Strategies for leading productive office meetings

By Teri Saylor

If you were to ask your staff to describe your office meetings, what words would they use? Boring? Time waster? Stressful? Frustrating?

Meetings don't have to be dreaded events. They can be interesting, energetic gatherings that bring employees together to brainstorm, solve problems, or make important decisions.

In this article, three management experts offer their advice on how to run office meetings that are positive, productive, and rewarding.

Focus on the agenda. "First, you should have a clear-cut agenda," said Adam Bryant, a New York City-based managing director of the leadership development and executive mentoring firm Merryck & Co. Further, it is not enough to just set an agenda and follow it; you also need to take charge of it. "Make sure the discussion items match the amount of time allocated," he advised. "If your agenda has two items on it, there's no need to budget an hour for the meeting, but at the same time, don't try to discuss 10 agenda items in 20 minutes."

Demonstrate the meeting's purpose. State clearly why you are having a meeting. "Having a staff meeting every Wednesday at 2 p.m. because we always have a meeting at that time is not a very good reason," said Neal Hartman, senior lecturer in managerial communication at the MIT Sloan School of Management in Cambridge, Mass. "Sometimes meetings don't need to involve everyone," he said and advised leaders to determine who needs to attend by being clear about the purpose of the meeting and what the group hopes to accomplish before issuing invitations.

Stick to a strict schedule. Demonstrate discipline and show respect for participants' time by starting and ending your office meetings as scheduled, Hartman said. "Do this as a regular practice and develop a reputation for being on time," he said. "And expect the participants to be on time too."

Keep minutes: Different people can sit in the same meeting and walk away with different interpretations of what went on. For that reason, it is important to keep minutes. "Ask participants to review the minutes for accuracy," Hartman said. "Include information about what happened in the meeting: What did we decide on? Who's taking on which tasks? Then follow up to make sure things get done."

Accountability is key. Sometimes action items left over from past meetings can fall through the cracks if they are not nurtured and attended to. Before office meetings adjourn, "make sure that clear 'next actions' are generated, and accountability is established," said Jim Booth, a certified association executive with 33 years of experience in national and international organization management at FirstPoint Management Resources in Raleigh, N.C. "Assign employees the task of delivering progress reports on specific action items at future meetings; otherwise, important items might be neglected or forgotten," he added.

Be a leader. Leadership means giving all meeting participants a chance to be heard. Inviting everyone to express their opinion enables the meeting to be an actual democracy, and in most cases this is very important, according to Hartman. "Sometimes people want to dominate meetings, while others are shy about speaking up," he said. "It is important to value everyone's experience and contributions from an employee morale perspective." The leader should also set the tone for meetings at the outset, Bryant advised. "It may be the type of meeting where I ask for everybody's opinion, but at the end of the day, the action will be my decision," he said. "Or it may be a consensus meeting, where we decide on issues together."

Consider banning devices. It is a sign of disrespect when participants in meetings are busy with email and texting, and are not paying attention. "Don't allow people to be on their phones or tablets during staff meetings," Hartman said. "Some leaders set up a box for employees to deposit their devices at the start of a meeting and pick them up on the way out."

Experiment with different formats. Office meetings don't have to be the same old drudgery week after week. Rotating moderators from among the staff can keep things interesting and give others a chance to exercise their leadership muscles. Standup meetings are often efficient if they aren't too lengthy. "Standups work best when meetings are less than 20 minutes," Hartman said. "People like these because they get right to the issue, forcing everyone to focus and get through the agenda quickly." 

Come together using technology. While face-to-face meetings help create camaraderie and build relationships, they're not always possible when staff can't come together under the same roof. Virtual conference rooms may be an option, Bryant said. "If people are spread from New York to London, Skype or other online meeting platforms will allow participants to see each other while meeting in real time."

Allow a little leeway in the system. At the end of the day, we are all human. Adding some wiggle room to the agenda will create a collegial atmosphere, Booth said. "Personal connections and social time help create teamwork and grease the machine."

Teri Saylor is a freelance writer in Raleigh, N.C. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Chris Baysden, senior manager for newsletters at the Association of International Certified Professional Accountants.

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