How to Set the Context for Productive Work Meetings

Andy smiling during a meeting

Work meetings can easily be seen as a necessary evil, something as an individual you have to endure whilst as an organisation you have to initiate.

In a world of remote-working, this has been exacerbated, where before a quick chat over the coffee machine was enough, now a scheduled meeting needs to be created. But are these productive meetings?

Even in a small company like ours, time can quickly be absorbed in ‘important work meetings’, and it feels like doing the work gets relegated to fitting in between scheduled calls.

Let’s be clear, productive meetings are not ‘doing the work’, they should ‘enable the work’. So how can we address this issue? How can we ensure meetings are prioritised correctly and our team has time and space to produce quality work?

In this post, I unpick how we aim to maximise meeting productivity at Brightec.

Work Meetings: Lead with Context, not Control

I recently came across the phrase "Lead with context, not control".

It comes from the book “No Rules Rules”, the story of how Netflix manages their company whilst enabling a culture of creativity and innovation. It perfectly captures how we seek to lead our team at Brightec. We have very few policies, instead, we treat our staff as adults and encourage them to make good decisions for the company and for our clients.

It would be easy and perhaps natural to look at our staff team’s calendar and try to address the issue of meetings in a policy; outlining what meetings can be created for, for how long and at what time. This would, however, disempower individuals to make good choices, particularly as a policy can never cover all eventualities.

We believe it is better to offer context to our team on why we want to address an issue and use some example guidance to illustrate how this might work in practice. I have given an overview of our ‘Brightec Meeting Guidance’ document below.

Work Meeting Context

In the first part of our guidance document, we lay out why having lots of work meetings is an issue and how it relates to Brightec values. Specifically, we build on one of our values ‘Collective Responsibility’:

quote mark

Every team member has a part to play. Understanding every area of the business helps us make better decisions, empathise with users and create outstanding products.

Following this and throughout the document, we aim to keep providing context for the guidance we are imparting.

For example, we believe that it is important for our staff to understand how much a meeting costs, both to Brightec and (if we’re charging for it) to our clients. Providing this context, means our staff have a framework to make decisions on whether a meeting should go ahead and how long for. This often results in more productive meetings, which is beneficial for everyone involved.

Types of Work Meeting

We also identify that there are two types of meeting: relational and functional. Both have their specific purpose, making different behaviours appropriate for each.

Let’s take a look at these two types of work meetings now:

Relational Meetings

The primary aim for relational meetings is to build or strengthen relationships. These become particularly important whilst everyone is working remotely.

“Having that quick-fire flow of communication brings back the easy team bonding that this conversation is intended for.” - Caz, Company Coordinator

For Brightec these meetings include; our Monday and Friday catchups, R&D kickoff meetings as well as new business and some client meetings.

We expect relational meetings would not necessarily have a fixed or agreed agenda in advance. Although sometimes we’ve found it does help conversation to have a vague agenda.

Relational meetings will be more relaxed and generally take more time than Functional Meetings. We set the expectation to our team that this is fine as relationships are built and strengthened the more time that is spent together.

Functional Meetings

The majority of the functional meetings we have are just that - functional. Examples would include sprint planning, project standups, estimating, proposal creation, project planning etc, as well as many client ‘catchups’.

We set the expectation to our team that it is important to keep these meetings as efficient as possible, to ensure we deliver value to our clients and keep our billable time high.

Work Meeting Guidance: Useful Tips for You

If you are interested in this subject please don’t take the below and simply copy and paste into your own document. We hope they are useful examples, but every organisation should consider what guidance they provide to their team on this matter.

Functional Meetings

  • Only invite people who need to be there and have a clear contribution.

  • Query your involvement if your contribution is unclear. It's ok to reject the invite if necessary; it’s not rude but saves time and money if you don’t need to be in a meeting.

  • If needed, bring in experts for portions of the meeting to contribute or be interviewed.

  • It is recommended to have a clear agenda in advance that is stated in the invitation to the meeting and at the start.

  • Decide which person will lead the meeting.

  • Where possible, set a time limit on the meeting that is appropriate for what needs to be achieved.

Meeting Scheduling

  • Be conscious of other people’s diaries. If a team member is joining your meeting immediately after 2-3 hours of back to back calls they will already be fatigued.

  • Most meetings (other than the Monday Catchup) should be limited to a maximum of 45mins and where possible we should default to < 20mins. 45mins allows for a 15 min gap between meetings that are scheduled on the hour.

  • Longer meetings where possible should be scheduled at the start or end of the day, and before or after lunch.

  • Meetings may be scheduled outside of Brightec’s core hours (10am - 2pm). Staff members will need to adjust their working hours around these in order to attend.

General Work Meeting Guidance

  • When meetings have a more open-ended agenda or outcome, such as project kick-offs or meetings about new projects it can be difficult to deliver an agenda in advance. Without that agenda, it is often then challenging to focus the meeting towards an output. With that in mind, the suggestion would always be to bring a draft to the meeting and work from that point.

  • It is easier for a group to correct (even wholesale) a draft document than to start larger pieces of work from scratch ‘by committee’. Admittedly, this relies on the gathered team to be candid in their feedback and the author to hold lightly their work. But overall it will make for faster iteration and a quicker outcome.

  • Is it tempting in online meetings to get on with other work, whilst on the call. Please resist this temptation and leave the meeting if you are making no contribution to it.

Further Reading

Running efficient meetings is a skill and it takes a lot of practice to do it well. But what it also takes is a bunch of tools and activities to apply to each style of meeting.

One book we regularly refer back to is Sprint by Jake Knapp. It's a practical guide to the Design Sprint process and running fast, high-value workshops and meetings is one of its core requirements.

We've really benefited from the activities it prescribes (many of which can also be found in The Design Sprint Kit). We hope you find it useful too.

We believe that having a happy, fulfilled team makes us more productive and profitable. Find out how we foster a culture of productivity at Brightec.

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