How often in the course of your career have you attended a meeting? How often are you left sitting in a meeting, wondering if anything anyone discusses is going to be relevant to your job or if it's all just a waste of time? How many times has a meeting dragged on and on, interminable, when it could just as easily have been a conference call? How often does your day start with a seemingly endless meeting, leaving you drained before the day has even begun?

"…experiencing a poor meeting can even result in meeting recovery syndrome, where employees lose additional time and productivity mentally recovering from a bad meeting." – MITSloan.

Meetings are rife with wasted time and poor, unengaging discussion. Remote meetings are even worse. If you're managing a remote team and you're guiding meetings, you probably want to know how to make them more effective. How long should the meeting last? What should you cover? Are there any surprising tips to make meetings more valuable to your team?

How Long Should a Meeting Last?

The most contentious point of discussion is how long a meeting should last.

Let's be real here; how many of you have a suspicion that meetings last as long as they do because managers have nothing else to do with their time and drag everyone else into meetings to make it look like they're doing something? 

We're not going to judge whether that's true or not. What we will judge is the traditional hour-long meeting window. 

99% of the time, an hour is overkill. You absolutely, positively, do not need an hour to discuss whatever the core topic of the meeting is. In reality, if your agenda is going to take an hour to cover, it's either a major quarterly review, or it's a meeting that should be broken up into several smaller meetings. More on that in a bit.

"Don't hesitate to schedule just 15, 20, or 25 minutes for a meeting. Reducing the meeting length creates positive pressure; research shows that groups operating under some level of time pressure actually perform more optimally given increased focus and stimulation." – MITSloan.

Have you heard of the Minimum Viable Product model for development? In short, it's a method of producing the smallest amount of finished product to gain feedback and cycle through development quickly, without a lot of wasted investment.

Meetings should operate on a similar model, the Minimum Time and Attendance model. This model, which we just made up, posits that the best meetings strive to push boundaries to the barest minimum on two axes:

  • The minimum number of people necessary to attend the meeting.

  • The minimum amount of time necessary to cover the topics in the meeting.

Remember, (most of) your team members are smart. They're intelligent people who can think things through for themselves and ask questions or access additional information provided to them if they need clarification. You don't need to spend an hour hammering in a point.

Who Should Attend Your Meetings?

Have you ever been part of a group project with someone who spends most of their time asleep, doing the bare minimum contributions (if anything), and pulling in their full share of the credit?

It's called "social loafing," and it's a natural human tendency to put forth the minimum amount of effort to participate in a group setting.

The larger the attendance roster of a meeting, the less likely it is for any given individual to be called upon to talk, especially if the agenda is set in advance. You've probably even seen some of the tricks online:

  • Record a video of yourself to play instead of a live webcam, then wander off or do something else.

  • Cause (or fake) internet or camera issues to hide your camera feed and do something else.

  • Paint photorealistic eyes on your eyelids so you can sleep while looking like you're paying constant, unblinking attention to the meeting, and also snoring.

The more people there are in a group setting, the more likely some selection of those people will loaf. You can combat this in a few ways, but the two biggest are to use video and to keep the roster as short as possible.

Using video puts a minimum level of engagement in the meeting higher than it otherwise would be. On a voice call or a text meeting, you can zone out. On a video, you have to at least appear engaged, and often one of the easiest ways to appear engaged is to be engaged.

Keeping your attendance small helps ensure that attention is divided amongst everyone, and everyone has to remain engaged to be prepared. 

One of the biggest benefits of remote meetings is the fact that they take place online. You can trivially easily record and upload your meetings later. People who didn't attend can watch it for relevant information, possibly at 1.5x speed, whenever they have the chance and the free time to do so. The team representative who attended can also write a brief summary of the key points and give them to the team.

There may be some worry about equal participation and even marginalization of team members who never seem to be invited to meetings. Thus, make sure to have an open invitation for those who aren't directly required to attend. If someone feels put out and wants to attend, that's fine! They can attend and see what the fuss is about. 

Just, you know, make sure that you aren't treating them poorly for attending when they don't have to. This includes social pressure from the people who choose not to attend. Your company culture shouldn't be suppressive of engagement.

What About the Team Building?

If you're bringing in the fewest number of people for a meeting, and you're keeping it short, how can you build team engagement? What about all those icebreakers, trivia contests, and escape rooms you might want to run your team through?

The best option here is to recognize that "meetings" aren't monolithic.

Every meeting should serve a purpose. Some will be keenly task-oriented, based around directing a specific team or handing down a specific directive to team leaders. Some will be more casual, like a weekly or monthly all-hands meeting meant to serve as a general progress report for everyone. Others will be even more casual, where you order pizza for everyone and buckle down to solve some trivia or escape a room together, all while building camaraderie and proving that true friendships can survive anything.

Every meeting should have a purpose. Every meeting should have a schedule and agenda. Whether it's a quarterly report about how the business is failing and everyone needs to bail before things get bad, an employee recognition meeting showcasing how Todd Thingdoer is doing all the things, or a socialization call where everyone on your remote team participates in round-robin icebreaker tournaments, the purpose must be there.

Team building and socialization are valid purposes for a meeting. In fact, the problem with them is often when they're used to fill time in an otherwise too-long meeting that was meant to serve another purpose. 

How Can You Make a Remote Meeting a Success?

You can actually do a lot to make your meetings much more successful. You just need to be aware of the shortcomings of a meeting and the options you have to improve them. Here, in no particular order, are some of our favorite tips for making remote meetings worth holding.

Adhere to a schedule. Nothing is quite as bad as a meeting that starts ten minutes late and runs half an hour over schedule. Your employees have jobs to do and may have time-sensitive tasks they need to take care of.

Yes, this applies to end-of-day and Friday meetings! Don't forget that your employees have lives outside of work, and they may have things they need to do after work hours. Did you ever have parents who were late picking you up from school because of work? Did you resent them for it? Do you want to foster that in another generation? We didn't think so.

Watch for disruptive elements and customize your meeting norms. For example, if you notice a couple of employees tend to dominate the conversation or side-track meetings with off-topic discussions, institute time limits on individual contributions to let everyone else have their chance to speak and stay on topic.

Actively guide your meetings. As the person running a meeting, you need to take an active role. You can't just put out an agenda and expect the meeting to run itself, after all.

Respect introverts. Some people hate meetings and hate being unexpectedly called on. If such individuals don't need to be the face of their team or present something only they have the expertise to present, maybe don't draw attention to them unnecessarily? Just an idea.

Offer "back channel" opportunities for clarification. Sometimes, one person might not understand the subject of the meeting, but they don't want to speak up and disrupt the whole meeting and drag it out. Let those people approach you after for further clarification and discussion.

Similarly, use a system like Poll Everywhere to run quick surveys and gauge understanding. No one wants to be the first person to speak up and claim they don't get it, but maybe everyone is in the same boat. A poll – especially an anonymous poll – can show you how many people are in that position and let you know if you need to do a better job explaining the subject.

Make the meetings worthwhile, especially the long ones. There's a reason we offer the ability to get everyone on your team a pizza. If you're hosting a meeting at the end of the day, get pizza for your employees (and their families). It's like an extra level of compensation for their time and attention.

Finally, make sure to foster open communication. If you're unapproachable or if you suppress discussion or clarifications, your employees are going to feel worse about not knowing something, but won't have a good avenue to solve the problem.

Thus, one of the best things you can do is make sure your lines of communication are always open. If someone has feedback about the direction of a meeting or how meetings are structured, hear them out. If someone needs a bit more detail on a given meeting topic, provide it. 

So, What IS the Ideal Length of Time for a Remote Meeting?

If you've made it this far, you've read a lot of words that boil down to "however long it needs to be." The truth is, there's no single ideal length of time for a remote meeting. There are several different answers for several different kinds of meetings. 

30 minutes. The half-hour meeting is good for a smaller group of people to discuss different topics in detail.

15 minutes. The quarter-hour meeting is great for a single line item or a relatively small agenda of minor tasks and bookkeeping that needs to be handled.

10 minutes. An ultra-short meeting like this is generally best for a single agenda item, though let's be real here; most of the time, this meeting could be a one-on-one instead.

0 minutes. The best remote meetings aren't meetings at all. Do you really need a meeting for this agenda item, or can it be an email instead?

You can also go for the full hour-long meetings full of icebreakers, pizza, and socialization. Just remember that the purpose of those meetings is very different from the more task-oriented morning meetings.

Make no mistake; remote meetings are challenging to run and can be difficult to keep your team engaged throughout. They often take a different skill set and a different format than traditional in-person meetings. There's no shame in having to adjust over time. Being willing to adapt to new circumstances is a hallmark of a good business, after all.

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