Effective Meetings

Despite the daily onslaughts of e-mails, phone calls and memos, meetings are still one of the most effective ways that people share and exchange information, get feedback, plan, collaborate and make important decisions for their organizations. 

So why do meetings have such a bad reputation? Meetings seem to be getting longer, more frequent and generating fewer results. This can result in employees becoming frustrated as they feel that meetings are taking away, rather than adding, value to their work.

The fact is, although many of us complain about them, we can all expect to spend a significant amount of our working time in meetings. So why not learn to convene meaningful and productive meetings? In this section, practical ideas are presented on how you can improve the quality and effectiveness of various workplace meetings you.

In this Section:

Meet regularly

It can be challenging to schedule opportunities for face-to-face time with colleagues. When people experience stress as various deadlines loom, often the first thing to get pushed aside is the staff meeting. Do the opposite! Bring people together, even for 15 minutes, to get them talking and problem solving together. It can be surprising how a quick meeting can help alleviate stress and re-energize the group.

Regular staff meetings can serve to remind employees there is more going on than their own issues and deadlines, and may help employees see opportunities for mutual support and collaboration, as well as sharing vital information. Another benefit of holding regular staff meetings is to create an opportunity for different layers of the organization (managers, employees, interns, contractors) to align around current priorities and organizational goals. A common complaint is that employees don't have enough access to information. Regular staff meetings can mitigate this. As for managers, these meetings are a great way to touch base with staff and get a "quick pulse" about how they are doing.

Special note on board meetings

Board meetings are a bit different than an everyday meeting since they are attended by volunteers who may not be familiar with the day-to-day operational details of your organization. Generally board members need to keep the discussion centered on high-level strategy, policy, and financial overviews.

There is a common tension that arises in board meetings between the sheer amount of information that needs to be covered and the need for time to discuss and understand the agenda items in order to make good decisions. In general, most board meetings are facilitated by the chair of the board with the help of the executive director. A chair needs to have some skill in guiding the group to decisions in a timely manner. This means an emphasis on what needs to be accomplished with each item.

For example:
  • Does a decision by the whole board need to be made, or is this information-sharing?
  • Does the item need more investigation? If yes, does that go to a task group or committee?
  • Are there items that need to go back to the staff?
  • What is the board's role in any given item or issue?

As well, the chair needs to be able to synthesize and constantly reframe or paraphrase discussion points to move the group through the agenda.

An agenda is usually best created by the chair and executive director and circulated, along with any other pertinent documents, in advance of the meeting with a time frame and expectation of the output for each item.

Planning meetings

An effective meeting has a purpose and gets finished in the time allotted. Before you call a meeting, ask yourself:
  • Is this meeting necessary?

Weigh the pros and cons of holding this meeting. A good meeting yields many results; a bad meeting is a waste of time.

  • What do I want to achieve?

Share information? Make decisions? Gather ideas? Connect with others? Get a sense of where the organization is at?  All of the above? You may have several items on the agenda that each require a different output. Be clear what each items needs.

  • Who needs to be there to achieve it?

Consider staff size, does everyone need to be at this meeting?

What if someone cannot make the staff meeting, do you proceed with the meeting?

For staff meetings, keep it at a consistent time of the week and don't cancel unless less than 50% of your staff can attend. If a member is absent in a task team or project team meeting, you might not be able to proceed given that you need content expertise to go forward – so make this decision using common sense.

  • Do I have the physical space and materials to run a meeting?
  • Is the timing right?

Will the right people be able to attend? Have you considered various schedules?

Once the objective(s) has been clearly stated make sure to communicate it to the participants selected to attend the meeting so that they can prepare in advance. This simple step will ensure that the meeting can benefit all parties involved and accomplish its goal. In busy work environments, we can forget that the participants have as much responsibility to make meetings time-efficient and effective as the person conducting the meeting.

Creating an effective agenda is fundamental in planning a productive meeting. Here are some reasons the meeting agenda is so important:
  • Provides a list of topics for discussion
  • Assigns a presenter or discussion leader for each topic
  • Provides a structure for the meeting (how long to spend on which topics)
  • Can be used as a checklist to ensure that all information is covered
  • Provides a focus for the meeting (the objective of the meeting must be clearly stated in the agenda)

Ultimately, you want to give participants an opportunity to come to the meeting prepared for the upcoming discussions or decisions. The agenda can be a great tool to increase engagement and motivation from your colleagues as well as accountability to the objectives of the meeting.

There are two options in building a meeting agenda:
  • Provide a pre-established agenda for the participants to follow and consider.
  • Develop the agenda with the key participants in the meeting.

When deciding which approach works best for your organization, consider your objectives, time available and the communication processes in place in your organization. For example, if you want to build an agenda collaboratively and have time to engage in this process, a shared electronic file can be set up where participants can contribute to the agenda in one place. The meeting organizer can take on the role of synthesizing the additions and changes into a finished document for the group to work from.

Tip! For regular staff meetings, you don't have to re-invent the agenda every week. Create a common template that works well for your staff and build on it.

Checklist for developing agendas
  • Think of the overall outcome you want from the meeting and what activities need to occur to reach that outcome. The agenda should be organized so that these activities are conducted during the meeting.
  • In the agenda, state the overall outcome that you want from the meeting.
  • Next to each major topic, include the type of action needed, the type of output expected (decision, vote, action assigned to someone), and time estimates for addressing each topic.
  • Don't overly design meetings; be open to adapting the meeting agenda if members are making progress in the planning process.
  • Think about how you frame an event so people come in with that mindset. It may pay to have a short discussion around the title to develop a common mindset among attendees.

Of course, the most important part of creating an effective agenda is to follow it during the meeting. Once the agenda has been set and you have a basic structure to work from, the next step is to consider how the agenda will be implemented and goals accomplished. Meetings often work better if a facilitator is assigned to run the meeting. The facilitator makes sure that all goes smoothly, everyone has a chance to speak, timelines and procedures are followed and, if possible, everybody leaves the room satisfied. Sounds like a tough job! It can be. All you need is practice.

Facilitating meetings

Facilitation is about process (how you do something) – rather than content (what you do). Having an assigned facilitator during your meeting can help the group stay on task while simultaneously paying attention to the personal needs of each group member. If the same participants meet regularly, which is common in small organizations, consider rotating roles so that everyone gets a chance to acquire and develop their meeting facilitation skills.

Five key elements to consider when facilitating meetings
  1. Opening – Frame the meeting by reviewing the agenda and clarifying roles.
  2. Establishing ground rules – Agree on how will you work together.
  3. Time management – Keep track of time to ensure all agenda items are covered and tasks are identified
  4. Evaluation of the meeting – Get feedback to improve meeting process.
  5. Closing –Clarify and review actions and commitment of employees.
Other key facilitation considerations
  • Keep things visible so that everyone is on the same page. Simply writing the agenda on a flip chart or white board keeps things public. Having handouts of the agenda is fine but can waste paper and gets individuals studying the agenda versus looking and listening to one another. 
  • Make things clear by clarifying points, paraphrasing, synthesizing and confirming.
  • Capture decisions made or next steps on the flip chart or white board. Again, everyone making their own notes is acceptable but can also lead to confusion later if people heard different things.
  • Be clear on what you are asking for: clarification? A decision? An idea? Information sharing? Information seeking?
  • Create space for all voices to be heard.
  • If you want to capture notes from the meeting in addition to what is taken down publicly, assign a note taker for the meeting.

The main purpose of having a facilitator at the meeting is to create an environment of openness and purpose. Having effective meetings is an art as well as a science. It may take some practice and experimentation before your organization finds its own way of staff working together. By allowing for a quick evaluation of the meeting to occur at the end, you can learn about what works and what needs to be changed for next time.

Meetings aren't everyone's "cup of tea". It's easy for people with strong personalities to drown out others during a meeting. Some people need time to reflect on what they've heard – or absorb information better by reading the minutes of a meeting – and may have more to say after a meeting. Remember, not everyone has the same way of learning or interacting with others. Try to take these varying needs and styles into account.

Evaluating meetings

This can be a crucial and quick step to dramatically improve your meetings each week.

Conduct a 5 – 10 minute check by asking:
  • What worked with this meeting?
  • What can we do differently next time?

The evaluation is not the time to debate what people said. Ask for clarifications or solutions as to how to handle a particular part of the meeting next time. Allow the feedback to flow. It will help people feel heard, improve your process, reduce frustration and create hope that meetings will continue to evolve.

When conducting an evaluation, be mindful to integrate the suggestions, decisions and/or feedback received into future meetings. People will stop providing feedback in meetings if they don't see that their feedback is being considered or used.