Last month, I offered some tips on reducing the cost of remote communication, such as letters, e-mails and telephone calls. Meetings are another source of inflated communication costs.

Make a list of all meetings you held last year. If you can’t track this, adjust your reporting and tracking systems. Include an estimate of informal meetings with employees and customers as well as formal or scheduled sessions. Separate them into categories, such as job-specific, management or departmental briefings, education and training, social events, industry or professional association, and employee evaluation and discipline.

Calculate a sample cost for one or two meetings in each category. Include the hourly cost of each attendee, refreshments, facilities, supplies, support staff, the cost of subsequent reports, and the time the attendees spend reviewing and responding to them. If you don’t have these costs available, start tracking them.

Survey the attendees, asking whether the meeting was necessary, their time was spent wisely and how the same purpose could have been accomplished more efficiently. Use the data you collect to eliminate unnecessary meetings and improve those you retain on the schedule.

Replacing meetings

Information can be shared through memos or e-mails, and discussions tend to expand to fill the allotted time instead of developing goals or solutions to ongoing problems. Decide how information can be shared, and replace unnecessary meetings with simpler ways to exchange or share information.

For example, an e-mail “blast” can inform those who need to know of new policies, vendor relationships or job-related decisions. You can gather information by using a Web site, such as Survey Monkey (www.SurveyMonkey.com), which allows you to solicit answers to up to 10 questions from up to 100 people within one day, at no cost. For $200 per year, you get an expanded service with faster response time, a larger respondent pool and more sophisticated data management.

For continuing education briefings on safety issues or skills training that can be self-paced, try an online service or university Web site. Employees will appreciate fewer interruptions to their schedules, and you will save the cost of facilities, utilities, refreshments, supervision and travel (even if it’s just a walk down the hall).

Meaningful meetings

Most regularly scheduled meetings are time-wasters, but there will be times when a face-to-face meeting is the best way to solve a problem, set goals or develop a new system. Manage the necessary meetings to reduce cost, and improve efficiency by following these guidelines:

  • Know your purpose. Have a clear vision of what you need to accomplish, and make sure everyone knows what it is.
  • Invite the right people. Keep the group small, and include only those people who have the knowledge, skills or incentive to care about the outcome and have the influence to implement resulting decisions.
  • Prepare and distribute the agenda in advance. Research demonstrates the value of preparing the brain to filter information and work on solutions to problems using given-in-advance questions. Give attendees a chance to focus on the issues, and they will arrive prepared to contribute effectively.
  • Select the right facilitator. Use someone who can control interruptions and keep the discussion focused without stifling creativity. Running an effective meeting is a learned skill that should be included in your training budget.
  • Start and end on time. Starting on time rewards promptness, and ending on time keeps attendees focused and respects everyone’s time commitments.
  • Summarize and remind. Conclude by summarizing decisions made, confirming subsequent actions, identifying those responsible for completing them and the deadlines for each. Never let the attendees disperse without a clear expectation of the events to follow.
  • Report the results. Summarize decisions and actions to be taken, and then distribute a report within a reasonable time. Include attendees and others who need to know. Ask for feedback, and respond to it. This gives those who were not invited a chance to own the results.

Mandatory meetings

Of course, there will be meetings you must attend to serve clients, resolve conflicts with vendors or address employee concerns. Here are some ways to minimize the waste of your own time.

Whenever someone requests a meeting, verify the expected purpose and time commitment before adding it to your schedule. Request any background information that will help you be prepared to contribute ideas or solutions. Arrive promptly, stay focused, make your own comments brief and convincing, and encourage others to stay on track. For example, you might ask a rambling speaker to clarify how a particular comment relates to the discussion. If the meeting appears to be running past the allotted time, inform the facilitator that you have other commitments and may need to be excused. If all else fails, look attentive and use the time to mentally plan your next meeting.

NORBERG-JOHNSON is a former subcontractor and past president of two national construction associations. She may be reached at bigpeng@sbcglobal.net.