How to Streamline Your Work Meetings

Efficient meetings can unlock productive workdays

People in a meeting.
Members of the Clinical Skills Program team, from left to right, Kelly Branford, Pimpila Violette, Steve Scott and Dan Sipp, take part in a weekly meeting. Photo by Stephen Schramm.

According to Microsoft’s 2023 World Trend Index Annual Report, which surveyed 31,000 workers in 31 countries, the number one productivity disruptor is inefficient meetings. And since the pandemic, the amount of time spent in meetings has increased. By analyzing business app data, Microsoft reported that the amount of time users spent weekly in meetings on Teams jumped 252% in the two years following the pandemic.

While meetings are necessary for collaboration and team function, when they are called for the wrong reasons or run too long, they become barriers for innovation.

For support, Duke’s Learning & Organization Development provides workshops on managing competing priorities. And LinkedIn Learning, which is available at no-charge to students, staff and faculty at Duke, offers a video training on “How to Stop Wasting Time in Meetings” and other related topics.

Across Duke, teams have found success by taking steps large and small to lessen the amount of time spent in meetings and increase productivity.

Make it Quick

Every Tuesday and Thursday morning, Lynda Kinnane, a Medical Coder with Duke HomeCare and Hospice, logs into a virtual quality assurance meeting with around 14 members of her remote team.

After checking in on how the team is doing, the meeting picks up with coders sharing progress on work – which entails finding and logging codes for treatments and billing –  and collaborating on finding solutions for any hurdles team members are facing.

“It’s very clear what the goal is,” said Kinnane, who works remotely from Burnsville, a small town in the North Carolina mountains. “The goal is to check and see where everyone is and troubleshoot if we need to.”

By the end of the meeting, everyone is up to speed on where projects stand and what needs to happen next. And with the meetings scheduled for 15 minutes, they have plenty of time to tackle tasks ahead of them.

It can be easy, especially for remote teams, to schedule 30- or 60-minute meetings. But to save time and ensure efficiency, scheduling meetings for 15-minutes has become a popular choice for time-strapped teams. According to Microsoft data, meetings of 15-minutes or less now make up 60% of all meetings.

“What I like about it is that it doesn’t take up a lot of time and yet I still get to feel connected to the people I work with,” Kinnane said.

Trim the Roster

Andrea Vogel joined the Occupational and Environmental Safety Office’s Biological Safety Division in 2021. Her six-person hybrid group handles pathogen exposure and infection prevention audits and trainings for labs and clinics.

At the time, the team had a new members and faced an evolving array of pandemic-era safety challenges, so it made sense that the whole group would discuss projects and policy ideas in twice-weekly staff meetings. But over time, the meandering meetings got inefficient and long – often an hour and a half – leaving team members pressed for time.

“We were working on things but not making progress,” said Vogel, a Safety & Health Specialist.

That’s when the group began creating working group meetings, separate meetings devoted to a particular project or policy and involving only team members who directly touch the work. This created more focused discussions and saved time of colleagues who weren’t directly involved with the work.

“It also makes our bigger staff meetings shorter and more streamlined, so we can talk about things that are applicable for the whole group,” Vogel said.

Is This Meeting Essential?

Members of the Oncology Clinical Research Unit gather for an in-person meeting. A few members of the unit found ways to get more out of meeting time with a "Meeting Doomsday" exercise. Photo courtesy of Stefanie Belanger.

The 18,000 workers surveyed for Slack’s 2023 State of Work report said 43% of meetings could be eliminated without consequences.

Inspired by a Harvard Business Review story, members of the Duke Cancer Institute’s Oncology Clinical Research Unit tested the relevance of their meetings with a “Meeting Doomsday” exercise.

Designed to combat a post-pandemic rise in meetings, the “Meeting Doomsday” concept requires participants to scrub their calendars of all scheduled meetings for a pre-determined amount of time, often a few days. Quick spontaneous team huddles and individual conversations are OK, but standing meetings must be called off. The goal of temporarily cleansing a schedule is to determine which meetings need to stay.

Six members of the Oncology Clinical Research Unit’s leadership gave the “Meeting Doomsday” experiment a shot for a week in late December 2022, when things would be relatively calm.

Stefanie Belanger, Duke Cancer Institute’s Associate Director of Research Operations, was among the participants who gave the “Meeting Doomsday” experiment a try.

She said clearing her schedule of standing meetings seemed scary at first, but as the experiment went on, she and others found it easy to stay connected while having more time for other priorities.

“People said they were so productive, and they got to work on projects which had been weighing on them,” Belanger said.

Following the experiment, Belanger and others reduced the frequency or duration of some scheduled meetings and dropped others, replacing them with quick phone calls or check-ins.

“Some meetings are necessary, we get that, but this showed that there are other ways that we can communicate,” Belanger said.

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