Companies have been embracing informality at work for a long time. Slides over stairs, couches over cubicles and flip-flops over frumpy footwear have been the trademark of the modern office.

And that has filtered through to the way we communicate at work. Spontaneous collaboration and ad-hoc meetings have replaced the more formal and rigid meeting structures of the past. Firing off an email, making a quick phone call or pecking out a text is preferred to sitting through a structured meeting with an agenda and minutes.

This makes sense in our increasingly flexible workplaces where people are working remotely and at various hours. An ongoing Slack chat might indeed be more productive than a meeting.

But, a 2014 study suggests that our embrace of informality might be at a cost.

Researchers from IE Business School in Madrid found that manufacturing businesses that still conduct meetings with set agendas where employees are required to participate are more efficient and suffer from fewer errors than companies that rely more on emails and phone calls to conduct their business.

In the study published in Decision Sciences, Antti Tenhiälä and Fabrizio Salvador outlined how they observed seven companies that manufacture equipment from air-defence artillery to elevators. They studied the companies to see how they prevented errors in production that caused delayed shipments and customer change orders from happening.

The researchers looked at 163 different production processes at 73 manufacturing sites in 18 countries and recorded how the companies communicated disruptions; via phone calls and emails, regular production meetings or by automated notifications.

Formal meetings proved to be more effective for preventing errors, the researchers found, because they avoid ambiguity about the responsibilities of the people involved in the manufacturing process. Essentially, nobody gets confused about who is supposed to do what.

Informal channels do have their use, as the researchers found they were good for infrequent and unexpected disruptions that happen suddenly, like a breakdown in equipment. However, most production glitches tend to happen on a regular basis and have predictable causes. Because of this, having regular meetings with set agendas can improve on-time delivery by five to eight percent, the researchers found.

Ultimately, it's best to have a combination of formal meetings supplemented with informal communication and automated notifications, the researchers suggest.

If your business is experiencing delays in delivery or has too many customer change orders, it may be time to look at your internal communication and implement a little more structure to it.

Here are four ways to structure meetings so employees won't be completely averse to them.

1. Invite everyone to build the agenda.

Encourage people to keep notes of items they want to talk about and share in a regular meeting instead of going into each other's offices and having ad-hoc meetings. Or, if they do have these spontaneous meetings, tell them to keep notes and share what was discussed in the general meeting. The key is to make sure everyone is kept up to date on all discussions.

2. Supplement meetings with a good project management platform.

Start using a project management platform so you can do away with long strings of emails that only a handful of people are privy to. A platform like Basecamp or Trello replaces the string of emails with a discussion thread that anyone can look at to see the full discussion for a given project.

At my companies, we were an early adopter of Basecamp and it has worked well for us. Now, it's easy for anyone to get into and stay in the loop on any given project.

3. Have different types of meetings.

This may seem a little counterintuitive because it's basically having more meetings, but they're more focussed meetings. Things like brainstorming and anything training related can be scheduled outside of the regular meetings you have and include only the necessary people. More focussed meetings like this means that people in your regular meetings don't have to sit through agenda items that don't concern them.

We've been doing this with great success for years. If our regular meeting is getting a little off track with brainstorming new marketing ideas, I will suggest we move that discussion to our "Idea Meeting" and get back to the regular agenda.

4. Use a timer.

Whether you use one for the entire meeting or you reset it for portions of the meeting, have someone put an amount of time on a screen that everyone can see and stick to the alloted time. There is nothing like a countdown clock ticking away to remind you that time is flying by and you better not waste it. Try setting time limits for dealing with each issue. If you're not done with something when the clock runs out, reschedule it or deal with it after the meeting with only the people necessary to be involved.

Published on: Jul 27, 2018
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