“If you had to identify, in one word, the reason why the human race has not achieved, and never will achieve, its full potential, that word would be ‘meetings.’.” — Dave Barry, American humorist.
“Maybe meetings have become a life-form capable of calling themselves and reproducing via human hosts.” — Scott Adams, American cartoonist (Dilbert).
Nowhere in the business arena does the absolutely necessary collide with the potentially wasteful more often than in meetings. Few terms have given American workers more reason to shudder, with the possible exception of “downsizing”—and at least that’s over quickly.
All kidding aside, meetings remain more necessary than not. While you can diminish their frequency by taking advantage of technology and informal chats, you can’t eliminate them entirely. Even so, you don’t want to waste your time when you can avoid it. So: all things considered, when’s the best time to conduct a productive meeting?
It depends. According to Inc. magazine and the scheduling service When is Good, Tuesday at 3 PM represents the best overall time to hold a local meeting. Not only has everyone had time to recover from the weekend, few people have started the downhill productivity slide toward Friday, and the late hour encourages attendees to handle their business efficiently so they can go home on time.
In a more general sense, your meeting should fall into the interval when it’s far enough out that your attendees aren’t already booked, but not so far out that you’ll have to reschedule it multiple times as circumstances change. But there’s no hard-and-fast rule for that; the “sweet spot” hinges on factors like meeting type, whether all the attendees work in the same office, your level of authority, how much you can take advantage of technology to help you plan and conduct the meeting, availability, and more.
If the meeting consists of just a few principals who all work in the same office, it may be a simple matter of rounding everyone up for a quick get-together in an empty conference room. If you’re scattered so that team members work in different time zones, things get trickier, especially once you cross national borders and oceans.
Other factors to keep in mind while scheduling a meeting include:
1. How many people should attend? Announcements of major changes may require everyone in the company to meet; conversely, something minor or extremely high-level may require just a handful of people. Bloomberg’s Bob Fritsch and Josh Peck suggest these broad categories:
• Information Sharing: Unlimited attendees.
• Brainstorming: 20-35.
• Discussion: Fewer than 20.
• Agreement/Alignment: 6-14.
• Decision: 3-6.
• Action Planning: 25-40.
2. How many people can you handle? A self-explanatory factor, depending on your authority, force of personality, and whether or not you have assistants or organizational rules to help you with the meeting’s planning and regulation.
3. The optimum meeting length. We humans seem to focus best in 45-minute increments. If the meeting must last longer, split it into 45-minute periods separated by substantial breaks.
4. Take advantage of mornings. Most people function better in the morning, simply because they have more energy. If you schedule a meeting early, people can take care of it before they start their morning routines, and then not have to worry about it later. If you set it for an hour before lunch, they’re less likely to lollygag because they want to eat on time. You can also use the opportunity to invite a client or prospect to lunch, where you can continue the discussion.
5. Schedule long meetings for the afternoon. While no one really wants to lose a huge chunk of time to a meeting, if the agenda requires that, afternoons work best. Once people come back from work, they can usually stay for up to four hours if necessary.
6. Schedule right before quitting time to get it done quickly. Again, most people want to clear out quickly in the afternoon, so if you need to deal with an issue quickly, set the meeting for 3:00 or 4:00 PM. Late afternoons may also work better for customers, since they have fewer conflicts. Remember, people with young children may have to leave earlier than most.
7. Consider evenings for high-level meetings. You may find it best to meet late in the evening, after the office has fallen quiet and you don’t need to deal with subordinates. Also, if your organization has offices in different time zones, this may provide the best solution for some attendees—even though they may have to sacrifice some personal time.
One Lump or Two?
Ultimately, the meeting “sweet spot” is relative. The amount of advance planning required can depend on whether you have to fly someone in from Tokyo or just go down the hall gathering people in. Meeting size depends on the agenda and how many people you can handle all at once. When you meet depends on how long you want the meeting to last, and whether or not you’d need to keep people from wasting time.
Many experts agree that 45 minutes represents the best meeting length, making it one of the few fixed variables you can take into account. Oddly enough, it also represents about one-half a human REM sleep cycle. Given the glazed eyes and snores that often accompany long meetings, you have to wonder how closely these two facts are related.