CPA INSIDER

How to spend less time in meetings

Use these six tips to make meetings more effective.
By Dawn Wotapka

If back-to-back meetings don't define your workday, consider yourself lucky.

This year alone, professionals worldwide are expected to spend 24 billion hours in unproductive meetings, costing more than $540 billion worth of resources, according to the Doodle State of Meetings Report 2019, which examined 19 million meetings arranged through the scheduling platform. 

"My favorite line from a past client was: 'I am headed to a meeting to discuss the need for another meeting,'" said David Almonte, CPA, CGMA, an audit manager with DiSanto, Priest & Co. in Warwick, R.I. and an AICPA Leadership Academy alumnus. "Organizations need to take back control and change the definition of what a meeting is."

Here's what can be done:

Determine the need. First, decide why a meeting is being held. Common reasons include problem-solving, decision-making, planning, presenting, or gathering feedback, said Robert Morlot, managing partner of Clearwater Business Advisers, a business consulting firm in Tampa, Fla.

"Each type serves a different purpose and outcome," he said. "If you cannot identify which type of meeting you are holding, it will inevitably fail to produce the productive result you intended."

If the task at hand is relatively simple, ask whether a conference call, a video call via a platform like Zoom, or communicating via messaging tools such as Slack or even email can get the job done instead. Email is best for status-reporting, said Melissa Gratias, Ph.D., founder of Progress Not Perfection LLC and a productivity specialist in Savannah, Ga. "Avoid roundtable meetings where the only purpose is to keep everybody in the loop," she suggested.

Make a schedule. It may seem obvious, but meetings require planning. A meeting leader should establish a detailed agenda and distribute it in advance, said Almonte, who estimates he spends as many as 10 hours per week in meetings. "Never run a meeting unprepared" or your meeting may be disorganized or unproductive, Almonte said.

During the meeting, be sure to stick to the outline, regardless of how the conversation flows. "Other topics of importance that arise should be flagged for future discussion," said Jeffrey Deckman, business author and founder of Capability Accelerators, a leadership development firm based in West Warwick, R.I.

Pare the invite list. Limit the attendance list to people who need to be there. According to Doodle, one-third of professionals reported being unable to contribute to most of their meetings. That's why it's important to make sure the right people are in the meeting, said Deckman.  That includes topic presenters, subject matter experts, those actively involved in the topic at hand, and those who will be directly affected by any decisions that are made.

Also, feel free to release people from the meeting when they are no longer needed, Deckman said. "It is also OK to invite people to attend a meeting after its original start time and to attend only for the topics that apply to them or affect them," he pointed out. One idea is to let someone know why he or she was invited and what that individual can offer to the meeting, he said.

Keep it short(er). As you're scheduling, rethink the idea that meetings have to take an hour. In some hourlong meetings, attendees cover the essential items quickly but "end up spending the remaining time talking about things that are not on task or on strategy," said Almonte. If a meeting only needs to be 20 or 30 minutes long, don't be afraid to schedule it for that amount of time.

Consider a grace period. Rethink the need to start a meeting on the hour. Try starting at, say, 10:15, which provides a window to get from one meeting to the next and a cushion should a previous meeting go a bit long.

"Meetings can start at 10:15 a.m. versus 10 a.m. and, most times, that cuts down on participants showing up late due to prior meetings running over," Almonte said.

Say no. If you're not the one planning the meeting, feel free to decline. "Just because you were invited to a meeting doesn't mean you must accept the invite," Gratias said. Also, she added, don't be afraid to delegate attendance to someone else and to empower them to make decisions on your behalf.

Dawn Wotapka is a freelance writer based in Atlanta. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Courtney Vien, a JofA senior editor, at Courtney.Vien@aicpa-cima.com.

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