Running staff meetings
July 29, 2013 7:18 PM   Subscribe

At work, I need to run staff meetings. Please tell me how to run meetings that are helpful for employees and don’t waste time.

I’m new to the management thing. So, does it make sense to go around the room and have everyone talk, so they all feel included and equal, or does that just waste time, bore people, and make people without much to say feel like they have to brag in front of the boss? Should I write an agenda, or does that presume that I already know everything that’s going on? Does it make sense to have staff meetings at all?

This would be for a group of about 7-10 employees who work in a similar subject area, though not necessarily all on the same projects.
posted by mejicat to Work & Money (34 answers total) 43 users marked this as a favorite
Meetings should have a purpose. The agenda helps focus that. It's often a good idea to seek feedback on potential agenda items, and to send out the agenda ahead of time so people can prepare if need be for agenda items.
posted by Apoch at 7:25 PM on July 29, 2013 [11 favorites]

I'll contribute one thing: In just about every staff meeting I've ever attended, there is at least one person who uses it to discuss something that only concerns himself and the manager. This tries my patience to no end.

A good manager will pick up on this, and end it quickly. "Hey, I do want to talk about that, but get with me right after this meeting and we'll chat. Thanks!"
posted by The Deej at 7:26 PM on July 29, 2013 [29 favorites]

In situations where co-workers collaborate often, I've found check-ins at staff meetings helpful. In situations where everyone has their own programs and it's unlikely that anyone else at the table will have much to add to the check-in, I've found check-ins excruciating.
posted by jaguar at 7:27 PM on July 29, 2013 [5 favorites]

Have an agenda, send it out prior to the meeting, and keep the distractions to a minimum. If someone wants to ask a question in the middle of a presentation, tell them to write it down and ask it at the end if it doesn't get answered by then.

Deal with agenda items first, get some kind of resolution/action plan for each item, and then take new business at the end.

And only have staff meetings when there is an actual reason for it.
posted by gjc at 7:27 PM on July 29, 2013 [4 favorites]

Rather than thinking about how to structure your staff meeting, start by thinking about the purpose of your staff meeting.

Is it to have everyone update you on what they're doing? To have everyone update everyone on what they're doing? To check in on action items and make sure they're being done? To give people a chance to ask each other for help or bounce ideas off each other? So you can hand out assignments? Because staff meetings have always existed in your department and you don't want to buck tradition?

If you can articulate the goal of the staff meeting clearly, the structure should follow fairly readily from the purpose.

For example, if the goal of your staff meeting is to let staff collaborate on problems, you should solicit problems in advance of the staff meeting so that the person with the problem is prepared to talk through it, explaining the situation and the type of help/advice they might need.

If the purpose is to report stuff to you, consider not having staff meetings, because it wastes everyone's time and leads to ass-kissing and one-upmanship, and instead have everyone check in with you individually.
posted by jacquilynne at 7:28 PM on July 29, 2013 [12 favorites]

You can also collaborate on the agenda, like asking everyone to email any agenda item to you by X days before the staff meeting.
posted by jaguar at 7:28 PM on July 29, 2013 [1 favorite]

Let the team lead the meeting - each week, have one person set the agenda and run the meeting. You can do the first few to model how it should be done, but then turn it over to the people it's supposed to benefit.
posted by Coffeemate at 7:46 PM on July 29, 2013 [2 favorites]

Please, do not do the "round robin, everybody blather on" thing. That's a recipe for wasting everyone's time (except, perhaps, yours). Have an agenda, and do one-on-ones with your team for things they specifically need to cover with you and/or by project with the employees who are on that project. Don't make three or four people sit through discussions of projects they don't have a hand in.

Do have someone take summaries and send those around for the entire team if they should have awareness of what other groups are doing.
posted by jzb at 7:49 PM on July 29, 2013 [12 favorites]

1. Have an agenda, which you communicate to everybody prior to the meeting in a collaborative spirit.
2. No cell phones. You can make exceptions for my-wife-is-about-to-go-into-labor sort of things, but be stricter about this than you think you have to be.
3. One meeting at a time. No side discussions. A lot of times people will have secondary conversations with their neighbors. Those destroy the purpose of having a meeting and undermine it.
4. Don't be afraid to sideline unnecessary conversations to after the meeting. ("We can talk about your specific situation after the meeting.")
5. But on the other hand, don't be afraid to really get into the issues that you're discussing. Work on establishing trust and making a safe and collaborative space for people to share what they really think is going on.
6. Announcements and Appreciations. Make time within the meeting for people to share things that are going on in their work or in their life that are cool, and for people to praise one another's work. Do a lot of this praising at the beginning to set the tone, which is that collaboration and helpfulness should be encouraged.
posted by gauche at 7:54 PM on July 29, 2013 [10 favorites]

Have a clear start and a hard stop time. Train attendees to focus their input to fit the time.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 7:54 PM on July 29, 2013 [4 favorites]

I used to think it was a Japanese management inspired "kanban" gimmick, but, boy! howdy! after being in staff meetings that were held with everybody standing, I'm now a proponent of the "no sit staff meeting" not only for its efficiency, but because it promotes people moving within the group as necessary to better understand one another, in shorter time.
posted by paulsc at 7:55 PM on July 29, 2013 [4 favorites]

In one of my prior jobs, the owners implemented some strict rules about meetings. They boiled down to:
1. Have a purpose and an agenda. If it is something that can be settled in a 5-10 minute discussion at the water cooler, you don't need a meeting.
2. Stick to the agenda. Table derails immediately.
3. Take turns facilitating. The facilitator begins and ends the meeting and takes notes on any action items.
4. Always start on time and end on time.
5. If you insist on meeting over lunch, provide the meal or don't schedule it over lunch.

On preview, what gauche and JohnnyGunn said. (Did we work for the same employer?)
posted by theBigRedKittyPurrs at 7:56 PM on July 29, 2013 [1 favorite]

Meetings should have a purpose. The agenda helps focus that. It's often a good idea to seek feedback on potential agenda items, and to send out the agenda ahead of time so people can prepare if need be for agenda items.

Yes, yes a thousand times yes. Have an agenda, and be prepared as chair to aggressively manage it so the meeting follows the agenda.

Don't schedule any but the most exceptional meetings for more than 90 minutes - people will drift off unless the content is dynamite. Indeed, I find that shorter meetings introduce a wonderful sense of urgency that keeps most people moving.

Give everyone the agenda before the meeting so they can prepare with the right information.

Top of the agenda should be the outcomes you need to get by the end of the meeting. People need to keep the outcomes front of mind.

Some people don't like talking in meetings, but not everyone who is silent does. Be sure to explicitly call on those who may feel steamrolled or unable to get a word in between the usual suspects.

If you are a manager, use team meetings as an opportunity to highlight best practice, good teaming, and good contributions from your reports. People appreciate being acknowledged for good work in front of their peers.

Try to split content up between various people so there is some variety in presenters during the meeting. Get visibility of ppts before so people don't try to cram in too much content. As chair, you should not be doing the bulk of the presenting.

Give hard stops for subsections of content.
posted by smoke at 7:59 PM on July 29, 2013 [3 favorites]

Have a clear start and a hard stop time. Train attendees to focus their input to fit the time.

Yes. Never go over. Try to go under. (It is only under very rare circumstances that someone will be disappointed that a meeting didn't go longer. And minor disappointment is way down on the list of things to be concerned about as a manager.)
posted by psoas at 8:08 PM on July 29, 2013

Don't schedule any but the most exceptional meetings for more than 90 minutes

Yikes! Try 10-15min.
posted by rhizome at 8:09 PM on July 29, 2013 [5 favorites]

Definitely have an agenda and make sure that the meeting sticks to it - if there are other things people want to bring up, they wait until the end and only if there's time. It's incredibly annoying when people bring up issues at a meeting (especially complex issues) and expect people to be able to respond to them without any chance to prepare.

I do this with my team by having the agenda available on or Intranet for adding to by all team members. Any action items from previous meetings are added to the top of the agenda and closed off or carried forward as the first item. I create the agenda for the next meeting immediately after each meeting and add 'minutes' to the previous agenda so there's a record of what was discussed/agreed. Anyone can put anything on the agenda, but they have to be clear what they are trying to achieve and include any reference material as an attachment to the agenda. By giving the team 'ownership' of the agenda, they participate more and it allows them to bring their own issues up without having to try and get their word in during the meeting. As gauche says, make sure that the meetings are a 'safe space' for people to contribute comfortably and don't let 'the usual suspects' dominate the conversation (or the agenda topics). One of the KPIs in my team's performance plan is participation in team meetings, so it's clear to everyone (for this and other reasons) that it's supposed to be a collaborative event, not just a chance for you to talk at them.

Staff meetings are expensive (our meetings amount to about 25 person-hours of time a week) so, if there isn't an actual reason for having them, then don't. Don't waste that valuable time making announcements that you could do via e-mail, unless it is something you want feedback on.
posted by dg at 8:11 PM on July 29, 2013

What meetings are good for:
(a) If there is a topic where you absolutely need to hash it out in a group discussion.
(b) Meetings in which one manager goes down a list of things people need to know. My best meeting at work is the one where the head guy basically checks to see if everyone's done their work, talks about the latest webpage updates, assigns new work, and we're out of there in 15 minutes.
(c) Training meetings, which aren't super fun but are necessary.

Meetings that are less good:
(a) The "dog and pony show" in which a bunch of managers do "here's what my unit is up to" presentations for a large amount of people. On the one hand, informative. On the other hand, these go on forever.
(b) Ones in which you are all forced to watch some silly corporate video. Don't get me started on the "Give them the pickle!' guy. I only put it in the middle because those don't require me to interact with anyone.
(c) Meetings in which everyone does a presentation in general. Again, they drag the hell on.

Meetings that suck:
(a) Mandatory weekly or monthly meetings that have to happen no matter what, no matter how much or little discussion there is to actually have. Only schedule a meeting when you really have to get everyone together.
(b) Meetings in which you force every single person to talk. Seriously, the shy people will hate you. Do not do it.
(c) Meetings that force you to play "getting to know you" office games. Again, nobody likes these, especially not the shy people. I just want to know at what point in my life I can stop having to play these games (answer: never, apparently).
(d) "Learning activities." I am stuck with a mandatory weekly meeting in which not only do we have the stupid office games, we are almost always given POP QUIZZES at 8 in the morning. Very few people apparently actually know the answers to the things asked. It sucks.

To answer your questions:
So, does it make sense to go around the room and have everyone talk, so they all feel included and equal, or does that just waste time, bore people, and make people without much to say feel like they have to brag in front of the boss?

Definitely the latter. Some people are shy or just enduring their day at work. Do not poke them to talk if they don't want to. Nobody cares if they feel "included and equal" if they are forced to talk, they just like to have the option.

Should I write an agenda, or does that presume that I already know everything that’s going on?

If it's a long meeting, perhaps. I don't really give a shit about knowing the agenda ahead of time any more, the manager is going to talk about what the hell they want anyway.

Does it make sense to have staff meetings at all?

Only have them if you absolutely have to. Don't have them just to have them. Remember, every meeting you have is taking people away from doing their actual work to (in general) waste their time.
posted by jenfullmoon at 8:18 PM on July 29, 2013 [2 favorites]

Weekly staff meetings are where we make sure appropriate resources have been allocated, there is accountability in front of our deadlines, and the meeting ends early.

Weekly stats meetings are a breakout where we go over specific model results and make sure that we're looking at things consistently and objectively.

We have bi-monthly full staff meeting where we go over policy, we work with a larger group, someone gives a presentation of some key findings, we bring in an department-external guest to give us background into something that is specific to our needs. We also give some recognition to people for busting their butts to get stuff done.
posted by Nanukthedog at 8:21 PM on July 29, 2013

37 Signals' Rework has some really good advice on meetings.

I like the idea of drawing up an agenda, then doing the rounds of the attendees before the meeting to have a brief pre-meeting on-on-one. Then when the meeting happens you know everyone's point of view and they know the agenda. - Also people can the say I don't need to come, but make sure you cover xyz...
posted by mattoxic at 8:21 PM on July 29, 2013

Some folks believe that meetings should be held standing up, with the exception of people who are not physically able to do so. This keeps chit chat to a minimum, and no one can sneak a look at their smart phone.

Don't be afraid to cut people off by summing up their point if they're getting redundant. ("So, Rodney thinks we should sell the factory in Bangalore. Dolores, your thoughts?")
posted by musofire at 8:22 PM on July 29, 2013

Coming into it for the first time, here is my biggest suggestion. Think of 2 things.

A) What is our status before the meeting.
B) How has it changed after the meeting.

If A = B, then you don't need that meeting. If it is different, figure out what needs to happen in the meeting to get from A to B.

Everything else is frosting. You may find pointers and ideas like, "Check cell phones at the door", "Roundtable time" or "Make and follow agendas" as useful, but if you make sure always go by this principle, then you can get into the mindset of "This meeting is the most important thing to do with this time" rather than "Jeez, not another meeting that I don't need."

I will say that being willing to take items off line or redirect a conversation is a necessity for this as well.
posted by slavlin at 8:34 PM on July 29, 2013 [3 favorites]

My absolute least-favorite meeting thing is when we are implementing a new process that will happen periodically (say, yearly) and our first iterations of the process have stumbling blocks and at the meeting to discuss the OUTCOME of the process, one or two people insist on repeatedly going back to arguing about the PROCESS of the process (either because they are inherently contrarian or because they wanted the process to be different in the first places and are getting in their "I told you so" kicks).

This JUUUUUST happened to me for like the 500th time. Everyone has come prepared to discuss the outcome and what action needs to occur from the outcome (in this case, financial and hiring/firing decisions). Nobody has prepared for a discussion of improving the process. We spent almost NINETY MINUTES with "Jane" routinely going back to the point, "I don't think the process captured every single detail I think is important to the outcome and instead of telling you what those details are I am going to complain about the process." A good meeting chair should let this go on for no more than a couple minutes, and then say, "Jane, you're right, the process definitely had flaws this year. Let's set a meeting in late July to discuss improvements to the process, and if everyone wants to take a few minutes at the end of this meeting to just note down what could have been better with the process -- I'll compile all of those, and anyone who has more extensive remarks can get them to me by e-mail by the 15th. I'll send it out to everyone before the meeting so we can all be prepared to discuss improving the process." And then every time Jane came back to process, say, "Let's save that for the process meeting."

It drives me CRAZY when we need to actually accomplish something in a meeting, and people keep rehashing events that are over and done with and cannot now be changed without a time machine. I am FINE with having a postmortem about what went well and badly, and I am FINE with meetings where we improve things for next time. But if we're there to make decisions and take action on something, arguing about how it could have been done differently six weeks ago is just making this take forever and making me want to stab my eyeballs with my pen.

It's the most excruciating waste of time because a lot of meeting managers don't carefully separate the action item from the "things sort-of related to the action item but not part of the action item," and it's the primary venue for certain types of people to grind interpersonal axes but making sure to assign copious quantities of blame and lobby for their version of prior events. It's SO. ANNOYING.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 8:41 PM on July 29, 2013 [7 favorites]

There are many good suggestions here. All of them have been distilled into one short book:
How to Make Meetings Work.
Every manager should have a copy.
posted by TDIpod at 9:08 PM on July 29, 2013

Oh, and no working on laptops/emails during meetings. If the meeting is so shit/irrelevant you can answer your emails, you shouldn't be there, or the meeting is too crap.
posted by smoke at 9:10 PM on July 29, 2013 [2 favorites]

I only have three major guidelines:
- nothing very productive happens after 45 minutes
- have an agenda
- Really get a handle on what you're trying to achieve internally, so you can confidently facilitate through derails/delays/hard topics. I call it the 'ideal outcome', fwiw.

"Welcome everyone, my name is <yourName>, this is the <mainTopic> meeting. The ideal outcome for this meeting is to have a <workProduct/decision/whatever> when we adjourn in 45 minutes. Everyone was emailed an agenda, if you forgot your copy, I have extras. Let's get started."
posted by j_curiouser at 9:16 PM on July 29, 2013

Oh, I forgot about the 'hidden purpose' that I have for having meetings weekly and, specifically, having them on Friday. My team work in a stressful environment and are out on the road a lot. The weekly meeting gives everyone a chance to release some pent-up frustration from their week, which (what a surprise ;-)) gives them feedback on how others have dealt with similar situations and how maybe they could handle similar things differently in future. Sometimes, meetings are about more than what's on the agenda.
posted by dg at 9:23 PM on July 29, 2013 [2 favorites]

Nth-ing the "Oh dear God no" responses to the "go around the room and everyone talk" type of meetings. My first supervisor in my first "real" job had meetings like that, and it was a huge waste of time. Which I didn't fully realize at the time because I was new to the corporate world and didn't know any better, but I look back on those meetings now with horror. Some people would use that to actually seek input for things they were struggling with, which was useful (although often handled better by email), but others seemed to describe everything they were doing for the sake of convincing the group they were actually working. (You don't need to convince us, we trust you to do your job, and anyway if you're not that's between you and our supervisor.)

I also think there should be an agenda distributed in advance, but you shouldn't have to come up with it single-handedly; I endorse jaguar's idea of soliciting agenda items from the meeting participants. If there's a decision to be made that needs group input, or information that's worth sharing, great! That's what meetings are useful for.

I'd also encourage you to cancel meetings if there aren't any agenda items (hopefully this doesn't happen too often—if it does, re-evaluate the frequency of meetings). I'm in charge of running a monthly meeting for a small, sub-departmental group—about five people, not in a supervisory role but more as a "first among equals"—I'll solicit agenda items about a week in advance of the meeting, and if I haven't gotten anything a day or two before, I cancel the meeting, which typically happens two or three times per year.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 9:44 PM on July 29, 2013 [1 favorite]

Just a word about standing up meetings, I am very short and find those meetings to be not good as I have to literally look up at everyone else (including a guy who is so tall I can't crick my neck enough). Think about the physical space your meeting is in. At least if we're sitting down I don't feel as much like a small schoolchild.
posted by plonkee at 11:42 PM on July 29, 2013 [3 favorites]

I worked as a project manager on a multibillion dollar program once. It was complex, and politically sensitive. The team members had varying agendas because the project had different strands, and everyone was external and independent (i.e. there was no unifying company culture).

The guy who ran it did one thing I've taken with me for every meeting I've run since. Each weekly meeting lasted exactly an hour. The point here, is GATHERING EVERYONE TOGETHER ALL AT ONCE IS EXPENSIVE AND PRECIOUS TIME AND THEREFORE TO BE USED AS EFFICIENTLY AS POSSIBLE.

Everyone who had an agenda item prepared before the meeting to deliver what they needed to say in the shortest possible way, with the communication geared exclusively to what needed to be discussed in front of everyone.

This meant:

- Meetings started exactly on time. Not 3 or 5 minutes later as people drifted in with coffee
- No discussing things that could/should be discussed elsewhere, or in a smaller group
- All prep done before the meeting, including preparing for any questions
- Everything geared towards communication (e.g. things like traffic light status).
- Packs of info distributed well *before* the meeting, with the explicit instruction they were to be read before the meeting
- If you time waste, you get cut off. End of.
- No side discussions, no derails.

When I first put this structure into place it took a little bit of time because it is a cultural change. People were late. They didn't always prepare. I had to tell people to take their discussions out of the meeting and do them another time when they weren't in the agenda. But eventually not only did people get on board, but they were more productive, because they communicated better in smaller groups outside the main meeting and because forcing people to prepare for the meeting generated things we could understand and make decisions on.

The point here is that your and your colleagues' time is precious. Big gatherings are reserved for the discussion or communication of things that need to be done in front of everyone. Whatever does not fit that criteria gets cut from the meeting. But in order to do this you must also improve communication outside the meeting and, where necessary, work to make critical information more transparent.
posted by MuffinMan at 12:23 AM on July 30, 2013 [8 favorites]

Useful and constructive things I have seen in various small staff meetings (not all the same meeting!)

- Boss concisely presents business-level things that have happened in the last week, or which will affect operations in the next week.
- Department heads or project leads provide concise business-level summaries of what their department is up to
- Boss solicits feedback on what is and is not working in the business at the moment; because this is done every week, the volume of feedback each week is manageable.
- People flag up anything they are struggling with in case someone else can help
- Teams take it in turns to do strictly timeboxed short presentations on what their teams have done in the last couple of weeks.
- Boss solicits general questions.
- Boss asks for feedback on some specific part of a future plan.
- Someone reviews the action items from the minutes of the last meeting (if you don't do this regularly then you may as well cancel your meeting).

If you're implementing a new regular meeting, then after two or three of them, put an item on the agenda to discuss whether and how the meeting format is working.

ANYONE who is presenting in a meeting (even just a status report) needs personally reminding perhaps an hour before, that they need to prepare what they want to say, and that they should confine themselves to things that are of interest to everybody. Otherwise they will ramble. Once they have proved that they can do this reliably, perhaps you can stop reminding them.
posted by emilyw at 1:50 AM on July 30, 2013

From my experience, 2 hours should be the absolute ceiling for a meeting. I had one weekly meeting that occasionally stretched to 3 hours, and while some of the other people in the room could definitely handle it, for me it was a real mental endurance test. IMO, even meetings in the 90 minute range tend to sap a lot of momentum out of the day; as far as I'm concerned, if you get up to four ~90m meetings a week, having mental energy left over to actually get stuff done becomes challenging.

I also had one meeting that rarely started on time and sometimes got canceled or worse, rescheduled after a 30-minute delay - that's really rough on your ability to plan out your day. So I guess my advice would be that if you have a meeting that's consistently starting late because of a meeting that runs right before it, it's probably worth just officially rescheduling it for good.
posted by en forme de poire at 2:35 AM on July 30, 2013

One thing is to send out an email prior to the meeting and ask your reports for what they think should be on the agenda.

This way you can sort through the suggestions and if there's something compelling, it can go on the agenda. If it's an issue that only impacts one person, you can then email back and say, "This is valid, but probably just to you and me, let's schedule some time to discuss."

That way, people feel heard without having to bore 7 other people while it's hashed out.

Don't be afraid to pass out donuts and send people on their way if there's nothing to discuss, or to cancel the meeting altogether. Everyone wants another 30 minutes back in his or her life.

People love the smell of their own farts and will gas on and on about something. Be sure to cut people off if they're beating a dead horse.

Make the meeting relvent. If you're just meeting to meet, knock it off!

If you feel that meeting frequently builds teams, then take the team to lunch.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 6:18 AM on July 30, 2013 [2 favorites]

Please send email minutes out within 24 hours to all participants. Notify them that if people don't object to what is written 24 hours after being sent that the minutes reflect accurate memorialization of what happened and further, constitute memorialization of binding, expected outcomes .


The minutes should mention what was talked about, but FAR more importantly, should have sentences like the following:

We agreed by vote to implement P policy with Q exceptions by R date and send onto committee S. Person T will follow up with committee S to make sure of its process through the administration.

We agreed by vote to organize event W. Person 1 does i, 2 does ii etc. A brief progress report will be given at the next meeting.

Person X will do task Y by Z date. A brief progress report will be given at next meeting.

A will report back in B weeks about C outcome of previous meeting.

We will discuss D at the next meeting.


If there is no memorialization of what happened, with ACTION that people agreed on taking, and reporting on that action, then meetings are largely a waste of time.

I have sat through so many BS sessions in academia where everyone airs their grievances, notes deep structural faults, comments on the many ways we can do things better, is snide about the administration or colleagues or students or weather, chats, grandstands, and worst of all, make vague promises that are lacking in detail or -especially- time commitment.

Don't make announcements in meetings. Send an email.

A pub or restaurant is for venting: meetings are to hash out plans that need action and result in deliverables.

Most meetings are stated to be action oriented but devolve into unstructured messes. Unless you want a discussion group, if you're organizing a meeting, it's your job to MAKE it a meeting .
posted by lalochezia at 9:47 AM on July 30, 2013

Response by poster: Thank you, everyone, for this excellent advice. I'm impressed by the level of knowledge here about management. I hesitate to mark any answer as "best" because they are all so helpful.
posted by mejicat at 6:32 PM on July 30, 2013

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