Workplace Wellbeing: What to do when you're not even remotely interested in another meeting

Meetings about meetings are when a lot gets set but little gets achieved — here some experts advise on how to make meetings more productive
Workplace Wellbeing: What to do when you're not even remotely interested in another meeting

Set a clear agenda for meetings: “There can often be a lack of clarity about why meetings are called in the first place and as a result, people can be unsure why they are even there,” says learning and development specialist Sean McLoughney

Sarah Murphy has a demanding job that involves liaising with lots of different people. As the general manager of the cloud-based legal technology company Clio, the 39-year-old from Wexford typically spends six hours a day in meetings, both in person and online.

In the past, she sat through her fair share of what she calls “meetings about meetings” — where a lot gets said but little gets achieved. Having learned from those experiences, she now tries to make her meetings more efficient.

“Reaching a conclusion within time is what I strive to achieve,” she says.

“There have been some that were a poor use of my time and that drained me of energy,” she says.

“I think it’s important to set a strict time limit on all my meetings and to keep track of the time throughout the meeting so that it remains focused and doesn’t get derailed from its original goal or intention.”

The Microsoft Work Trend Index 2023 has revealed that many of us are doing exactly what Murphy is doing. The 15-minute meeting is now the most scheduled meeting, making up 60% of all calendared gatherings, which suggests that workers are becoming more ruthless with their time.

It may be necessity that is driving them to do this. According to the index, most of us spend 7.5 hours a week (a whole working day) attending meetings. When you take away the other 8.8 hours a week that we spend reading and writing emails, we are left with only 43% of our working week to do our actual jobs.

Is it any wonder that a separate Microsoft survey of 31,000 employees worldwide found that two-thirds of people struggle to find the time to complete the work tasks assigned to them?

Thomas Garavan is a professor of leadership practice at Cork University Business School. He thinks that hybrid working has led to an increase in meetings.

“We have more meetings than ever these days,” he says.

“It can sometimes seem as if we have to have meetings about every little thing that needs to be decided. Maybe that’s because they are easy to schedule online, and nobody even has to move to attend them.”

As an academic, the meetings he’s invited to tend to be long ones, not short 15-minute affairs. “It depends on the topic as some things require a lot of discussion and consensus can take time to emerge,” he says. “Generally, my meetings last for up to two and sometimes even three hours. It can be tiring.

Sean McLoughney is a learning and development specialist who helps organisations to improve employee productivity and job satisfaction. He is also the author of Time Management. He believes we can all have shorter and more effective meetings.

“Many people will tell you that the meetings they attend aren’t as productive as they would like them to be, that they go off on tangents rather than sticking to the topic at hand,” he says.

“There are ways of preventing that from happening.”

One is to set a clear agenda. “There can often be a lack of clarity about why meetings are called in the first place and as a result, people can be unsure why they are even there,” says McLoughney.

“The person calling the meeting needs to set the agenda, outlining the key topics that are to be discussed and the purpose of discussing them.”

This person should also allocate a certain amount of time to each topic. “This will help the meeting to run efficiently,” says McLoughney.

“If you remind people of how much time they have at the beginning of the meeting and throughout, you’ll get them to focus and communicate what they need to stay far more quickly. If you don’t do that, you can easily end up getting to the end of a one-hour meeting without having got through all the points that needed to be addressed.”

However timings must be realistic, according to Garavan. “Some items will take no time at all while others will require a lot,” he says.

“There may even be some that don’t require any meeting but can be sorted out by email instead. The person organising the meeting needs to prioritise what’s most important without overcrowding the agenda and then time the topics accordingly.”

Another strategy is to send around important reading material in advance of the meeting. “If you want to talk about a report, it’s crucial that everyone has read it,” says McLoughney. “It’s a waste of time otherwise.”

Sarah Murphy, general manager of cloud-based legal technology company, Clio
Sarah Murphy, general manager of cloud-based legal technology company, Clio

Murphy does this. “I find that preparation is key,” she says. “Sharing pre-meeting briefs beforehand allows everyone time to do their research and come to the meeting ready to discuss.”

McLoughney also recommends keeping the circle tight. You don’t have to invite everyone who was at the last meeting to the next one. Limit it to the people who need to be there.

“I always ask two questions,” he says. “One: will they gain anything from attending the meeting? Two: will they contribute anything to the meeting? If the answer to both questions is 'no', there is no reason to invite them.”

If someone is likely to feel offended by being excluded, he gives them the option of attending. “I’ll explain that I’m not sure if it’s in their area of interest or expertise and then I let them decide,” he says. “It’s their time, after all.”

Some people choose to stack their meetings back-to-back on a particular day rather than spreading them throughout the week. They argue that this allows them to spend the rest of their time concentrating on focused work, rather than having their attention broken by meetings.

McLoughney isn’t convinced by this approach. “It sounds good in theory but how many of us can dictate the timing of our meetings,” he asks. “And we all know that we can get tired and zone out if we schedule too many meetings in a row. I don’t think it works in practice.”

Garavan isn’t sold on the idea either. “There’s such a thing as too many meetings,” he says. “Rather than stacking them, why not set aside a period of time when you don’t have any meetings at all?

The ESB for example doesn’t allow meetings on Friday afternoons; and other companies urge employees to only have meetings in the morning. This gives employees time in the day to catch up on work or tackle complex tasks that require focus.”

Small talk can also be a problem at meetings. It can be difficult to know how much of it to allow.

It all depends on the type of meeting, says Garavan. “Meetings between colleagues that work from home can be a way for them to connect and build social relationships,” he says. “They might discuss the weather, their children, or a news item at the beginning of the meeting that has nothing to do with the topic at hand, but that conversation does serve an important purpose.”

In a meeting with a busy client, small talk may be kept to a minimum. “Some clients aren’t interested in chitchat,” says McLoughney. “They are more concerned with making the most of their time. Whether or not you allow time for small talk is really determined by who’s attending the meeting and what the purpose of the meeting is.”

Finally, to ensure that a meeting has been completely effective and saves time for everyone going forward, McLoughney advises concluding with a summary. “Make sure that everyone knows what has been decided upon, what actions are going to be taken, and who’s going to take them,” he says.

“That way, no time will be lost and everyone will be ready to report back on their progress at the next meeting.”

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