Meetings are the scourge of many an otherwise productive workplace. While they ostensibly create a more democratic working environment, they are often, quite simply, a waste of everyone's time.
"A porridge with unclear outcomes" is how Alan Pettersen from HR firm Positive People describes many workplace meetings.
He believes companies can waste a lot of time on meetings, and that there needs to be fundamental shift in the thinking about their efficacy.
"The best possible result [from this shift] would be meetings being held only when necessary and in an efficient way," he says.
Pettersen says that a sort of "meeting culture" develops in some organisations, and management needs to consider whether this is necessary for the success of the company.
"There needs to be consideration of the intention behind holding them, the best way of conducting them and who will be attending. Much of the problem is a lack of understanding that different meetings require different approaches and that there isn't a 'one size fits all' silver bullet.
"Whichever way you look at it, the cost of holding the various meetings held across an organisation is extremely large, given most tie senior people up for most of their day," he says.
For meetings to be effective, they need to add value and clarity around a topic and help steer the company down a particular path.
Pettersen explains that meetings have varied purposes, and identifying what type you need can help clarify the direction they take.
"The most common types of meetings include information-sharing meetings, decision-making meetings, status-update meetings, problem-solving meetings, innovation meetings, planning meetings and team-building meetings," he says.
"Each has a specific purpose and well run, they deliver good results."
Where meetings fail is when they end up going off-task, and becoming a pointless mish-mash of unnecessary topics. This can be prevented by having a good chairperson in charge, who ensures only the appropriate topics are covered.
"If a meeting is called to problem-solve on a very specific product difficulty but strays uncontrolled into how to improve the sales process (innovation meeting territory) and is also hijacked by an energised discussion on the merits of a new product that would be great to import (information sharing territory), this scenario isn't likely to deliver a solution for the product problem."
There needs to be a very clear mandate for the meeting, which can ensure it doesn't steer off topic and remains relevant.
"Simply stating the purpose of the meeting at the start can help keep it focused because if it starts to go off track there is an easy back-on-track reference to point to," Pettersen says.
One of the key benefits of meetings is that it enables collaboration, involvement, and eventual buy-in of all those who are involved.
They can create a common understanding of the direction to be taken, and allow all attendees to leave with a clear sense of purpose.
"Meetings are worth their weight in gold and deliver great outcomes — provided they are well-planned and well-run."
Many companies have regular meetings, and these can be useful if they remain concise, clear and relevant. They can be great for keeping teams updated on projects, reinforce company identity and provide an option for positive feedback on company successes.
There are alternatives to meetings, however, and these can be more efficacious than larger gatherings in many occasions.
"When considering convening a meeting, it is always useful to think about what other options might exist to meet the purpose that existed for wanting to call a meeting in the first place," says Pettersen.
"Certainly, a casual discussion with appropriate people can sometimes serve the purpose, provided it remains focused. It can be quick, easy and practical.
"But the danger of these casual discussions can be that they go all over the place, and be without any reference to decisions made."
Joint emails can also work, under the right conditions.
"Provided the purpose is relatively simple, those participating know each other reasonably well and there is a good deal of trust. Because emails can feel so cold and black and white, there are no nuances or subtleties to pick up on, like one can at meetings."
As everything is in the written words, the nuances of face-to-face interactions can be lost in email, however, so this has its limitations as well.
Pettersen points to a UK study in 2017 that found 74 per cent of senior management thought meetings were essential. But this was countered by the attitude of the less senior staff.
"They found that 37 per cent of employee time is spent in meetings, 47 per cent considered too many meetings the biggest waste of time, 70 per cent brought other work to meeting, and they estimated that 25-50 per of meeting time is wasted.
"Add to that the anecdotal evidence and commentary that is commonplace, and it is clear that all organisations have a great opportunity to make massive improvements in this area."
Pettersen knows of a number of companies who have decided to minimise the amount of time spent in meetings, but "to be at all successful requires a clear mission to achieve the goal and a strong commitment from all participants."
He advises that organisations who are concerned about time spent in meetings should arrange an audit of the meetings they hold to establish the facts and to canvas opinions from attendees relating to meeting types, frequencies, protocols and the perceived positives and negatives.
"Most of the solutions will revolve around organising meetings that always have a clear agenda, ground-rules, time limits, are evaluated and result in monitored action. These go a long way to optimising the time employees spend at meetings.
"In the end it would be true to say that excellent meetings need excellent chairpersons."