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Rosario Arguello
Rosario Arguello

Posted on • Updated on

How to avoid organizing meetings that should have been emails

Versión en español


Photo by Marvin Meyer on Unsplash

A lot has been written about this, even mugs and shirts have been made... but we all keep getting trapped in unsolicited and pointless meetings, that in most cases either interrupt your focus or just render your entire working day useless. But as much as I also find them annoying sometimes, truth is meetings are a good problem solving tool: a lot of things can be cleared quickly and more efficiently just by sitting the right people together for an hour. Sometimes we just need to talk to each other more, huh.

Everything I am going to present here comes from looking into the meetings I organize and get invited to, and trying to understand what works and what doesn’t because, I don't know about you, but I didn’t learn about this anywhere. I suspect people that have business related degrees might have had some training on this, but for the rest of us navigating the corporate world, it is mostly watch (fail) and learn. I encourage you to practice this exercise too - ask yourself this simple set of questions after the meeting:

  • Did I go into the meeting knowing what problem we wanted to solve?
  • Did I leave the meeting with a solution for this problem?
  • Was everybody invited engaged with the meeting?

The list I present has no particular order. I work in tech as a frontend engineer, but I believe all these points are valid regardless of the field you work in: it is about your soft skills and not really about the contents of the meeting itself. Most of them can be summarized in “don’t be awful to your colleagues”, but let's try to get into more detail than that:

Plan meetings ahead

We are all busy, so if you want all your invitees to be present at the meeting, you need to give them notice with enough time so they can reorganize their work around the appointment if needed. I’ve received urgent invites 10 minutes before the meeting time, while I was out having lunch. Don’t be that person.

That being said, don’t plan too far ahead either: if you set up a meeting three weeks in advance, by the time it comes around it might not even be relevant anymore.

Only invite directly involved people

This might sound like a given, but haven't you ever attended a meeting and you never knew why you were there? Spend a minute really thinking about who needs to be in the meeting and why, and invite only them - the more people you get in a room, the harder it is to moderate the discussion and have everybody involved. Some people are shy or feel uncomfortable speaking in a room full of people, and you might end up losing valuable contributions because of that.

Use the tools your calendar app offers you

I use Outlook at work so it's the only one I can speak about, but I am sure other corporate softwares have similar features. If possible, check that you are choosing a day and time that works for most of the people invited - you can do this by inviting them through the scheduling option, that displays all invitees calendars side by side. Also, use the required/optional fields for classifying attendees so, when they receive the appointment, they can tell if they are essential or if they have been included mostly to be aware of what is happening (and thus, opt out if they can’t make it). This is especially helpful when you are invited along with other 50 people, and you lack context about what this is about.

Prepare. An. Agenda.

I cannot stress this enough, please, pretty please include an agenda on your meeting invite. This is the point where most meetings that should have been emails happen: while you are drafting the description for the meeting appointment and you start figuring out the agenda, you will quickly notice it if you can solve it by just writing the same thing on a regular email instead.

For those of you that don’t know what an agenda is: together with a short, general description of the topic of the meeting (i.e why you need all these people sitting in a room or joining a virtual room together for an hour of their precious time), you should add a bullet point list of the topics to be covered. It doesn’t need to be super long and the way you phrase it and organize it is up to you, but the goal here is to have some sort of roadmap of all the things you want to discuss, problems you want to solve, topics you want to address etc. Some people also timebox the agenda, assigning a duration for each topic - I personally find this a bit too controlling, but if it works for you, go ahead.

Benefits of adding an agenda to your meeting:

  • People invited can prepare beforehand about the topics to be discussed, including getting context or asking any necessary questions before the actual discussion happens. This helps a lot to not waste time having to reintroduce a topic to part of the audience.
  • You can prepare beforehand too! Either with a powerpoint that follows your bullet points, or just with some well organized notes, you will have a clearer idea of what you want to achieve and you will end up managing the meeting time in a more efficient way. Everybody wins!
  • Attendees can ask questions and suggest changes to the content of the Agenda before the meeting. This also helps make the meeting more efficient (for example, you planned to dedicate time explaining something and it turns out everybody is already aware of it and you don’t need to).

Add any necessary context for the meeting to the invite

Are you discussing a new process that has been documented? Include a link to the document! Are you meeting to make a decision on something? Include information about the choices you are considering! This helps people get context before the meeting, ask any necessary questions beforehand, and enables you to focus on what is important when you are together.

Be respectful of everybody’s time.

We all have been there: You join the call on time or go to the meeting room, and there is no one there. Attendees start getting in about 5 minutes later, sometimes even more. I know it seems like a small thing, but if you have a really busy day and took time out of it to meet, you would expect everybody else to have the same level of commitment. Also, if you have a lot of things to cover, 5 minutes can be game changing. Be there on time, and start the meeting on time. The same holds true for ending the meeting: If you think you need to go over the planned time, first and foremost ask everybody present if that is ok with them, and second, if you are using a shared room check that no one else needs to use it right after you. It used to happen a lot to me at my previous company that you went to the booked beforehand only big room, and it was occupied by someone. You end up wasting time waiting for them to wrap up whatever they are doing and leave.

Document the results of your meeting

This is as important as the agenda to have an efficient meeting. You must have experienced this too: You meet with your colleagues, discuss a number of topics and come to certain agreements… then nothing happens. None of those agreements were written down, so they are quickly forgotten. None of the follow up steps agreed upon are taken, so the situation does not change. Eventually you find yourself organizing a new meeting to go over the same things, with an intense feeling of dejavu.

To avoid this, there are a few techniques you can use to document the results of the meeting, and ensure something is done with them:

  • When the meeting starts, assign someone to take notes during the meeting. But make a point out of it, so you are sure the notes are being taken somewhere. After meeting, share them with all invitees (even the ones that didn’t make it!), encouraging them to share theirs too or fill in any gaps. This helps keep track of what was discussed, what arguments were presented, and even what was left out.
  • If relevant (most times, it is), end the meeting agreeing on a list of action points and assign someone to each of them. Action points should be clear and specific tasks to take care of and if possible they should also have a timeframe too. This helps a lot to end the meeting with a sense of accomplishment and also to have real results happening after it.
  • If your company keeps documentation somewhere (for example, Confluence) store your meeting notes there too. This helps to keep a history of what has been discussed when, and when were decisions made and by whom. It improves transparency and makes onboarding new members easier.

Share the knowledge

Lastly, help sharing this information. If you get invited to a meeting that has no agenda, request one. If the meeting is wrapping up with no clear conclusion, suggest some action points. If you are comfortable doing so, give feedback to your peers after meetings they organize. It can be that your colleague is also learning on the go and you can help them improve. This in turn means less useless meetings for you!

This has been my personal take on ways to improve your meetings. With some luck, you might end up hating them a bit less, too. Please let me know your opinion in the comments, as well as any other advice I might have missed.

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