Five ways to make meetings bearable

More annoying than even junk mail is the dreaded Outlook meeting invite. Accept it and condemn yourself to hours locked up in an airless room eating biscuits and drinking too much coffee.

More annoying than even junk mail is the dreaded Outlook meeting invite. Accept it and condemn yourself to hours locked up in an airless room eating biscuits and drinking too much coffee. Send it and condemn others to the same fate.

The average working person spends eight working weeks per year in meetings, with almost a third of those considered unproductive, according to recent research sponsored by tourism body VisitBritain.

So how can we make the most of that time?

First consider if the meeting is truly necessary--will a quick chat or phone call suffice instead?

If you still must have that meeting then here are some top tips from IT chiefs on the basics of making it effective and productive.

(Stay tuned for part two of this article where we look at some unusual and useful alternatives to traditional meetings--from video-conferencing to Second Life.)

1. Stand up
Research shows the average meeting attendee starts to lose concentration after 41 minutes, with thoughts invariably drifting away to non-agenda items such as shopping lists and what's on TV that night. Avoid meetings dragging on by making people stand up.

Mark Foulsham, head of IT at online insurer eSure, says: "For the more punchy meetings, have them standing up - people will not prevaricate when their feet ache."

Somerfield's IT director Mike Bell adds: "We even have a boardroom table that we have to stand at."

Standing up can also help stave off technology 'grazing'--people tapping away on BlackBerrys or laptops (which you should tell people to switch off or close at the start of the meeting).

2. Agenda
A clear agenda, distributed to each attendee beforehand in good time and with each item allocated a time slot, is essential. Each agenda item should be labeled as to whether it is for information only or needs to be decided on.

If the meeting doesn't need an agenda then you probably don't need the meeting.

Christopher Linfoot, IT director at the LDV Group, says: "Issue an agenda in advance of the meeting to allow participants to prepare. The agenda should be timed so that the meeting can run to an allotted time."

Nic Bellenberg, IT director at publisher Hachette Filipacchi UK, adds: "Never allow 'AOB' [any other business] items that have not been submitted in advance. Ever."

The Chartered Management Institute (CMI) also advises keeping creative and analytical discussion separate. "Creative meetings need a more relaxed timetable and atmosphere. It is hard to switch from the routine to the creative and vice versa," says the CMI's meetings advice guide.

3. Timing
Linked in with the agenda is timing. The aforementioned VisitBritain research claims the average meeting costs $50 per person--so use as little of each person's time as possible. Graham Benson, IT director at M and M Direct, says: "Make meetings 30 minutes so people focus. It keeps it to the point and punchy. Meetings will expand to fill the time allotted to them. Treat the time allotted as a deadline not a target."

To focus the mind on just how much a meeting costs try the free 'Meeting Miser' web clock from salary comparison website PayScale, which uses the estimated salaries of everyone in the room to track the cost of the meeting as the seconds tick by. Or follow Google's example. Many of meetings at the web giant have a huge timer projected onto the wall, counting down the seconds and minutes left for each agenda item and the whole meeting.

Also look at what time of day you hold meetings--avoid the post-lunch slump or the end of the day and opt for mornings which tend to be best for productivity.

4. A good chair
Not for sitting on--it is important to have a strong chairperson to keep the meeting on track and on-topic and involve all the participants.

Hachette Filipacchi's Bellenberg says: "With chairing it's a real skill to keep windbags quiet and to ensure the quieter ones' views are heard. I'd love to learn some effective but charming 'shut-up' techniques."

Ashford Council head of ICT and customer services, Rob Neil, adds: "Make sure the chair is a strong character who can drive the agenda."

The CMI's advice for those chairing a meeting is to encourage the shy while restraining the "verbose and opinionated"; allow only one discussion at a time; don't express an opinion unless needed at the end; and summarize at regular intervals, seeking clear decisions at the appropriate point.

5.The cast of characters
Make sure the right people are there--and as few as possible.

Ask yourself: do you and all of the people invited need to be there? One way to ensure a meeting drags on and wastes people's time is to have half the attendees sat there throughout unable to contribute anything and wondering why they were invited.

M and M Direct's Benson, says: "When invited, question if you add value by being there and if not or you are uncertain, refuse. Often people are invited out of courtesy then accept out of courtesy and then sit there saying and doing nothing. If you made the wrong call, the chair can always brief you afterward."

Finally, one extra for after the meeting: allow time to assess the effectiveness of the session. Key questions to ask, according to the CMI, are: did everyone present contribute positively? Was the discussion lively but good-tempered? Were all relevant aspects of the subjects properly explored? And was consensus reached on all major decisions?