Effective meetings help form the foundation of productive teams. Effective meetings can provide opportunities to brainstorm, make decisions, communicate complex ideas, discuss difficult topics, and build working relationships. They can also help teams stay aligned and ensure projects run smoothly.
But meetings also have a way of hindering rather than helping work get done. They can run long or veer off topic, leading to more meetings where it feels like nothing is achieved. Too many meetings on your calendar, and you might feel like your whole day is spent in calls, rather than doing the job you were hired for.
In this post, we’ll explore
- different types of meetings
- how meetings can affect your working style
- how to lead effective meetings
- what you can do if you’re drowning in meetings
Types of meetings
It can feel like all meetings blend together in a blur of sameness. But not all meetings are the same! Different meetings serve different purposes, and knowing the type of meeting you’re attending can help you and all attendees stay focused and on topic.
- 1:1: One-on-one meetings are the backbone of most working relationships. If someone is your manager or close working partner (think product manager and designer or product manager and engineering manager), chances are you’ll have regular 1:1s to catch up and discuss work in flight. These are great meetings to both get work done and build an effective working relationship.
- Brainstorming: During brainstorming meetings, people share ideas, typically about solving a problem. Often, software teams will frame this as “How might we…” and talk about the potential solutions for their company’s or customers’ problems.
- Decision: Decision meetings are where people come together to discuss options to select one. Usually, decisions are framed as “yes or no” or “pick one out of this menu.” Decision meetings often involve someone presenting their research, pros and cons for each option, and allowing for discussion before the group decides how to proceed.
- Update: Some of the most disliked forms of meetings, update meetings involve people taking turns to share the status of their or their team’s work. Update meetings are popular for departments or leadership, where it may be difficult to receive status updates between team members because they don’t regularly work together, or the teams are so busy.
- Review: Usually conducted on a set cadence (quarterly, annually, monthly), reviews typically look at the performance of a team, individual, or company based on a set of pre-defined metrics. For example, performance reviews look at the progress and accomplishments of an individual on an annual or semi-annual basis. At the company level, these types of meetings are more like board meetings.
- Critique: Popular among designers and engineers, critiques feature one person presenting their work for craft feedback from their peers. Designers might share new designs and ask for feedback from their fellow designers. Software engineers, meanwhile, might share a request for comment document or an architectural design for input from other software engineers.
- Ceremonies: These meetings are part of the agile development process. Most teams hold some combination of retro, sprint planning, standup, product backlog review, etc. The set of meetings and how they’re held can vary widely from company to company or even team to team within an org.
- External: A catch-all for any meeting that includes non-employees, external usually means meeting with customers, external stakeholders, or partners. These meetings more often than not are update meetings, but external meetings can also be used to solicit feedback for user research or gather requirements.
Maker vs. manager schedule
One of the big challenges with meetings is how it affects employees’ ability to focus. The impact of too many meetings on a employee’s productivity often boils down to whether they are a maker or a manager, a concept coined by Paul Graham in 2009.
Managers by default spend much of their days in meetings: they facilitate; they coordinate; they communicate. Typically, product and engineering managers end up on managers’ schedules. The nature of their job involves coordinating with others. They may spend up to 80% (or more!) of their day in meetings.
Makers, meanwhile, especially software engineers and designers, need long, uninterrupted blocks of time to do “deep work”: the intense, in-depth thinking required to write code, produce designs, and think through complex problems. A single meeting can destroy a work block because it requires context switching and disrupts deep work. As a result, many makers resent meetings and do everything they can to avoid them—while most managers rely on meetings as a way of communicating and doing their jobs.
As a result, team members can be in conflict about the necessity, frequency, and length of meetings. The makers on the team want to protect their focus time and deep work, while the managers want to ensure that the team is communicating regularly and efficiently. Ensuring meetings remain effective is one way to handle the tension between these two groups.
How to lead effective meetings
Even if you’re not a manager in the maker vs. manager paradigm, chances are that one day you’ll need to lead a meeting. You may be a software engineer about to lead a critique on an RFC you wrote, or you may be a designer who needs to lead a brainstorming meeting or design sprint. And if you are a manager, probably a lot of your time is spent preparing, conducting, and following up after meetings.
In either case, it’s helpful to know some strategies for leading effective meetings. Here are 10 tips to get you started:
- Have an agenda and a goal
- Schedule for the appropriate length of time
- Make sure the right people (and not too many) can attend
- Keep in mind how people are joining
- Leave time at the beginning and the end
- Assign responsibilities for note taking and time keeping
- Stay on topic
- Track action items with due dates and assignees
- Share the outcomes
- Consider recording
Have an agenda and a goal: Don’t let the idea of an agenda scare you! An agenda can be as simple as 1-2 bullet points with high-level topics to be covered, like “Decide on 1 of 3 architectural approaches for the new platform.” The goal, meanwhile, should finish the sentence “This meeting will be successful if…” For example, that might be “This meeting will be successful if we have left with a decision on the architectural approach” or “We have ended the meeting with four product ideas to solve the customer’s pain point.”
And if you’re worried about getting through everything in the allotted time, assign a certain number of minutes for each topic—and ask your time keeper (see below) to help you stay on track.
Schedule for the appropriate length of time: Too little time, and your meeting will run over—and may require a follow up. Too long, and the meeting is likely to fill the space allotted to it, but people might wonder why you’re wasting their time. Writing a more detailed agenda can help you determine if you need half an hour, an hour, or more. As a rule of thumb, allocate 10-15 minutes for each agenda item with 5 minutes added to the beginning and end. So, a one-item meeting will probably need 20-25 minutes.
Make sure the right people (and not too many) can attend: Meetings ideally should follow the pizza rule: if a large pizza couldn’t feed all the attendees, there are probably too many. In general, attendees should have direct knowledge of the topic (not necessarily those people’s managers) and will either directly affect or be affected by the outcome of the meeting. Many times, people request to join meetings even if they aren’t necessary because they’re worried they’ll miss something discussed in the meeting—taking notes and sharing outcomes will help here! Then, make sure everyone who absolutely needs to be there can attend. If you’re at a company where most people are booked in meetings all day, this can be a challenge, but missing necessary attendees can lead to repeat or follow-up meetings.
Keep in mind how people are joining: In an era of distributed work, don’t forget about time zones or folks who are joining remotely! Don’t schedule for times outside attendees’ working hours (no one wants to join a call at 7am or 10pm), and make sure that call setup prevents interference and allows everyone to participate equally. For example, make sure everyone can see any documentation and whiteboards, and everyone in an office should be sitting in range of the microphone.
Leave time at the beginning and end: People join meetings piecemeal, and not everyone will show up right on time. Leave 5 minutes at the beginning for folks to trickle in and for those who are already there to say hello and catch up. At the end, save at least 5 minutes to ensure all action items and next steps are recorded. Saving time on both sides helps prevent your meeting from going over!
Assign responsibilities for note taking and time keeping: Most meetings should have 3 people filling defined roles: facilitator, note taker, and time keeper. The facilitator leads the meeting. The note taker records what people are discussing during the meeting as well as any relevant action items. The time keeper watches the clock and calls out when the meeting is running out of time, usually when there are 5 or 10 minutes left. The time keeper doesn’t need to feel like a hall monitor, though. Some teams make this fun by using random phrases or code words to shout out when time is running out. Ideally, the note taker and time keeper rotate responsibility for recurring meetings. Often, it’s the members of underrepresented groups, like women and people of color, who are assigned note taking and time keeping, so it’s important to share those roles across team members.
Stay on topic: Communicating the agenda and desired outcome at the beginning of the meeting sets the meeting’s tone. If the topic begins to wander, it’s important to call out the shift. If the meeting strays too far off topic, it’s possible that attendees will no longer be prepared to talk about the topic (”I didn’t know we’d be discussing this, and I’m not ready to discuss it”), or the wrong set of people are in the room (”If we’re talking about this topic, then we really need this other person here to weigh in.”) If everyone agrees that the new topic is more important, stop the meeting and reconvene later once the right attendees have had the chance to prepare.
Track action items with due dates and assignees: If the meeting discussion is leading to follow up items, make sure they’re recorded! Any post-meeting task should be written down with someone who is responsible for ensuring it gets done by a certain date. Without assigning these tasks with dates, there’s no accountability, and a lot of great ideas about “We should do this” or “We need to talk to this person” get lost and never completed. (Or they’ll be repeated and forgotten again in later meetings.)
Share the outcomes: After the meeting, send out the notes with action items to relevant parties. People often want to be invited to meetings not because they need to participate but because they are worried about not hearing what is discussed and decided. Reliably taking and sharing notes can alleviate these folks’ worries and keep the number of meeting attendees low.
Consider recording: Recording the meeting is another way to help folks feel like they’re not missing out (and take some of the burden off the note taker!). If someone can watch the entirety of the meeting, word-for-word, they may be less likely to feel that they were excluded. However, keep in mind that some folks don’t like being recorded. Meetings should only be recorded with the express consent of all attendees. It is never okay to record someone without their consent, even if it’s legal in the attendees’ jurisdictions. Additionally, some meetings require privacy and psychological safety and are not good candidates for recording, like retros and 1-1s.
Company culture affects meeting culture
If you’re at a company where it seems like everyone is in back-to-back meetings all day, every day, you might feel like you never have an opportunity to get anything done. If you’re an introvert, you might feel incredibly drained. If you’re a member of an underrepresented group, you might feel like you’ve spent the whole day code switching without a break. In these cases, the meeting glut might be a result of company culture.
Some companies place a high premium on synchronous, face-to-face (or video-to-video) communication. The org wants may like verbal over written communication. In these organizations, meetings may be preferable to written mediums like email, messaging apps like Slack, or other forms of asynchronous communication. That preference could definitely mean a higher number of meetings since most information is shared verbally: if you’re not in the meeting, you won’t know it happened.
In these cultures, it’s helpful to remember what’s within your power to change. If your manager adds you to a weekly meeting, you may not be able to refuse to attend. Or if your company likes department- or org-wide meetings (company all hands or sprint demos, for example), you may have to join.
In general, it’s easier to cut or change meetings with a smaller number of attendees that meets frequently for a short period of time. For example, it’s a lot easier to eliminate a weekly 30-minute sync with 4 attendees than it is to argue to get rid of a 60-minute quarterly review with 50 people!
But you do have some options! If you’re the owner of some meetings or can cancel, you can take some steps to clear out the clutter and eliminate unnecessary meetings. You could suggest that certain meetings be recorded (if it’s okay with the attendees) so that those who can’t attend can watch later. Or you can use voice memos to share information async instead of written communication.
Within your team
Fortunately, even if your company culture leads to lots of meetings, you may have more ability to make changes within your team. This ability is especially true if you’re a team lead like an engineering manager or product manager. Team leads often set the tone and working style of their team, so if you are in one of these roles, you may have more agency in how your team conducts meetings.
Within your team, you can share your feedback as observations followed by a suggestion for collaborative problem solving. You could say something like, “I notice that in our weekly check-in, most of the time is spent on updates; could we experiment with trying asynchronous updates?” or “A lot of our meetings are running long; what are some ways we can keep meetings on time?
Meeting vs. email
Many people ask the question, “Could this meeting have been an email?” (Or, if your team really relies on messaging apps, “Could this meeting have been a Slack thread?”) Often, the answer is yes! But it’s helpful to remember what each method of communication is useful for.
Meetings are great for brainstorming, decision-making, team-building/bonding, and discussing complex topics. Emails are useful for updates and sharing basic information—but it’s not always easy to make sure the messages get read! Again, it really depends on your organization’s approach to communication and accountability to decide the best way to communicate updates.
You can always ask yourself, “Does this need to be a meeting?” or “What happens if we don’t have this meeting?” You can even try a new technique, framework, or checklist to determine if the meeting is absolutely necessary.
Meetings, when run effectively, can foster collaboration and increase efficiency. But meetings can also disrupt teammates and hinder progress if there are too many (or too many inefficient) meetings. Ensuring that the meeting has an agenda with a goal, a limited number of attendees, and notes that are shared afterward can help keep meetings on time and productive.