Careers advice: Managing meetings to maximise productivity

25 March 2021

Alumni Careers Manager Caroline Egan writes about the importance of managing your meeting requests to maximise your productivity.

For the last 12 months, many of us have felt that we’re taking part in non-stop virtual meetings, especially whilst working from home. Yet, you can often predict which meetings will be unproductive from the moment you receive the invitation. There’s the ‘team update’ where you spend two hours listening to a rundown of how everyone spent their week, or that ‘planning meeting’ where you hash out minor details that could have been handled elsewhere.

Some of these can be avoided, but others are much harder to escape - especially if the invitation comes from your manager, a key client, or an influential colleague. Here are five ways to manage those meeting requests that you suspect will be unproductive, or at least limit the collateral damage to your productivity and schedule.

1. Be clear on which meetings really are important to attend. The list is short - essential meetings are the ones where:

  • Decisions will be made. If your team is choosing to launch either Project A or Project B, you can’t make a high-stakes decision over email – you need everyone to share their viewpoint, air their concerns, and coalesce around a solution. That’s normally best done in person but for the moment, can at least be done during a Teams call.
  • Strategic direction of your company or team will be set. It may or may not include specific actions but it feeds into your vision of where you’re headed. For example, a project kick-off meeting, a brainstorming session (during which you form a rough sense of which ideas are on point and which aren’t), or a goal or KPI related session.
  • For relationship-building purposes. The content itself might be boring or unnecessary but if you can strengthen a relationship with an important contact by putting in some face time, that’s a worthwhile investment of time.

 The meetings to avoid at all costs are ‘updates’ which can be handled quickly through email.

2. Make it more difficult for meeting ‘requestors.’ It’s very easy for someone to invite you to a meeting - too easy. Many people feel they are constantly being pulled into unnecessary meetings, particularly because it’s part of many company cultures for everyone to share their calendars publicly, so people know when you are available and will put in direct requests for you to attend.

 Tactics to try include:

  • ‘Unpublishing’ your calendar or if you have a PA, ask them to enforce a more rigorous vetting process
  • As part of the vetting process, make the meeting requestor justify why they should gain your time and attention. This will often deter all but the most committed. Try making it standard procedure to ask the following questions of anyone requesting that you attend a meeting:
  1. What is the exact topic?
  2. What is the timing and location?
  3. What is the duration?
  4. Who else will be in attendance?
  5. What decision needs to be made at the meeting? (This helps you determine whether the intended meeting is high-value)
  6. Why, specifically, do you need me to be there? (This forces them to articulate a clear reason. If they say ‘To keep you updated’, then you can simply tell them to do this afterwards by sharing the minutes with you)
  • Channelling your meeting availability onto particular days, to free up your schedule to work on projects and actions

3. If you want to get out of the meeting but still feel it’s difficult to say no, suggest a minimally invasive compromise. A meeting will almost certainly take an hour or more of your time. See if the meeting organiser would be willing to:

  • Update you over email
  • Have a short phone call to get your input instead
  • Keep it to 30 minutes maximum.

4. If the topic isn’t urgent, you can try a delaying tactic:

‘I’m traveling for business/working full-time on a project over the next three weeks, but we could reconnect after that. Perhaps you could email me the week of the 23rd for us to find a time?’

Frequently, the requestor will get distracted and forget, or discover that whatever they felt was so urgent has diminished in importance, or they have dealt with it without your input. You’ll get ‘points’ for appearing helpful, but ultimately won’t have to attend the meeting.

Finally, sometimes you do have to relent and attend, but you can at least make your manager or colleagues aware that your time is finite and that they need to issue their requests carefully. For instance, you could say, “I saw that you invited me to attend the meeting about Project A on Thursday. As you know, I’m heads-down right now working on Project B and we’re on a tight deadline. You have a better sense of the big picture here, so I wanted to check in. Do you think it’s worth it for me to take time away from Project B to attend this meeting? If you think it’s important, of course I’ll be there.” Sometimes, even well-meaning supervisors and colleagues can forget how busy you are, so a tactful reminder can help them understand the consequences of thoughtless meeting invitations.

Meetings are often considered the scourge of modern business life, consuming an average of c. 50 hours per month or more of employees’ time, approximately half of which is thought to be wasted. Many professionals attempt to cope in a passive-aggressive way, showing up late to meetings, or as now, doing emails during Teams meetings, instead of listening. Perhaps the better option is to manage our meetings proactively, rather than attending unwillingly.

The strategies above provide a better way to protect your valuable work time. Instead of running from meeting to meeting, and catching up at weekends, you’ll be better able to do the valuable work that you’re evaluated on and rewarded for, during your working hours.