6 common complaints about meetings – and what to do about them

Whenever I run Zoomly’s ‘How to plan and prioritise’ workshop, as the group identifies their daily ‘time bandits’, meetings loom large. Typical comments are that they take too long and deliver too little. No wonder that people fiddle with their phones…Are they really an essential, valuable of getting things done? Or just a waste of time?

For the purpose of this post, let’s assume that everyone knows a meeting is the best way to make progress on the task at hand (to help you decide if a meeting IS the answer, here’s a tongue-in-cheek decision map from Atlassian).

Here are 6 common complaints about meetings – and suggestions for dealing with them.

1. ‘They take too long’

Meetings that take too long, or overrun their scheduled time, are a common complaint. People often say they spend so long in meetings, they try to get their ‘real work’ done on their phone while they’re there – not giving the discussion their full attention and not contributing.

Top tips

  • Take a reality check on how much the meeting has cost, given who was in the room and what their time is worth, using Harvard Business Review’s calculator app.
  • Obvious – yet all too uncommon – have time allocated to each item on the agenda. Appoint an attendee as time-keeper and empower them to call out when there’s a minute to go.
  • Hold the meeting as a ‘stand-up’ if the purpose is to update people and have everyone stand up. Research suggests it changes attendees’ behaviour for the better.
  • Consider shorter meetings – rather than the typical calendar default of an hour – some firms have a 15-minute default.
  • Respect attendees’ time and finish on time – or even better, a little early.

2. ‘I sometimes wonder why I’m there’

This is a pity; it can be soul-destroying to sit there unsure of your role in the meeting – and a waste of an employee’s valuable time. Somewhere along the line, the person knew when they needed to be at a meeting but didn’t know why.

Top tips

  • One lovely Zoomly client has a simple rule on this one: if there’s no agenda for the meeting – with clear objectives, timings and the name of essential attendees – people shouldn’t show up. It’s proving very effective.
  • Question what contribution is expected of you when you get a meeting invite, and if it’s ‘to be informed’ say you look forward to being kept informed when the meetings notes are circulated.

3. ‘We often don’t have the right people in the room’

If you haven’t got the key decision-makers in the room, it’s pretty pointless having a meeting. People understandably get despondent when they think they’re making progress then hit a roadblock because someone didn’t show up to provide their opinion or give the go-ahead.

Top tips

  • Call the missing attendee if they accepted the meeting invite and ask them when they’ll be joining the meeting so you can switch agenda points and move on.
  • If the missing attendee is at another location, arrange for them to show up via video call at a pre-arranged time during the meeting.

4. ‘Meetings wander off track’

Sometimes there’s an attendee (or two) who diverts everyone’s time and attention to their pet project / complaint / grudge against a colleague. They’ve got the opportunity to sound off and they’re going to take it – and take the meeting off track.

Top tips

  • Empower everyone attending the meeting to call out a deviation from the agenda and say so right at the start. A simple ‘please can we stick to this agenda point?’ or ‘how does this relate to our agenda point?’ should suffice if someone wanders off.
  • Ensure the agenda specifies the action required, e.g. ‘approve the draft proposal for submission’.

5. ‘People don’t all get the chance to contribute’

If there are some dominant characters in the meeting, others may be hesitant to offer an opinion or make a suggestion – which means the potential value of gathering these people is diminished. It’s dispiriting for less experienced employees – who may have great ideas – if they’re wary about speaking up and being shut down.

Top tips

  • The person chairing the meeting can clarify at the start that if people are invited to the meeting, their contribution is expected, regardless of experience and expertise.
  • Use a variety of facilitation tools and techniques to elicit comments and ideas.

6. ‘No-one knows what they’re supposed to be doing’

This can be the most damning indictment of all – having spent time in a meeting, attendees leave without a clear idea of who’s meant to be doing what. Chances are someone with that impression will do nothing, yet they may fret about their lack of clear direction.

Top tips

  • Use visual aids – a magic whiteboard, or ye olde flip chart – to record who’s doing what and when. Yes, this sounds really basic and yet no, it doesn’t always happen. If the who/what/when is clear that attendee who was fiddling with their phone may be in for a shock…
  • Ask each attendee to sum up what they’ll be doing as a result of the meeting in 30 seconds or less. Even better, state upfront that this will happen at the end – and so it would be a really good idea for people to make clear notes. See this HBR post on ‘Two things to do after every meeting’ for tips on accountability and note-taking, as well as this Vox post on the benefits of hand-writing notes.

If you’d like to make your meetings more effective, there’s also a Zoomly workshop on ‘How to make meetings work’.

You may find this post useful: ‘Facilitating beginnings and endings’

Dawn is the author of ‘The Feedback Book’ and ‘How to be Zoomly at work’

Copyright Zoomly
Just so you know…if you share this post in its entirety, it’s very much appreciated.
Please don’t copy it and pass it off as your own.

Image credits: Standing meeting – @fatmawatilauda – Depositphotos


Comments are closed.