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There's a science behind running productive, meaningful meetings

UK office workers are spending too much time in meetings to do their job properly and it’s having a real impact on workplace productivity.

That’s according to our latest survey of 2,000 UK office workers*, which shines a light on the problem and uncovers how meeting holders can make each minute of every meeting count.

But beyond opinion polling and collating shared experiences, there’s a breadth of scientific research and academic theory that can help businesses nurture a culture where meetings can be productive.

That means holding meetings that lead to meaningful results in an appropriate time, where everyone feels valued.

So, here’s the science bit. What are the three theories you need to know?

Tuckman’s Stages of Group Development

Effective meeting facilitation is vital. More than half of our research respondents (53%) agreed that they go to too many unengaging, poorly structured meetings.

But it’s not something you can learn and implement overnight. It takes practice and a culture that supports and encourages proper facilitation.

To help, Bruce Tuckman’s four stages of group development is a well-accepted theory from the 1960s that provides a good framework to work from.

It asks meeting facilitators to consider the cohesion and familiarity of any group for them to direct accordingly. And while it is a challenge at first to use all of these steps in a 30-minute meeting, it’s achievable with practice.

Here they are:

1. Forming: This is the stage where the group meets. Attendees are typically polite but guarded. The role for a facilitator is to help the team understand their roles and responsibilities, while establishing a sense of purpose and common goal for the meeting, to help take them to the next stage.

2. Storming: This is where roles and relationships are developed. Leadership and structural issues often dominate this stage, which can be a powder keg for conflict. Facilitators need to be direct, alert, keep teams on track and resolve any problematic conflicts that emerge within the group.

3. Norming: After power struggles comes cohesion, familiarity and trust. In a group project exercise, for example, it’s where plans, timelines and responsibilities are agreed. Facilitators should flex from having a directive role to more of a supporting presence, as the group takes on more autonomy. But facilitators can’t let their guard down to new conflict.

4. Performing: Here, the team achieves strong, productive collaboration. They’re comfortable in their goals, roles and responsibilities while motivated to get things done competently. Facilitators need to empower the team by celebrating contributions and achievements.

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The mere urgency effect

There’s a big difference between tasks that are urgent and those that are important.

We all know that the jobs on our to-do list that are the most time-sensitive are not always the same jobs that will deliver the highest rewards or move us most effectively towards our goals.

Unfortunately, studies of human behaviour show that we are not very good at prioritising tasks that are truly important over those that are merely urgent.

Let’s say, for example, you have set a day aside to complete a key task that will take a lot of focused time. When the day arrives, it can be difficult to avoid spending time responding to requests because of the apparent urgency of responding.

Having a diary full of meetings only exacerbates this effect, as there is a strong temptation to prioritise your list of tasks based on which meeting you will be participating in soonest, rather than which is genuinely more important or higher-reward.

Setting boundaries for meetings, time management techniques and delegation are each important to manage the balance of meeting and preparing for meetings against the focus time needed to fulfil priorities.

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Parkinson's Law

“Work expands to fill the time available for its completion.”

This all-too-familiar ‘law’ was, actually first identified and described by a historian, Cyril Northcote Parkinson, in 1957.

It will be familiar to anybody that has found themselves working on a task they had a month to complete the night before the deadline.

When they’re poorly managed, meetings can be a major culprit when it comes to filling up the available working time.

In our survey, we found that 81% of respondents said most of the meetings they attend could be shorter. And more than half (59%) said that people waffling and unproductive meeting conversation, was the chief culprit for time wasting.

It’s important to maintain the mindset that meetings happen in order to accomplish tasks, not to fill up allotted slots in the diary.

The insight here is get to the point and finish the meeting when you’ve done what you set out to accomplish. Next time you’re facilitating a meeting, it can also be helpful to let attendees know there’s no expectation to stay after their contribution has been made, or the group task has been achieved.

Our three key takeaways

These theories provide us with three clear priorities and while they sound simple, our research shows that ignoring them is negatively impacting employees and creating significant time pressure.

  • Proper facilitation is often lacking and should be applied to every meeting
  • Managers need to be more stringent on who is invited to meetings and introduce better boundary setting to give staff more time back
  • Get to the point of a meeting quickly and finish when the objectives have been achieved – stop expanding the conversation to fill the allotted time.

Head back to the Meaningful Meeting Manifesto homepage for more insights into office productivity.

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