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Helena Sharpstone

Sharpstone Skinner


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How to save your team from meeting overload

Make virtual meetings work more efficiently for you and your colleagues.

Sir Barnett Cocks, Clerk to the House of Commons at the beginning of the 20th Century said: “A committee is a cul-de-sac down which ideas are lured and then quietly strangled.” He didn’t like meetings much. Wonder what he would have made of work communication post-March 2020?

Ever since Covid confined us to barracks and separated us from our colleagues, team members and clients, our meetings have become overloaded. In the office, what was done as a kitchen chat or a quick stand up at desks, is now a 30-minute exchange on Slack or Teams.

What would have been a get together and a useful conversation over coffee is now a full-blown Zoom meeting. A natter has become an event. It is well meant communication but we’re drowning in it. It also makes us rather transactional with our colleagues and takes the spontaneity out of communication. 

These virtual gatherings should be something to relish not dread.

Have you noticed recently that if you have an afternoon meeting with someone in the same time zone as you, they are not at their best? You may well be on their fifth or sixth meeting that day, so it’s no wonder by the time you reach them, they aren’t welcoming you with virtual open arms.

Our days have become so full of meetings, nobody is getting any work done. It’s a worrying trend but one you can reverse by being your team’s meeting saviour. Better still, save the whole organisation.

Here are four ideas to avoid being overwhelmed by the number of meetings in your working week. They require a shift in mind-set but ultimately, they’re doable.

1. Don’t have a meeting just for the sake of it

Meetings should be called to achieve more together then you could alone. They should be a participatory and active experience. Try banning updates (which can be done in another way – by email for example), briefings (do them at your one-to-ones) and the dissection of long reports (ask for shorter ones). This leaves the way clear for meetings to be where you and the team explore, discuss, create, and take action.

2. Make your work more visible

The problem with meetings is we think they make us look busy. If your Outlook is packed with them, you’re adding value – right? Wrong. You add value with your output as well as your input.

Instead encourage team members to diarise their work, make an appointment with yourself to write a report, plan, think, account manage and prepare for a pitch. Put these activities in your diary and it elevates the status of the work. It also prevents people from dropping meetings into your schedule without checking first.

3. Encourage radical change across your organisation

This could be to instigate the 15 minute rule to meeting scheduling. This means you don’t allow meetings to be scheduled back to back. There must be a 15 minute gap. Better still, 30 minutes. It needs to be agreed across teams and adhered to.

When you think about it, it makes total sense. You want to arrive at a meeting with the right mind-set – one focussed on the impending agenda, not the recently departed one. People need breathing space (not to mention coffee and comfort!) to give their best, so give them a break.

4. Spread the responsibility and the roles

Meetings feel like a pressure if you’re the one who always has to chair them, plan the agenda and distribute the actions. Rotate those activities. As well as developing skills in others, when someone else leads the meeting, it gives it a different vibe, a bit like a change of venue.

Why not have a change of venue? If logistics allow, agree to dial in from somewhere else, from outside, have a walking meeting where participants walk and talk at the same time (watch out for lampposts). Experiment and see if your meetings re-energise as a result.

These virtual gatherings should be something to relish not dread. And we will continue to dread them unless we make some changes and reverse this trend of meeting overload. Let’s get back to looking forward to meetings because they are a break in our day, a chance to connect with colleagues and where better things happen as a result.

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Helena Sharpstone


Read more from Helena Sharpstone

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