How can meetings be made more effective?

Photo: Wikimedia Commons/Infrogmation of New Orleans
Nov 11, 2022

A new survey finds that professionals spend more than one-third of their working hours in meetings and they see about 30 percent of them as unnecessary.

The survey from automated transcription service and University of North Carolina concluded that companies of 100 employees could save $2.5 million annually by reducing unnecessary meeting attendance, while those of 5,000 employees could save more than $100 million a year.

The authors encourage companies to shift their organizational cultures to reduce apprehension about declining meetings, commit to providing post-meeting notes to let employees feel better about skipping them and limit invites to only relevant employees.

In a column for Harvard Business Review, Rebecca Hinds, head of The Work Innovation Lab by Asana, and Robert Sutton, a management science professor at Stanford, revealed their “Fixing Meetings Playbook” featuring five ingredients for success:

  • Adopt a subtraction mindset: The default for problem-solving has been found to be “to add something,” but the focus should be on reducing the number, length or size of meetings.
  • Start with a clean slate: In experiments, purging calendars for 48 hours, evaluating each meeting and then repopulating calendars was found to be particularly effective at reducing less-productive meetings. 
  • Use data: Measuring the effort required (prep, actual meeting time, follow-up work) for each meeting versus value prompts participants to think more deeply about each meeting.
  • Create a movement: Enthusiastic workers can spark ideas and reduce apprehension about changes.
  • Don’t just subtract meetings — redesign them: Experiments showed 70 percent of time savings came from redesigning meetings. Steps include having fewer employees attend, replacing typical meeting sections (such as status updates) with written communication and shortening meetings.

In a column for Knowledge at Wharton, Donna George, author of “The 25-Minute Meeting,” recommended discipline (e.g., starting and ending on time, banning phones and laptops, limiting the number of people), a “tight meeting structure” and ending with clear next steps. She particularly emphasized preparation. She writes, “For every meeting you organize, finish this sentence: “At the end of this meeting, it would be great if…”

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: What do you see as the core problems with the way meetings are held today? What tips do you have for making them more effective?

Please practice The RetailWire Golden Rule when submitting your comments.
"Whether in-person or virtual, meetings are often unnecessary and amass costs that are difficult to justify."
"I find the real issue is that meetings are being used more and more to avoid disseminating information in writing."
"The solution is to cancel most of them, and schedule the others for shorter blocks."

Join the Discussion!

19 Comments on "How can meetings be made more effective?"

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Richard Hernandez

Unfortunately some meetings accomplish nothing. Email or a tool like Teams could be used to garner opinions and views faster than sitting in a conference room for two hours.

Bob Amster

Punctuality, avoiding digression from the core discussion, setting the next meeting to continue an unfinished discussion. Respect for the time of colleagues. End with actionable decisions.

Ryan Mathews

The best boss I ever had used to have two rules. First, a meeting with him couldn’t last more than 10 minutes (at which point he would walk out of the room) and, second, you couldn’t ask a question you didn’t have an answer to. What that superficially draconian approach did was force you to think through your position before a meeting and make sure you could express it succinctly. Might not work in every situation, or for large groups, but directionally it is spot on.

Dave Bruno

Long ago, I began setting meetings for 30 minutes or less whenever possible. And it made all our lives more productive. I have now started scheduling 15-minute meetings, and they may become my new standard. Less time per meeting = much more productivity per attendee, in my experience.

Ken Morris

Steve Jobs used to hold important meetings by walking around outside with the person. Retail execs should consider such walking meetings, but inside a store. Image the insights! If retailers succeed in making their meetings more efficient, they can free up time to solve puzzles like returns and markdowns.

As far as issues with meetings, one bad habit is to close a meeting by setting up another one. Another one is to invite too many people to meetings, which means that every habitual follow-up meeting will also be overcrowded and less productive. Fewer meetings sounds like nirvana, too; that’s easy to say but harder to enforce. Actually, my biggest pet peeve is meetings that start late. Does anyone arrive on time anymore? We waste so much time waiting and repeating, it’s a wonder we get anything done. Start on time, end on time, and record all meetings to speed up the process.

David Spear


One-hundred percent spot-on about replacing traditional conference table meetings with walking meetings in places like stores, manufacturing plants, distribution centers, and warehouses. The insights ooze from everything you look at!

Dave Wendland

Love the idea of the walking around meetings. So much more productive — and somewhat paraphrasing what Yogi Berra once said, “You can observe a lot by looking around.”

Dave Wendland

Whether in-person or virtual, meetings are often unnecessary and amass costs that are difficult to justify. During the height of the pandemic, most praised the ability to remain connected via technology — but the “convenience” of meet-ups filled calendars and may have actually reduced productivity.

What tips do I have for making meetings more effective? It begins with three things: purpose, process, and payoff. If these factors cannot be satisfied, perhaps the meeting was not the best use of time.

Purpose: What must be accomplished (outcome)?

Process: Is a face-to-face (virtual or in-person) necessary to achieve the goal?

Payoff: Can the time be justified — what decisions will be made?

Jeff Sward

Too many meetings have too much breadth and not enough depth. They are status updates or a data review that could just as easily be read absent a meeting. Or a review of problems without enough probing for solutions. Different perspectives from different departments need to be put on the table and pressure tested. That’s usually uncomfortable for many participants. But that’s how solutions are born.

Rich Kizer

It is as simple and as easy as this: if staff is involved, they will participate and work for success. Leave staff out, and they will not feel like part of the plan and their performance will fall. It’s that easy.

Mark Self

Piling on here with other contributors — the core problem with many meetings is they lack an agenda and when they do have an agenda it is not followed. Many leaders are not strong “project managers” or don’t keep people on time. The result is you get these meandering discussions that accomplish nothing.
The solution is to cancel most of them, and schedule the others for shorter blocks. Another observation I have is when people are in an office together much of what needs to happen in a meeting goes on “in the margins” outside of the structure of a meeting. Collaborative videoconferencing tools have made that kind of interaction less likely to happen. Get back to the office! 🙂

Gene Detroyer

“The experts” have been writing about how to make meetings more efficient for as long as I have been in business. That is a long, long time. This very same discussion could have been written in 1970.

I believe what is missing in the process is human nature. People complain, but they really don’t want to miss a meeting and what is discussed. Or the need for the bosses to have their people present, just in case.

I recommend not having meetings in conference rooms with plenty of coffee available.

David Spear

Here’s a few of my faves:

Thirty minutes or less. Fifteen minute stand ups are the bomb.
Everyone attending leans-in — no multi-tasking at all. If anyone puts their mobile phone on the conference table, they leave.
No power points — simply talk about the issues with critical thinking applied.
Meetings in stores and in manufacturing plants are the best because all your senses are acutely locked in (touch, look, feel, hear) and provide a full range of observations.
Crazy ideas are welcome. Some of the brightest ideas are developed with a series of crazy ideas that build upon one another.
Action items + next steps are a requirement, with a name and timeframe for response next to each item. If not, why have a meeting?

Mel Kleiman

Yes in most organizations there are too many meetings. This post has a lot of great suggestions, such as one, reducing the number of meetings and two, making them shorter.

Key to having effective meetings is that all meetings must have an ending time and a written agenda.

Patricia Vekich Waldron

Don’t hold a meeting without a time-boxed agenda.

Ricardo Belmar

It’s all about the outcome. What outcome is the meeting intended to drive? If the outcome isn’t well understood before the meeting begins, then the time will not be used well. I find the real issue is that meetings are being used more and more to avoid disseminating information in writing. The art of writing documents is being lost in the business and replaced with verbal interaction in a meeting. This makes it difficult to make informed decisions during meetings and follow-ups become disjointed and repetitive as a result. Have a defined desired outcome in mind and run the meeting to reach that outcome. It’s certainly easier said than done in most organizations!

Brad Halverson

Do the math by calculating the labor expense for having everyone around the table and it should shock every business owner. Casual topic add-ons, long speaking times and lack of meeting control will drive up these costs.

Get people to focus so you can get the right things done.

Amazon follows an effective practice to hold a tight and focused agenda by reading thoughtfully summaries (with recommended actions) beforehand, and then going around the table for feedback to make a decision. Done. Next.

Ron Kurtz

This discussion reminds me of Tip 20 (“Help make meetings productive by observing the process and what participants are saying….be tolerant of disagreement and keep an eye for how people can be brought together. Being effective in this way shortens meetings”) in Chapter 4 (Be a Leader) of the book Fast Start to Career Success.

Oliver Guy

In many ways, modern tools for video based meetings make setting up a meeting too easy — vs finding and booking a room.
This could be part of the issue here as the physical capacity constraint has gone away.

It can become a vicious circle — you need a 5 minute conversation with someone, you cannot get hold of them so you book a 30 minute slot — which contributes to their diary being filled up for the next person.

It is something we all need to be conscious of. Tools can help — for example Microsoft Teams has the option of 25 minute meetings and tools like Viva encourage booking of Focus time (disclosure — I am a Microsoft Employee), but it still needs self-discipline to make judgements about meetings and good manners from your colleagues to book meetings that are appropriate.

"Whether in-person or virtual, meetings are often unnecessary and amass costs that are difficult to justify."
"I find the real issue is that meetings are being used more and more to avoid disseminating information in writing."
"The solution is to cancel most of them, and schedule the others for shorter blocks."

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