If you hate meetings and think they are a waste of time, you're not alone.
Eighty percent of employees say their meetings are unproductive and waste valuable working hours, according to a survey of 2,000 workers in 13 countries by recruitment firm Robert Walters last year.
Analysts suggest some common sense ways to make meetings more productive. Have someone guide the meeting. Avoid going off on tangents. Ban BlackBerrys from the room. But beyond that, there are dozens of firms that offer software collaboration tools that promise make meetings quicker and more productive.
Software lets workers collaborate on reports
The argument for tools that automate your meetings goes like this: In a typical meeting, attendees spend time before preparing individual PowerPoint presentations. Each presentation takes time. After the meeting, those presentations are scrapped only to be recreated the next week.
In contrast, with a collaboration tool, employees can all contribute to a discussion or even collaborate on one presentation at their own leisure during the week. A presentation on sales trends, for instance, can include data from all the salespeople in the field. That way, there is only one presentation to deliver at the meeting, rather than several salespeople each delivering an individual report. Moreover, the presentation is a living document that can be updated after the meeting as well.
For example, DreamFactory, a Mountain View, Calif., firm recently released Carousel, a software program that lets employees collaborate on "dynamic reports" before and after meetings. "You can eliminate PowerPoint preparation and save a lot of time," says company president Eric Rubin.
DreamFactory charges $25 per user per month for the application.
Meeting over the Web cuts down time
Meanwhile, WebEx chief marketing officer Rick Faulk says just having a meeting over the Web rather than in-person tends to shorten meetings as well. "If you get everyone in a physical room, you generally spend the first 10 or 15 minutes chatting," Faulk says. "There's a funny dynamic with meetings happening online: People tend to get right down to business."
Patti Phillips, president and owner of The ROI Institute, a 10-person consultancy in Birmingham, Ala., finds a mix of two applications work well to limit meeting times. Phillips uses Microsoft's SharePoint software as a collaboration tool so employees can check in throughout the week and hash out issues. "People pop in and check calendars," Phillips says. For meetings, though, Phillips uses Elluminate, a WebEx-like conferencing tool that lets remote and in-person employees participate in meetings. "If there's an article we want to share we can do it so everyone can see it at the same time," Phillips says. "It's a great way to bring people together in different locations."
Phillips pays about $50 a month to use SharePoint as a hosted application from Apptix, Herndon, Va. Elluminate's sticker price is $180 a month for five seats, but Phillips says she pays less.
More to meetings than technology
While Phillips is pleased with her expenditure, Joan Eisenstodt, chief strategist with consultancy Eisenstodt Associates, Washington, D.C., warns that all the technology in the world won't necessarily make meetings any shorter. "Let's say we have one major issue that needs to be discussed by 10 people," she says. "Because there is dissension, [technology] could not save time in the long run because people are going to grumble and sabotage and do all the things people do in an office environment."
Eisenstodt instead advises small businesses to allow employees to have a discussion before a meeting perhaps via such collaboration tools so that all of the pent-up anger won't be released for the first time during the meeting.
Even Rubin acknowledges that his technology will not, in the end, take the place of a face-to-face meeting: "You will still need to get everyone together to work through the issues."