Get 11 tips for running effective meetings to keep people engaged, on track, and contributing. Get more done in meetings and in between them.
Table of Contents
Meetings are the bedrock of democracy. Back before the boardroom, the ancient Greeks would gather in the agora to debate and make decisions. They also held assemblies or councils to discuss matters of governance, laws, and policies.
Fast forward a few millennia and all that consensus building seems like too much of a good thing. People are neck-deep in meetings–many of which aren’t effective–which takes a toll on their productivity and focus.
Truth is, only 50% of in-person meeting time is effective, well-used, and engaging. For remote meetings, it can be even less.**
Here’s a radical idea: sometimes, the most effective meeting is the one you cancel. If you don’t have that luxury, then you need to follow best practices for running effective meetings to keep everyone focused, contributing, and productive.
In this post, you’ll get 11 ways to make meetings more effective, productive, and meaningful, from canceling them altogether to using AI to do the heavy lifting.
Do more in meetings—and in between them.
Switchboard’s persistent rooms let you work side by side on anything in real time or async alone.
What makes a successful meeting?
Effective meetings lead to better work, while ineffective ones waste time and create confusion. Here are a few ways to tell if yours are successful:
- Provides clarity and supports decision making
- Promotes inclusion and team cohesion
- Everyone is engaged, contributing, or actively listening—and needs to be there
- Facilitates moving work forward, rather than just interrupting it
- Afterward, people understand the next steps
If your meetings don’t check all those boxes, read on for some best practices for running effective meetings.
How to run an effective meeting: 11 best practices
Speaking on Adam Grant’s WorkLife podcast, Steven Rogelberg, Ph.D., Chancellor’s Professor, University of North Carolina Charlotte, and author of Glad We Met, affirms that the quality of meetings determines their outcome rather than the meeting itself.
With that in mind, here are a few ways to improve yours.
1. Question whether you need one
According to Harvard Business Review (HBR), reducing meetings by 40% can lead to 71% higher employee productivity. In part, because people feel more empowered and autonomous. Slash meetings by 80% and 44% of employees feel more valued, trusted, and engaged—and inclined to work harder for their company.
Those are pretty compelling arguments for cutting down.
Rogelberg reveals that an organization’s meeting culture may be inherited from a founder or another organization, rather than based on evidence that meetings work. If that sounds like yours, examine whether your company culture encourages meetings rather than individual decision making. Audit your regular meetings to see which you’re holding out of habit and which could be replaced with other forms of communication. As podcast host Grant suggests, basic reasons to meet include to decide, learn, bond, or do. If you’re not doing one of those, maybe you don’t need a meeting.
You could follow Asana’s lead and try “Meeting Doomsday.” Employees delete all meetings from their calendars and have to wait 48 hours before repopulating them. This makes them think about which are really necessary. If that’s too radical, try meeting-free days instead.
You could also use a meeting cost calculator, like Shopify. Its average 30-minute meetings include three people and cost $700-$1600. Invite a high-level exec and that goes up, which makes people think twice before hitting “schedule.”
2. Do more work async
There’s a perception that meetings are essential for teamwork but HBR found that canceling 60% of meetings actually boosted cooperation by 55%. Instead, people connected over project management or messaging apps, which saved time for 83% of them and resulted in clearer, more effective communication.
Think about whether you could achieve meeting objectives with async communication. Planning, setting team goals, making decisions, or tackling major problems or sensitive issues are best done in a meeting. However, reminders, task assignments, check-ins, and non-sensitive feedback can easily be done via email, your project management platform, or posted in a Switchboard room.
Take Netflix’s example. The streaming giant tells its employees that meetings for one-way information sharing be replaced with memos, podcasts, vlogs, etc. For two-way information sharing, attendees must review materials in advance and presentations are replaced with Q&As. This led to a 65% reduction in meetings, pleasing over 85% of employees.
Pro tip: Use a visual collaboration platform like Switchboard to create persistent meeting or project rooms. Share materials there for everyone to get up to speed async—or straight to work when you do meet.
Rooms save your progress, so anyone who didn’t attend can hop into the host-free room later to catch up with the room recording or AI-generated summaries of room activity. They can also add comments and contributions to whatever you worked on.
3. Keep it small
When you do meet, limit the guest list to avoid meetings becoming unwieldy or going off track.
McKinsey recommends categorizing meetings into decision-making, generating creative solutions, coordination, and information-sharing. Then, think about who needs to be there to achieve those goals and only invite them.
To avoid anyone feeling left out, Rogelberg suggests letting them know what you’ll be discussing and asking if they have contributions. If not, keep them in the loop async. You can always invite them to future meetings if necessary.
You should also give people permission to decline, says Anita Hossain, Co-Founder & CEO of The Grand: “There’s this pressure that we sometimes feel ‘I should be involved in everything.’” However, people should feel free to skip meetings that are irrelevant or when they have nothing to contribute.
4. Short and to the point
Short meetings are better for people’s endurance and attention spans and can enhance focus and productivity. The time pressure can even lead to greater engagement and efficiency. Rather than arbitrary time limits, however, set meeting times that will allow you to achieve your objectives.
Hossain stresses the need to keep meetings on track by tabling side conversations or longer discussions: “If I notice a conversation needs space and not everyone needs to be in that conversation, I'll pause the meeting and say, ‘It sounds like there's a bigger decision we need to make as a leadership team. Why don't we have a follow up meeting with this core group so we can have a longer conversation? And let's get back to what we agreed on for alignment in this meeting.”
“When you see time slipping away,” she says, “it's important to create those guardrails and claim it back so everyone knows this is an effective use of time… When you don't end meetings on time, you're creating this expectation that, ‘Okay, we can have these conversations.’ That trickles down to the entire organization and meetings become this tool that’s not effective anymore.”
Basically, it all boils down to being mindful of people’s time: you wouldn’t let a client meeting overrun or go off-tangent, so don’t do it to your team either.
5. Have a meeting agenda and clear objectives
Having an agenda and clear goals helps you stay on track and avoids meetings for meetings’ sake.
“The goal might be deepening relationships across the team,” says Hossain. “If so, then you know how to run that meeting. But if it's alignment, you want to make sure, walking out of that meeting, that everyone has a clear understanding of the goal and their contribution to it.”
Depending on the purpose, your agenda should specify the decision to be made or topics or information to be discussed or shared. Add agenda items to your meeting invite or Switchboard room so everyone understands the purpose. No agenda, and they can decline.
Rogelberg recommends structuring agendas as questions rather than topics to maintain focus and clarity and encourage people to start thinking. It also makes it easier to determine whether you achieved your meeting objectives.
6. Be a leader and a facilitator
To keep things on track and achieve your goals, you need a clear leader to facilitate. Hossain says, “You're the conductor of this orchestra, so it's on you to create an environment where everyone's playing effectively, in tune.”
- Show up right. Your mood influences attendees, so set a positive tone from the start.
- Start with an icebreaker or a “traffic light” check-in. This creates a shared understanding of where everyone is coming from, which avoids misunderstandings or people taking things personally if others are distracted. Green means “I’m fully present and ready to go.” Yellow means “Present but thinking about a deadline, email, etc.” Red means “Present but mind completely elsewhere.”
- Listen empathetically. Rather than listening to respond, everyone should listen with no agenda to truly understand someone’s situation. This also helps people self-regulate and understand that everyone has something to contribute—not just the loudest voice in the room.
- Involve everyone. To avoid those loud voices dominating, call on people by name or ask them to raise hands or post in the chat. You can also keep speakers on track with the timer in your Switchboard room. If you need to cut someone short or redirect the conversation, don’t feel bad. Remember, people are looking to you to guide the meeting. Finally, if you’re managing a hybrid team, give remote meeting participants equal opportunities to contribute.
- Ask open, honest questions. Often, opinions are masked as questions, like “Have you thought about doing it this way?” (i.e. my way). Instead, ask questions you don’t have the answer for, to avoid steering people.
- Mix it up. Experiment with different meeting formats like standing, which encourages people to be brief. You could also rotate facilitators to keep people engaged and give everyone a chance to shine.
7. Know people’s working and thinking styles
Some people think best on their feet; others need time to reflect. It’s your job to create the conditions for everyone to participate. To do this, Hossain recommends understanding each team member’s communication style and using that during individual interactions.
For example, some people are direct and results-oriented, so get to the point fast. Others need time to reflect before making decisions. For these, post a prompt in your Switchboard room before the meeting or put them in breakout rooms to discuss. Others need to build a personal connection with you, so start by asking how they’re feeling, about their vacation, etc.
8. Make it interactive
Passively watching a presentation and waiting for your turn to speak isn’t engaging. Instead, get people contributing through emoji reactions, chat, polls, surveys, or voting. Your agenda should also feature a mix of content and activities.
Think about the tools you use, too. Traditional video conferencing platforms that rely on one-sided screen sharing are great for talking about work—not so much for doing it. Switchboard lets you work side by side on any browser-based app, document, or file during meetings and in between them. This recreates the feeling of being in the same room and lets everyone contribute. You can also use built-in or third-party whiteboards for brainstorming.
9. Establish guidelines for virtual meetings
It can be easier to hide in virtual meetings, which can lead to people multitasking, answering emails, or completing tasks. Basically, anything but attending to the call.
To avoid this, establish a virtual meeting culture that includes the following ground rules:
- Keep cameras on throughout and turn off notifications on your computer and phone. If you’re using Switchboard, you can make the call full screen to avoid distractions.
- Maintain eye contact with the camera.
- Dress appropriately and use a background if you’re joining from the broom closet.
- Start and end on time to maintain momentum and stop people fretting about work they need to get back to.
- Presenters should log in early to check equipment and presentations work. There’s nothing worse than turning up on time to watch someone battle technical issues.
10. Have actionable next steps and follow up
At the end of the meeting, summarize key takeaways and assign action items so everyone leaves with a clear understanding of what was accomplished and what their next steps are. For meetings like sprint planning this is particularly important. Concept-check by asking them to repeat the action plan, tasks, and deadlines.
Assign someone as note-taker who should follow up afterward and share meeting notes and action items via email or similar. Having it in writing promotes accountability. If you’re using Switchboard, you can post a list of deliverables in your persistent project room for people to refer back to.
Finally, use a Switchboard or Slack poll, or a website form, to gather feedback to continuously improve meetings.
11. Use AI to save time
AI meeting manager tools automate time-consuming manual processes like scheduling, agenda creation, transcriptions, and note taking—leaving you free to get work done. Some even generate action items or a summary of what you missed if you joined the meeting late. When you do more async, you need to document everything really well, so these tools are a lifesaver.
If you’re using Switchboard for a brainstorming session, you can also ask Switchboard AI questions to get inspiration on the fly.
More effective meetings: The way to move work forward
Meetings started out as a way of giving the people a voice, but all that talking can get in the way of work. People’s calendars are loaded with ineffective meetings that eat into focus time.
Sometimes, the most effective meeting is the one you cancel. If you can’t avoid it, however, you need to know how to keep people focused, contributing, productive, and on track.
In this post, we covered 11 best practices for running effective meetings. For example, doing more async outside of them; keeping them small, short, and focused with a meeting agenda and clear goals; having a facilitator to enforce guidelines and get the best out of each team member; and using the right tools to keep people engaged and automate manual tasks.
When you use Switchboard, you can set up persistent rooms to collaborate on anything together in real time or make progress on your own schedule. Doing more outside of meetings makes them more productive or lets you cancel them altogether. Best of all, everything’s saved, so you never need to download anything or repopulate the room again.
How’s that for civilized?
Do more in meetings—and in between them.
Switchboard’s persistent rooms let you work side by side on anything in real time or async alone.
Frequently asked questions about running effective meetings
What are the 5 P's of running an effective meeting?
The five Ps of running an effective meeting are:
- Purpose: Every good meeting should have one, and all participants should understand the purpose of the meeting.
- Preparation. People should read through materials before the call and come ready to work.
- Process. Productive meetings have a clear process, defined by an agenda with topics and running order.
- Participation. Only invite people who have something to contribute to ensure everyone participates.
- Progress. People should leave having made progress and empowered to move work forward.
What are the three techniques for running an effective meeting?
There are lot of techniques for running effective meetings, like:
- Planning and prioritization to determine who needs to attend and how you’ll achieve the team meeting goals
- Time management and agendas to stay on track
- Facilitator skills to encourage debate, get people participating, and encourage debate