In their book on remote work, founders of project management startup Basecamp, Jason Fried and David Heinemeir Hansson, say business meetings should be like salt.
“Too much salt destroys a dish. Too many meetings destroy morale and motivation,” they write.
As your team rolls into the office eager to start 2018 on a high note, there’s no doubt you have a long list of new year’s resolutions for the day-to-day operations of your office.
You’re probably also very familiar with the super-draining properties of an inefficient meeting.
It’s a problem countless businesses have worked hard to solve — even billion-dollar technology darling Atlassian has implemented a novel strategy involving a rubber chicken in order to keep meetings on track.
Managers at the project management startup were looking to fight against the tendency for the most “alpha, most senior, or most opinionated person” to dominate a meeting and they found that using props was a highly effective way to ensure productive conversations.
Business consultants and researchers have countless other suggestions for keeping your boardroom meet-ups on track and conflict-free. Here are five things you can do today to get the most out of meetings.
Check in before you start
Business strategist and director of Empathetic Consulting, Daniel Murray, tells SmartCompany that while meetings can be great, the challenge for leaders is that they bring together a group of employees all in their own specific headspaces.
These different parties come to the table with “distracted minds” that can get you off course from the very start.
“The baggage people bring to the meeting can impact heavily on the outcome — especially your own,” Murray says.
If you’re leading a meeting, getting a sense of the mindsets of the participants at the very beginning can help, he says.
One easy way to do this is taking a couple of minutes at the start of the proceedings to outright ask people how they’re feeling, to help counteract the “unseen storms” in people’s minds that could impact on the meeting’s progress, he says.
“Start the meeting with a quick chat about how you are feeling and how you are preparing for this time.”
Use the “Two Pizza” rule
Amazon founder and richest man on earth Jeff Bezos is often credited with creating the “two pizza” meeting rule: no meeting should have more people in it than two large pizzas can feed.
The aim of this approach is to limit the number of attendees to about eight staff members, which prevents conversations from dragging on or involving too many tangential discussions.
Checking in with staff about whether they find meetings valuable to attend is also important. Writing in in the Harvard Business Review last year, Harvard Business School academics explained research that showed 65% of staff believe mandatory meetings were actually cutting into their own productivity, instead of being worthwhile.
Researchers Leslie Perlow, Constance Noonan Hadley and Eunice Eun suggest there are five stages to go through to ensure staff actually get anything out of the meetings they regularly attend, starting with individual surveys to see “how much resentment is bubbling” because of your meetings schedule.
Make sure everyone is heard
Once you’ve got the right people in the room, the next step is making sure they’re all heard within a reasonable timeframe.
This is where props — like Atlassian’s rubber chicken “Helmut” — come in. When a discussion has gone off track or someone is dominating the room, a squawk from Helmut signals it’s time to move onto another topic or return to the agenda point.
Atlassian’s head of research and development Dominic Price told StartupSmart last year that Helmut was designed “to help us get the best value out of the meeting and comfortably call BS on each other”.
Making sure everyone gets a say is a different challenge when your participants are scattered across the globe.
As one of the best places to work in Australia, design and e-commerce startup Envato allows its employees to work remotely, including stints overseas.
This was an initial complication for meetings, human resources manager Amber Johnson explained last year, but the company installed a blow-up doll in the boardroom to remind staff to give their remote-worker colleagues a chance to contribute via phone or video chat.
“We would bring this blow up doll to meeting rooms, to remind everyone in the meeting room that there are other people there that you can’t see,” Johnson explained at an event in August.
Think about your space and structure
Not every startup or small business has access to a boardroom — and with the rise of coworking spaces, preparing yourself for a sit-down meeting when you share space could be a challenge.
Meetings rooms are “hot property” in shared spaces, says founder of women-led business focus co-working space One Roof Women, Sheree Rubenstein, but you shouldn’t be afraid to use open areas for group conversation.
“If you’re not talking about confidential information, use break out areas such as the kitchen, cafe and chill out zones, as well as conducting meetings standing up,” she tells SmartCompany.
Rubenstein also advocates thinking about completely new locations for staff meet-ups, refleting that a break from the usual can boost creative thinking.
“Breaking up the environment where and how you hold meetings helps to spark new ideas / creative thinking,” she says.
If weather’s on your side, it might be worth taking things out of your office space altogether, she says.
“You can never underestimate the power of fresh air.”
Thinking about the structure of your catch-ups could also boost productivity, say some startups. In this blog post, App developer Appster explains how its teams have benefited from a 15-minute “stand up” each day in place of longer update meetings.
Scheduled each morning before clients arrive, the startup says this meeting format allows teams to review yesterday’s accomplishments, the current days tasks and any challenges, all in a bite-sized format.
Cut down the time commitment
Meetings that run overtime can cause significant stress, so it’s no surprise some of the world’s most high profile entrepreneurs are keen to slice the time they commit to staff conversations considerably.
Tesla and SpaceX founder Elon Musk is said to be so efficient because he only ever takes a meeting if it’s completely necessary.
Former SpaceX employee Skyler Shuford explained this practice in a Quora Q&A last year, reflecting that it in most cases, email communication is enough to get a job done within your business.
If you don’t want to ditch the boardroom altogether but are still keen to save time, entrepreneur Gary Vaynerchuk has another piece of advice: cut meeting times in half.
“Make your meeting half the amount of time that you originally thought it should be, and things will go much better for you,” he shared in a Medium blog post on his secret to efficient meetings in 2015.
Shrinking the amount of time your team spends discussing a topic will keep them on track, without careening off into unproductive work.
“If you give people a ten pound bag, they are going to fill it with ten pounds of crap,” Vaynerchuck wrote.