7 signs that meeting did *not* need to be a meeting

Signs that meeting did not need to be a meeting: illustration of four frustrated co-workers in different browser windows arguing

My partner came home from work the other day tired, bedraggled, and just the littlest bit grouchy. When I asked why, he told me that he had just left a meeting that dragged on for three and a half hours.

Suddenly, I didn’t blame him (as much) for acting crabby.

I imagine that, after a while, he found very little value in a meeting that ran that long and ate up so much of his time. Talk about losing track of your to-do list! That one meeting was almost half of his entire workday. 

“Does this need to be a meeting?” is a running joke on social media, but it’s a valid question. Leaders, managers, and business owners lose valuable work time to meetings every week, and so do their teams—time they can’t get back.

Concerns about productivity and employee burnout shouldn’t happen without a thoughtful discussion about your company’s culture and how much time is spent in unnecessary meetings. The next time you wonder, “Does this need to be a meeting?” consider these seven things your attendees might ask themselves on the way out:

1. "Why was I even there?" (The meeting was irrelevant.)

We’ve all been there. A meeting gets scheduled, an agenda gets sent out, but it ends up being a discussion between two or three people with no one else participating or contributing. And it’s not because they’re shy—it’s because they don’t need to be there in the first place. 

Before sending out meeting invites, make sure you’re only asking people that truly need to be present for the meeting. Keep the invite list as short as possible. Follow up with everyone else by sharing the outcome of the meeting via messenger, email, or a shared document.

2. "Wow, I wish I had known about this urgent, critical, and useful information hours ago." (The meeting caught people off-guard.)

Don’t save urgent company news, employee safety issues, or even a bad piece of press for an upcoming meeting. Yes, chances are a meeting will be necessary, but if your company has had a data breach, you need to put your team on notice immediately. Don’t leave everyone in the dark until the end of the day when an all-hands meeting is called.  

3. "Why did we all just read a document together?" (The meeting could have been an email.)

Meetings without action items or table discussions are sometimes more closely related to a book club than anything else. If the purpose of a meeting is to read through a document or even create a document, it probably doesn’t need to be a meeting. The goal of a meeting should be gathering ideas, collaborating, and getting input or feedback. Reviewing or creating a presentation, spreadsheet, or dossier can be done virtually through shared documents or sending out an email to project members. 

4. "Didn't we already have a meeting about this?" (The meeting was redundant.)

A kick-off meeting for a new project is probably necessary, but be careful of how many meetings you schedule moving forward on the same project. You can send out weekly or bi-weekly status updates instead of calling everyone back into a meeting or a conference call to rehash the same information.

5. "Oh, I forgot x,y, and z. I wish I had been better prepared for that." (The meeting had no agenda.)

Did you send out an agenda before your meeting time, and did you give your team enough time to review that agenda? Sending out a plan with a meeting invite serves at least two purposes.

First, the agenda forces you, as the leader, to think everything through. You should know beforehand what items you want to discuss, what input you want from others, and what goal you want the attendees to accomplish. The second purpose of the agenda is to give your invitees the time to prepare for their contributions to the meeting. If you haven’t thought the project through, you might want to schedule yourself some time to strategize before putting a meeting on everyone’s calendar. 

6. "I brainstormed so many ideas for my basement remodel during that meeting!" (The meeting was boring.)

And considering managers and executives spend an average of 23 hours a week in meetings, a lot of money is being wasted building castles in the air.

To estimate exactly how much money your company is losing on unproductive meetings, check out this business calculator by the Harvard Business Review

You need to know… 

  • The length of your meeting. 
  • The number of attendees
  • Sets clear objectives and goals for the meeting
  • And the estimated salary of each attendee. 

I’ll give you the CliffsNotes: annually, US companies waste $37 billion on unproductive meetings. 

7. "Who was in charge?" (Responsibilities were unclear.)

A study conducted by InfoCom found that the time spent preparing for a meeting directly correlated to the attendees’ feelings of productivity. Leaders spent an average of one hour preparing for meetings that were rated as highly productive. 

If you’re sending out calendar invites for a meeting, you are the leader of that meeting. Thoroughly preparing reduces your chances of wasting time and money. 

A meeting leader… 

  • Sets the agenda well ahead of time 
  • Prepares necessary materials for the meeting 
  • Sets clear objectives and goals for the meeting
  • Monitors the discussion to make sure things are moving along at a good pace 
  • Starts and ends the meeting promptly 

As a rule, the leader of a meeting should be the person who is personally responsible for the success of the project or the topic of discussion. If that person isn’t you, don’t send out the meeting invite. Instead, contact the person in charge of the project and discuss your ideas first. 

According to Dr. Caitlin Rosenthal, a Ph.D. historian whose research focuses on the history and development of management practices, a meeting should meet three criteria to be considered a good meeting. 

“You know what you’re going to do in it. You do the thing. And at the end, everybody reports out, ‘OK, we’re all going to do these things going forward.'” 

If your meeting didn’t meet those three criteria, you either need better preparation or don’t need the meeting.

Looking for more ways to save your business time, money, and energy? Check out Ruby’s small business resource hub for free resources from industry experts and other business leaders!