Here's Why Meeting Productivity Is Low (and What You Can Do About It)

Macgill Davis

How long has it been since you attended a work meeting?

For most of us, it was probably not too long ago — around 55 million meetings are held each week in the U.S., according to recent research by Zippia. That's about 11 million per day.

With so many meetings each workday, you'd expect them to boost productivity, right? Unfortunately, that's not always the case. Did you really learn anything new at that morning huddle? How often did you glance at your phone or doodle during your last team meeting on Zoom?

We all struggle with meetings. The Zippia study found that 55% of employees answered emails during meetings, and more than 50% checked their cellphones during sessions. It's no wonder 71% of meetings are considered unproductive.

So what can we do to encourage productive meetings and make the best use of everyone's time?

This article discusses the meeting problem and how unproductive meetings are harming our workdays. We’ll explore how to set meeting goals and the top tips you can apply today to increase meeting productivity.

Defining Meeting Productivity

Meeting productivity: group of employees working together

Before we jump into meeting productivity tips, let's define what makes a meeting effective.

Meeting productivity = meeting output / meeting input

A meeting's productivity level can be defined by comparing its output (the results or outcomes) to its input (the preparation, resources, and time that went into it). In other words, did the solutions or decisions reached during the meeting justify the time and resources spent?

An effective meeting is one where its output exceeds its input, while an unproductive meeting produces less than its input.

For example, if team members spend two hours preparing for a huddle, but it only lasts 10 minutes and nothing of value is accomplished, the meeting was a waste of time. On the other hand, if two hours are spent preparing for a meeting where team members make decisions that save the company $10,000, that’s a productive meeting.

It's important to remember that there's a difference between being effective and efficient. Just because a meeting is efficient — it starts on time, stays on track, is short and sweet — doesn't mean it's effective. There is no guarantee that efficient sessions include the right people for the right reasons or add value.

The Elements of Productive Meetings

So what makes a meeting effective and productive? 

A good meeting brings the right people together for a specific purpose, fosters open discussion, and results in tangible outcomes — decisions, plans, ideas, and understandings. Key players are then informed of the results, and action is taken accordingly.

An evidence-based description of effective meetings has emerged from research. A study published by the Association for Psychological Science (APS) established a list of factors that promote good meetings. These include: 

  • Meeting design: Such as holding meetings only when necessary
  • Leader and attendee responsibilities: Such as defining clear goals and reviewing the meeting agenda before arriving
  • Attendee responsibilities: Such as avoiding distractions
  • Leader responsibilities: Such as encouraging team member participation

Meetings are more productive when they contain these elements. If any are missing, a meeting is less likely to be effective.

Why Meeting Productivity Matters

Meeting productivity: entrepreneurs using their laptops at an office

Effective meetings start with understanding the necessary elements, but why is meeting productivity even important?

Productive meetings result in better decision-making because they allow collaboration and open discussion, which results in better ideas. Moreover, meeting participants are more likely to buy into decisions when they're engaged and feel their voices are heard. 

In contrast, unproductive meetings can be detrimental. Professor Steven G. Rogelberg, author of The Surprising Science of Meetings: How You Can Lead Your Team to Peak Performance, wrote in an article, "Poorly run meetings have a tremendously negative impact on team success, innovation, creativity, and on individuals' well-being and stress. In fact, experiencing a poor meeting can even result in meeting recovery syndrome, where employees lose additional time and productivity mentally recovering from a bad meeting."

The following are some of the top meeting problems, according to a Beenote study:

  • Preparation of participants (28%)
  • Poor team communication (20%)
  • Respecting the allotted time (17%)
  • Following up on tasks (25%)
  • Maintaining minutes (13%)

The cost of meetings is also high financially. In a survey of 530 managers from major companies, Fellow found that unproductive meetings cost as much as $56,448 annually. 

How to Increase Meeting Productivity in 7 Simple Steps

Meeting productivity: employees working together at an office

The key to more productive meetings is to create better meetings. Here are seven hacks that can help you make your meetings more effective.

1. Define the meeting’s purpose

Have you ever left a meeting wondering, "Why did I just spend an hour doing that?" Zippia's research showed that over 55% of remote workers feel like most of their meetings could've been handled by an email or a phone call.

Before you begin planning a meeting, ask yourself a few key questions:

  • Why do we need this meeting?
  • Who needs to be in attendance?
  • What decisions need to be made?
  • What information needs to be shared?

You can determine whether a meeting is even necessary by answering these questions. If one is necessary, you'll be able to craft a clear plan and ensure that only relevant team members are in attendance.

2. Limit the number of attendees

Before you send out that meeting invite, don’t just click “invite all.” A good team meeting doesn't need a lot of people — you need the right people.

In the APS study, researchers suggest that meeting leaders should determine the attendee list by answering critical questions such as:

  • What do we need to accomplish?
  • Does this goal require a particular kind of expertise? 
  • Do we need to meet regularly to achieve our goals?

Leaders can use these questions to identify which team members must attend and which can be skipped.

So how many attendees should you include? According to Robert Sutton, a Stanford University professor of organizational behavior, groups of five to eight people are most effective. Why? After a certain number, conversations become less productive.

Successful leaders understand the importance of minimizing meetings. Steve Jobs famously followed the meeting “Rule of 3s” — containing three to five people, covering three items, and lasting 30 minutes. And Jeff Bezos uses the "two-pizza rule" — a meeting is too big if two pizzas can't feed everyone.

3. Prepare a specific agenda

The meeting agenda is the backbone of every successful session. For every session, whether via video chat or in a conference room, there should be a clear plan to keep it on track. However, Zippia reported that only 37% of meetings at work include agendas. 

You can increase meeting productivity by creating a clear agenda and sharing it with attendees in advance. Meeting plans should contain the following elements:

  • The meeting’s purpose, objectives, and goals
  • Topics to be discussed
  • The person responsible for each task

An agenda template can help ensure that every meeting follows the same protocol. Templates are simple to create, work for all types of meetings, and are easy to populate with specific information before you schedule meetings.

4. Set meeting ground rules

Establish ground rules before the meeting begins with your team. Meeting rules are guidelines attendees should follow to ensure that sessions are productive, organized, and respectful. 

You can customize ground rules based on the needs of your team and the culture of your organization, but here are some common ones to consider:

  • Sticking to the agenda: Keeping attendees focused on the purpose of the meeting is crucial for keeping the session on track.
  • Muting cellphones and other devices: Productive meetings require a distraction-free environment, especially for those who work from home.
  • Encouraging open communication: Meeting attendees should feel free to share their ideas, even if they aren't fully developed.
  • Allowing for dissenting opinions: High-performance teams have psychological safety, which allows people to discuss opposing viewpoints without fear of retaliation.

By establishing ground rules for meetings, meeting leaders can ensure that attendees remain focused and on track. If ground rules are violated, leaders can take remedial measures.

5. Start and end on time, and keep it short

Have you heard the saying, "Work expands to fill the time available for its completion"?

This is Parkinson's Law, and it holds especially true for meetings. If the meeting time doesn't need to be an hour, don't make it one. Even if the session could've been completed in 30 minutes, it would likely fill the entire hour and be a waste of time.

What's a good meeting length? It depends on the meeting’s purpose — a brainstorming session will need a longer amount of time than a quick status report. But keep it as short as possible. 

According to Donna McGeorge, author of The 25 Minute Meeting: Half the Time, Double the Impact, meetings should last 25 minutes. This is based on the Pomodoro technique for focus.

Zippia's research suggests the ideal meeting time could be even shorter. Their survey indicated 91% of attendees pay attention under 15 minutes, compared with 64% in meetings over 45 minutes.

Whatever length you choose, be sure to start and end on time. Not only will it show that you respect your attendees' time, but meeting punctuality can also encourage meeting productivity.

6. Get everyone involved

One way to increase meeting productivity is to encourage meeting attendees to participate in the process and the discussion. According to research, the feeling of belonging to a group contributes to successful meetings.

Encourage collectiveness by giving everyone a role in the meeting. According to Cameron Herold, author of 'Meetings Suck,' three critical meeting roles should be present at every type of meeting: 

  • The Chair: Moderators or facilitators keep agenda items on track and ensure topics are covered efficiently.
  • The Timekeeper: A timekeeper monitors meeting time, as well as how much time remains on each agenda item, and reminds participants accordingly.
  • The Participants: Only those essential to the meeting should attend, and they should prepare from the distributed meeting agenda.

Other roles include the Parking Lot, note-takers that jot down meeting notes from brainstorming sessions or action steps to be taken before the next meeting, and the Closer, who assigns action items, reviews the action plan to ensure everyone understands their commitments, and reminds participants of the next meeting.

7. Assign action items and follow up

Always end your meetings with next steps. Meeting leaders should review the session briefly, define the action plan, and assign action items to meeting attendees.

And don't forget to follow up. Leaders should ensure meeting attendees are held accountable for their commitments, whether sending a meeting recap email or scheduling a brief check-in meeting.

Consider creating a central note-taking document that everyone can refer to, especially for remote work. According to the Fellow survey, more than half of people still take notes individually, leaving teams without a central reference point to make decisions and track outcomes. In contrast, 80% of people who utilize meeting productivity tools follow up on action items.

Soar Meeting Productivity to New Heights With Rize

Entrepreneurs using a tablet and holding a pen

You don't need to be an expert to improve your meeting productivity. Simple steps like distributing a meeting agenda, encouraging open communication, and following up can help your team achieve its goals and make sessions more efficient.

Time tracking software from Rize can help you take meeting productivity to the next level. Create a focus session, enter goals, tag projects, or add background music. The visual counter shows elapsed focus time so everyone can keep track of the meeting's progress. Start your free two-week trial of Rize and see how you can make the most of your meeting productivity.