Nearly 11 million meetings take place in the U.S. each day. When they are well-run, ideas and decisions flow. However, according to research, a full third of meetings are not productive—creating roadblocks, draining energy, and dragging down the business.
So, how do you create a healthy meeting, whether it’s in-person or virtual? It comes down communication—doing it well in large ways and small. Here are six tactics to making meetings more efficient and productive, whether you are organizing or attending them.
1. Set Up a “Communication Charter”
With your recurring meetings—whether in person or virtually—it helps to have a set of agreed-upon rules for communication known as a communication charter. For instance, you might say, “No multitasking,” or “Reply yes or no to calendar invitations within five hours.” You can also outline who takes minutes, when updates are given, or when to report problems. Ideally, everyone attending should agree on the guidelines and sign the communication charter. This technique serves to clarify the meaning and purpose of meetings, improving the focus and efficiency of both the team and individuals.
2. Put Phones Away
Research shows that the mere presence of your cell phone is enough to distract you and reduce cognitive function. In addition, it’s been proven that no one can truly multitask, so don’t start scrolling through your Twitter feed on the sly or sending e-mails. The solution: “Put [your phone] in your pocket, in your bag, keep it on vibrate, and leave the room if you have to take the call or return a text,” says career coach and author Barbara Pachter.
3. Create a Concise Agenda—and Stick to It
Nothing wastes more time—or energy—than a meeting with no clear focus. Write an agenda with discussion points and action items, and for larger meetings send it out 24 hours in advance so participants can come prepared. Sarah Milstein, senior director of engineering at Mailchimp, suggests giving the approximate time needed for each item: “Some items might take one to three minutes; others might take 10 to 15. It gives people a sense of what to expect and lets you reign in discussions that are wandering.” As you complete each topic, cross it off. Even if you’re not leading the meeting, you can still help get things back on track with a quick, “Let’s get back to the topic at hand.”
4. Keep Things Lively
In one study, a full 91 percent of attendees admitted to daydreaming during a meeting and 39 percent admitted to dozing off. There’s an art to leading a meeting—and keeping people’s attention: First and foremost, ask them questions directly and solicit their opinions. Additionally, if a subject is going on for too long, table it for the next time. If energy is low, some people, like Dr. James S. Gordon at the Center for Mind-Body Medicine in Washington, D.C., will have participants stretch or do a quick yoga move to get the blood flowing.
5. Avoid Social Threats
When a person feels threatened socially, their brain shifts to survival mode. Why? Because they don’t feel psychologically safe: The belief that you are safe to take risks, make mistakes, and express yourself without jeopardizing your feelings, jobs, or position. A threatened person can shut down, act out, or experience a deterioration in cognitive function. Create a psychologically safe environment by treating everyone in the meeting with respect and avoiding language that might hurt, humiliate, or upset people. Ask for input from all attendees (especially those who speak less), celebrate unique ideas, don’t interrupt each other, and encourage collaboration, not competition.
6. No Eating
It’s considered distracting and impolite to bring your own food to a meeting. If you must do it, get permission from everyone present first. That said, sometimes it’s office tradition to serve donuts or sandwiches during a meeting. Just think twice about making this a habit, because meeting participants are typically distracted by food or food smells, and for virtual folks, the amplified sounds of chewing and clinking silverware can be distracting.