Imagine if I invited you out to dinner, we met at a restaurant, chose our meals, consumed our food and beverages and left having only optimised for fuel. That’d suck.
If meals were primarily about food consumption, we’d all have soylent IVs. But we don’t because meals are a shared experience, they’d be dreadful without the joy of tasting new flavors or laughing with friends. Unfortunately, more and more of my meetings these days feel like I’m chugging a litre of Soylent, hoping the faster I chug, the sooner it will be over.
I know you won’t argue with me when I say you should leave a meal feeling satisfied. Meetings should be the same. We can and should hold meetings to the same standards as meals. They should be timely, designed for sharing, flexible and most importantly, fun.
My top 5 meeting practices
I want live in a work world where we all treat our meetings like our meals. They’re not necessary evils, they’re opportunities to accelerate our work. I don’t believe in “best practices,” but I have observed a handful of practices that reliably contribute to a stellar meeting or meal:
1. Be deliberate
For me, this is as simple as asking why am I eating/meeting? Sometimes I have a meal to fuel for a long run, other times my meal is designed to bring friends together. Both are valid reasons for eating, and knowing my meal purpose helps me plan my time and consumption accordingly.
Meetings aren’t dissimilar. I’m not here to tell you you can’t have a 1:1 purely to catch up on each other’s work and life. That’s a valid purpose, just be deliberate about it.
Okay that’s not a ‘pro’ tip, that’s obvious, but look at your calendar now and tell me how many of your invites have agendas? I’d estimate fewer than 30% of meetings I am invited to have agendas. Agendas can be a pre-read page or simply one sentence with the meeting’s intention.
I grew up tasting every dish that was put on my plate and profusely thanking the benefactor of every meal I ever ate. Manners are important in my family. As I’ve grown up, I’ve adjusted that foundation of politeness to prioritise respecting people’s time over accepting invites without context. From where I stand, the greatest respect you can show me is respect for my time.
2. Time of day matters
I love breakfast for dinner just as much as the next girl, but there’s a reason I don’t eat waffles for breakfast every night….because waffles don’t go as well with white wine spritzers as salmon does.
Meetings, like meals, are most productive when content and timing are complimentary.
Take for example a team’s weekly demos. At Atlassian, most of our teams schedule demos as 3 pm on a Friday. Why? Because demos, like salmon, go better with beers than waffles do. This all goes back to the meeting’s purpose. A team’s weekly demos (check out this play for context if you have no idea what I’m talking about), are meant to accomplish the following:
- Share out work accomplished during the week for feedback
- Encourage team members to work iteratively and ‘ship’ something demo-able every week
- Celebrate incremental progress
Beer or no beer, most of us feel a heightened sense of elation and relief at 3 pm on a Friday as the weekend is in sight and our work is coming to a close. By scheduling demos for a Friday afternoon, we give our teams the opportunity to build connections and feel pride in their work.
Meals start with drinks (or if you’re fancy, amuse bouches) for a reason. We need to ease into what’s ahead with social lubricants and/or palate cleansers. If this January, you’re one of the many people participating in my company’s favourite long meeting, the ‘offsite’, check out the Icebreakers play for tried and tested meeting warm-ups.
Context switching kills productivity. I know we all know this and there are countless behavioural psychology studies out there that prove this, but we all do it anyways. I’ve read studies that say it takes from 7- 15 minutes to fully switch context. That would mean if you have a day filled with 10 thirty-minute meetings you are actually only productive for 50-77% of your meeting time. I don’t like those odds. I’d rather use that extra 150- 230 minutes to read a good book (or take a long lunch).
3. Be present
(stands on soapbox) Do not do other work on your laptop/phone/tablet in a meeting (descends from soapbox).
This is a hard and fast rule for me, of which I don’t have many in my life. I can’t think of many good reasons to be texting, Slacking or even typing during a meeting, unless you are taking discussion notes. If you can’t be present in a meeting I’d recommend the following options:
- Don’t attend.
- (In rare occasions, e.g., when the FBI is calling) At the beginning of the meeting tell your fellow attendees about your emergency. Let them know that if you get a signal from said emergency you may abruptly leave and apologise in advance for the disturbance.
If you know the meeting’s purpose (per #1), and your role in the meeting, you can often join a meeting with just a journal to jot down your action items. You can even ask the meeting owner/recorder to record your actions for you on the shared meeting page.
4. Sharing is caring
I know not everyone will agree with me on this one, but just hear me out. Meals are better when I get to taste a lot of different dishes. I prefer family-style and tapas restaurants to plated individual courses and multiple courses to one singular dish, but even if the menu is not designed to be shared, my fork will wander your way.
I feel the same way about meetings. I’m here to understand a variety of perspectives and collect information I couldn’t have gotten by reading a document.
I’d argue that the goal of most meetings is shared understanding. That is, shared understanding that cannot be accomplished in a read-out of a document or presentation. It’s achieved when all participants ask clarifying questions, offer their interpretations, and dive deeper into critical topics, all of which helps every participant contextualise the information you want them to leave having understood.
Atlassian’s EA team should be wearing championship rings for their mastery of calendar tetris. From timezones to GSD blocks to unavailable rooms, scheduling is a nightmare in the modern work world. I said it already in the ‘Be deliberate’ section but I think it’s worth saying again. Before scheduling or accepting every meeting, ask yourself, “Could this be a page or chat convo?”
5. Balance utility and indulgence
Do you ever find yourself in a meeting talking just for the sake of talking? (Oh, okay, me neither) That would be the equivalent of ordering a dessert you don’t like just because you’re at a nice restaurant. It’s not worth the calories, trust me I did it at House of Prime Rib on Saturday night. Same goes for filling space with mindless talking.
Don’t take my word for it, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella hasn’t gotten where he is today running bad meetings. His three tips are (source):
- Listen more.
- Talk less.
- Be decisive when the time comes.
It’s not just about talking less though, as Satya points out. To listen more, we need to create meeting environments that encourage people of all personality types to participate freely.
Why I love meetings
I initially started this blog out of anger. I had been to a couple meetings that made me long for days when ‘shared understanding’ could happen by running into someone in the kitchen. In writing it I have reminded myself how much I actually love gathering a group of people together with a common purpose. It’s truly magical to be part of a group who, together, are accomplishing so much more than we could have individually. Maybe there’s one pro-tip or anti-pattern that will help bring some joy back to your meetings. Or maybe you have one for me! If so, please do comment!
This article was written by Mary Raleigh and has been published on LinkedIn.
As Head of Atlassian’s Team Playbook, Mary leads the team responsible for turning the proven practices from teams across Atlassian into easy-to-follow plays that anyone can use to improve their team’s health and effectiveness. Prior to Atlassian, Mary was a Management Consultant specializing in process improvement for the world’s biggest supply chains. When she’s not making powerpoint slides, Mary is listening to behavioral psychology audiobooks and true crime podcasts while training for her first marathon this coming March. For more about Atlassian visit www.atlassian.com