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How to make meetings bearable for millennials (and everyone else)

Think back to the last time you attended a meeting with millennials. Did they seem disengaged? Distracted by their devices? More interested in what was happening on the other side of the window? Could you not help but think back to when you were that age, when you diligently recorded appointments in paper diaries; when you paid attention to every word that was spoken during long internal meetings; when email and mobiles were only just entering the workplace and collaboration was a face-to-face exercise?

Young adults of today, right?

But let me tell you something about this younger generation of today. These digital natives make up 35% of the workforce. By 2020, that figure will rise to 46%. In ten years, they’ll represent 75% of the working population. They are demanding change. They want to dictate their own hours, to work when they’re most productive, to use digital tools to collaborate, share information and get the job done – as quickly as possible.

The more things change, the more they stay the same

The winds of change are blowing through every enterprise but there’s one thing that hasn’t changed: meetings. If we’re honest, meetings are usually distracting, they often don’t achieve much and they hamper productivity.

And why are they always an hour long (or sometimes longer)?

If there’s one thing we can learn from this younger generation, it’s the value they place on their time. Why gather everyone in a room to discuss a project for an hour when it could just as easily be done in minutes over Slack or a quick chat at the coffee machine? Why pull everyone away from their work when a message on Skype for Business or WhatsApp is more effective?

Here are a few ways you can improve collaboration and productivity, while making the most of your meetings:

• Embrace technology. Standardise on a set of collaborative digital tools that make it easy to coordinate tasks and projects. With Slack, for example, you can quickly set up ‘channels’ by project, client or team, so that you can chat and share files in real-time.

• Set an agenda. Outline what needs to be achieved or agreed upon by the end of the meeting and send it to all participants beforehand. This gives them time to prepare, resulting in shorter, more effective meetings. The agenda keeps everyone on track and helps the organiser to prepare adequately. Also, never call last-minute meetings. These are almost always a waste of time because attendees don’t have time to prepare and may feel disrupted.

• Schedule shorter meetings. Having an agenda keeps everyone focused and lets you achieve more in less time. Communications expert Andy Bounds suggests limiting meetings to a maximum of 45 minutes. Shaving off 15 minutes from one meeting a day buys back an entire working week at the end of a year.

• If a meeting is not going to be a valuable use of your time, decline it. The meeting organiser should have a solid reason why you need to attend and should only include people who can make a meaningful contribution to the action points. Ask the organiser what they need from you and see if you can supply that information over email. If you can’t add value to the discussion, excuse yourself from the meeting.

• Plan for internal meetings. Tell your team when you are available for internal meetings and ask them to respect your time. Similarly, if you’re the one organising the meeting, be considerate of your team and clients’ time – is it crucial that they attend?

Meetings aren’t all bad. They can be good for team morale, collaboration and brainstorming. Cutting down on the quantity and focusing on the quality of meetings can make an enormous difference to productivity and employee satisfaction.

Make the few meetings you have more meaningful, and you and your team will find them more productive.

Keith Fenner is the senior vice president sales at Sage ERP Africa and head of Sage Middle East. Currently responsible for sales in Africa across Sage’s lower and upper mid-market ERP portfolio, running teams in South Africa, East Africa and West Africa. He also runs the Sage Middle East business in Dubai, with a mandate to grow that territory as well as to drive the growth of Sage ERP X3 across AAMEA (Africa, Asia, Middle East and Australia).