I'm a big fan of individuals taking charge of the meetings they're in. In fact, I'd love to banish boring and frustrating workshops. I care so much about it that I launched Meetings that Matter in 2020 and we've had over 1,000 people learn to do better since.
Knowing how to lead important conversations is a non-negotiable skill for anyone in change or in charge. In Meetings that Matter, we learn strategies for getting the best out of people, moving conversations along, focusing on the important stuff and keeping momentum moving outside the room.
But there's a point at which all this meeting improvement gets a bit... victim-blaming. If you have a toxic meeting culture in your workplace, making individual meetings better can be like shuffling deck chairs on the Titanic.
Here's a few signs of a toxic meeting culture:
There are no meeting free days in your calendar
More than 50% of your time is spent in meetings
It feels rude to call someone and expect them to pick up
You don't feel able to decline meetings
Many of your meetings feel pointless
You're stressed about when and how to do the work you commit to in meetings
Meetings routinely start late or people often need to leave early to attend another one
You often have back-to-back meetings swallow your day.
If you've ticked off more than three of these, it might be time to stop blaming your own discipline and zoom out a bit - chances are, it's your whole team or workplace that needs a shake up.
This kind of pressure is bad enough for one person, but when you multiply it across dozens, hundreds (or thousands!) of people, entire companies sag under the weight of bad meeting culture. Morale drops off, people are stressed, productivity plummets and the joy starts to get lost.
If you're in a leadership position, it's your job to leave things better than you found them. It's exactly at the point where you can take a bit more control of your own calendar and start to leave some of this overwhelm behind that you should think about changing things for everyone.
Policies create permission
I'm a policy wonk by trade. One of the most frustrating misconceptions about policy is that they're a barrier, constraint or annoyance. That might often be true, but it shouldn't be. Policy should make people's lives easier, by creating clear boundaries, scaffolds and processes that remove ambiguity and make doing the right thing easy.
If your team or workplace doesn't currently have a policy on how you handle meetings, here's some things you might like to include in yours.
Criteria for what necessitates a meeting - Remote working creates an opportunity for asynchronous collaboration, freeing people of the need to all be at their desks at the same time. This benefit goes out the window when the only tool we have in our arsenal are meetings. Think about what needs to be a meeting, and when other tools would be more appropriate. Dropbox has done a great job of their Virtual First toolkit, enabling their team to use meetings more judiciously and embrace remote collaboration. Check it out here.
Guidelines for pre-meeting information - Nobody should be turning up to a meeting without a clear purpose, intended outcome and clarity around decisions roles, responsibilities and process. This is hard to enact alone, but a company wide policy can shift the dial by providing templates - and even locking down calendar invites to require it! Check out this article for useful starting points.
Advice on meeting length and size - Work expands to fill the available space we have for it, and the more people you have in a room, the more potential there is for going off track. Make it hard for people to fill meetings with irrelevant attendees, imbue trust in decisions made at the correct level (see below) and give people the permission to spend reduced time in meetings. They will thank you for it.
Clarity on delegation - Your existing delegations probably allow people to make more decisions on their own than they're making the most of. This is cultural - people theoretically can make the call, but they lack the confidence to do so for a fear of being punished later. Remind people of the permission they have to do their jobs, spend money and make judgement calls. Make it clear you expect them to operate within their delegation and support autonomy. If your delegations need changing, or re-communicating, do that. (This may be the single most important thing that comes out of your meeting policy process!)
Meeting time spent - Provide guidelines for team leaders and managers about what proportion of time is acceptable for people at different levels across the organisation to be spending in meetings. Ask them to track this (informally is fine) and expect explanations for breaches of the suggested threshold.
Better options - If you take away meetings as a tool, you'll need to make sure you have other, better options to fill the gap. Is it easy to collaborate on a shared document? Is there regular social time to build relationships and team bonding? Do you have the right processes for communication? Do people have each other's phone numbers? Check, and fix.
Set yourself up for success
Like all policies, writing a document is not enough. For your policy to be effective, it needs a few important things:
Staff input - Ask people what they need, what their key frustrations are, and what they would like to see happen differently. Ask them at the start, ask them in the middle, and ask them in the end. Don't worry about consultation overload here, this is one topic people are more than happy to contribute to change for!
Leadership support - Leaders need to be 100% behind this policy. That means talking about it with their teams, making the policy visible and most importantly: role modelling the behaviours that you've asked for. Cough.
Flexibility - All policies are wrong from the beginning. If you've never had a meeting policy before, be prepared to adapt it 10x in the first 6 months. Don't hide from that, or let it undermine your work. Just let people know ahead of time that you'll be adjusting it based on how they find it. That doesn't reduce credibility, it enhances it.
Communication - Talk about it. A lot. Nobody is paying as much attention to your policies as you'd like them to, so it needs: banners on the intranet, printed copies on the wall, emails, cute posters, the whole shebang.
Celebration - Reward people for changing the way they work in accordance with the policy. Make that reward visible, to build the momentum for permission and cultural shift.
Consequences - Call out behaviour that doesn't align with your policy, and show people you're serious about making this happen. Do not let behaviour slip under the radar - and if it was a leader who stuffed up, have them front it and apologise. This matters.
Above all, cultural shift doesn't require more posters, more meetings about collaboration, more expensive consultants to run innovation workshops or more hand-wringing around the leadership table.
It requires good policy to create permission for people to work in ways that get good work done. Easy as that. (For more on the hierarchy of organisational needs, read this.)
PS - I'd love to hear about workplaces that already have a great meeting policy! If that's you... pop it in the comments.