Just as meetings are a staple of work, articles on how to best conduct them are a staple of business publications. Over the past three years, contributors to Forbes, Inc., and the Harvard Business Review have all written articles outlining the recommended practices for holding effective meetings. But not all experts agree on the best practices. So what does the research have to say?
Recommendations for meeting practices in popular business
Ideas for the most effective way to hold a meeting are relatively similar among different publications. While there is no universal consensus on every single point, Amy Gallo of the Harvard Business Review (Condensed Guide to Running Meetings), David Finkel of Inc. magazine (5 Best Meeting Practices Every Leader Should Follow), and Neal Hartman of Forbes (Seven Steps on Running the Most Effective Meeting Possible) all agree on two essential practices for all meetings.
One, always have a clear purpose for a meeting: don’t just hold them to update people. Two, always send out a written agenda in advance so people can prepare and contribute to the meeting. These authors also give valuable recommendations about the meeting length, attendee numbers, if we should sit or stand, and whether we should have electronic devices in the room or not, but without any general consensus. So what is the best practice for meeting length, size, sitting or standing, and using electronic devices?
What research journals recommend for best meeting practices
Fortunately, there have been hundreds of business studies on the best way to conduct a meeting. Five business studies in particular can provide insight on how to best design your next gathering of minds.
Timing: How long should meetings be?
The Problem: Meetings take too much time away from our work and tire people out. In the business press, Gallo suggested meetings should be no more than an hour and maybe only a half hour, citing the attention span of attendees. Finkel and Hartman both recommended that meetings should start and end on time to make them more effective.
The Research: Studies done by Melissa Cohen from Carlson Marketing (Meeting Design Characteristics and Perceptions of Staff/Team Meeting Quality) and Desmond Leach from the Leeds University Business School (Perceived Meeting Effectiveness: The Role of Design Characteristics) confirm that one of the best ways to make a meeting efficient is to begin and end it on time.
However, Leach also points out that the duration of a meeting is not a significant factor for meeting effectiveness for attendees unless it is tied to agenda completion. When the agenda was completed during a given meeting, more attendees perceived the meeting was successful and a better use of their time. The opposite was the case when the agenda was not completed.
The Takeaway: Design an agenda that can be completed in the time you plan for.
How many people should attend?
The Problem: Too many people who eat your bagels and have no purpose there. In the business press, Hartman suggested inviting only personnel who are essential and Gallo suggested limiting the number of attendees to seven or less.
The Research: In her research, Cohen confirmed that you should only invite who is necessary and who can contribute to the purpose of the meeting. For the maximum number of attendees, Nicholas Romano Jr. from Tulsa University (Meeting Analysis: Findings from Research and Practice) also agreed seven attendees was a good number. Seven is a good maximum number because it is large enough to have enough experts to solve an issue, yet small enough that everyone can contribute.
However, Romano also noted attendance size depended on the purpose of the meeting. If your company needs to make a decision or solve a problem, then seven to fifteen attendees was suggested as the right size. If the purpose of the meeting was more structured like a formal debate, lecture, or voting, then attendance of 30 or more people would be acceptable.
The Takeaway: Determine your meeting’s purpose and essential personnel and you will have the right size for your meeting.
Should you sit or stand?
The Problem: Sitting make meetings longer and less efficient. Gallo offers recommends standing to make a meeting shorter and more efficient.
The Research: Many business writers cite the research by Allen Bluedorn of the University of Missouri-Columbia in “The Effects of Stand-Up and Sit-Down Meeting Formats and Meeting Outcomes” to support the idea of making meetings more efficient by standing up. Often, writers cite his abstract in which he found sit-down meetings lasted 34% longer than stand-up meetings, but the extra time did not yield any better decisions.
However, the popular literature often forgets to point out that Bluedorn only recommended standing meetings for certain situations—a precisely defined, non-routine problem that could be handled by a group of five people in a period lasting 10-20 minutes.
The Takeaway: Stand-up meetings should only be used for very specific problems and even then, only for small groups—not for all types of meetings.
Are electronic devices good or bad?
The Problem: Electronic devices distract us from the meeting. In her article, Gallo makes the suggestion to ban all devices because they can not only distract you but also your fellow attendees, at the same time pointing out that having an electronic device can be handy to answer a quick question in a meeting.
The Research: Kelly Lyons from the University of Toronto (Paying Attention in Meetings: Multitasking in Virtual Worlds) confirms both of these aspects in her study of multitasking during meetings. In her study, more than 50% participants saw a negative impact from multitasking on a meeting’s efficiency, effectiveness, and outcomes, as well as the ability for attendees to participate and the participant’s relationships. On the other hand, about 15% believed multitasking improved meeting efficiency because they could get work done or look up a quick answer.
The Takeaway: Multitasking with electronic devices will impair most of us in a meeting and affect the meeting efficiency. However, to make the meeting more efficient there should be at least one person with a digital device.
Kyle Crocco is a content producer, expert in writing in multiple platforms, and frequent contributor to BigSpeak publications. He is currently completing his Ph.D on The Effects of Multiple Platforms on Composition Practices at UC Santa Barbara.