Want to make your meetings more efficient? Assign pre-work.

Most people attending most meetings in most organizations don’t spend a second thinking about that meeting before they walk in the door (or, more recently, jump on the Zoom call.) This results in time and energy wasted by everyone in the room, as the meeting must cater to the least-prepared participant. People become disengaged, laptops get opened, and you’ll invariably find yourself repeating the last two minutes of discussion in response a “Sorry, could you just say that again? I didn’t get that.” from your colleague browsing cat pictures on Instagram. How much more effective and efficient could your meetings be if everyone in the room came prepared?

Assigning pre-work that prompts participants to be prepared for meetings is one of the most effective ways to ensure that meeting participants are prepared for your meetings.

Why being prepared works.

Simply put: Many activities that usually happen in meetings can be done more efficiently individually.

As an example, let’s say you’re hosting a meeting where you are proposing changes to a customer onboarding process and participants are being asked to approve budget for your proposed changes. In such a meeting, if participants come in with limited context you might have to review the existing process, describe the opportunities for improvement that you found, quantify the gains you’ll achieve by improving the opportunities, walk through a project plan, and facilitate a discussion where participants can ask clarifying questions. A meeting like this might take two hours.

However, if everyone has reviewed meeting materials beforehand, you can summarize your analysis, present high-level costs and benefits, and jump straight to discussion and approval. A meeting including all of the above could be accomplished in 30 minutes. Better yet, it is a near certainty that it will take each participant less than 90 minutes to do the pre-work that could replace most of your presentation.

Of course, the example above is illustrative, but hopefully it shows how powerful having all of your meeting participants prepared can be. In a meeting where everyone has reviewed materials beforehand, comes with discussion points, and has done appropriate pre-work, you can:

  • Discuss meeting content in summary format
  • Recapture time spent providing context
  • Keep participants engaged throughout the meeting
  • Have more robust discussions
  • Keep to a meeting agenda
  • Have shorter meetings

Put pre-work requirements in the meeting invite.

A meeting invite with pre-work.

Uncommunicated expectations are harmful in any context, from interpersonal relationships to diplomatic relations between nation-states. You might be prepared for every meeting, but the vast majority of people are not like you. Expecting them to be, and especially having this expectation absent communication, is folly.

Fortunately, it is easy to communicate your expectations about pre-work prior to a meeting. Put your pre-work expectations in a summary format, in bold, preferably with a contrasting color headline at the stop of the meeting.

  • Be specific about the requirements: What do meeting participants need to review? What do they need to think about? What do they need to bring to the meeting?
  • Include meeting materials with the meeting invite or include an expected timeframe when they will be available.
  • Give a time estimate for how long the meeting pre-work will take.

Assigning pre-work is easy. Getting people to follow through takes effort.

Very few people are used to preparing for meetings and changing this behavior within your organization is going to take time. I find it helpful to remind people of pre-work requirements. Yes, this does put an additional burden on the meeting organizer, but spending an extra five minutes to send an email reminding meeting participants about pre-work is an investment you make in saving yourself and everyone else in the meeting time.

  • Send an email out reminding people of pre-work requirements the week prior to the meeting.
  • Remind meeting participants about pre-work requirements when sending out meeting materials.
  • Schedule a reminder email when planning the meeting or dedicate a specific time to do this every week.
  • Personally contact participants who habitually come unprepared for meetings.

Don’t be afraid to move on.

Even if you give the most clear instructions and most people prepare for meetings, there are some people who will not prioritize preparing for your meeting. How should you deal with those who ignore your meeting pre-work requirements? Simple: Be prepared to move on.

You should always build some slack into your meeting agenda for clarifying questions or for discussions to get a little off-track. Not everyone will understand everything they read as you do and a meeting can be a great time to clarify questions. However, if someone clearly hasn’t done the pre-work you asked and it is holding up your meeting, it is fair to suggest that the meeting just needs to move on.

  • Having a meeting agenda can give you a tool that enables you to move a meeting forward.
  • At the beginning of your meetings, reiterate that there was pre-work and that you expect that all meeting participants have completed the pre-work.
  • Establish organizational expectations about coming prepared to meetings.
  • Request that discussion points and questions about the materials be submitted prior to the meeting.
  • Contact meeting participants who habitually show up to meetings unprepared to clarify expectations.

Summary.

Assigning pre-work for meetings is one step that you can take to make one of the most common activities in your organization more effective and efficient. A few minutes of preparation for every meeting can cut the time you and your teams spend on low-value meeting tasks dramatically, increase engagement during meetings and can open up team bandwidth for higher-value work.

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