Work in an office? Chances are, you probably spend a decent amount of your week in and out of meetings.

In previous jobs, I used to watch colleagues jump from meeting to meeting with various different departments. Often, the meetings were only useful for one member of the team, or involved lots of dithering about.

I went to a few of these meetings (perk of the job is that I didn’t need to attend too many), and found them…well, generally pointless. More often than not, they had little structure, failed to resolve an issue and went on for much longer than they needed to.

So, what are the alternatives?

  • Emails. Got something to tell everyone? Sometimes, an email is better than asking everyone to take an hour out of their day. If no one is reading your emails, it might suggest you need to change the way you’re writing them.
  • Interactive software. There are plenty of interactive software packages and tools around that can help businesses communicate with each other without being away from their desks. Yammer is a sort of social media network for businesses, so people can post ideas for others to see, and comment or contribute. You could also use EverNote, Springpad or Campfire. Get creative!
  • Have a meeting – but give it a time limit: Do you really have to have an hour’s meeting on that topic? Too often, the purpose of a meeting isn’t outlined clearly before, which means half the meeting is spent going over old ground. Set a short time limit, say half an hour, ask your attendees to read the material before they come to the meeting and come with ideas, and give everyone five minutes to discuss their point of views. Anything that doesn’t fit into that time can be discussed over online collaborative software (see above) or email. There’s a great post on Lifehacker about reducing meeting times to just 10 minutes – thanks to some clever forward planning. Time is money after all, and the more time you spend in meetings means less time making money!
  • Keep irrelevant chat until after the meeting. There’s nothing more soul destroying than listening to someone drone on about something that isn’t relevant to the meeting content. If you’re running the meeting, firmly (but politely) stop them and explain that you can discuss that at a later time. Chances are, the rest of the attendees will silently applause you.
  • Outline your expectations of good manners. Tardiness and the constant use of phones and iPads in meetings can wind up other attendees. Regular tardiness to meetings is disrespectful to everyone else who has made the effort to arrive on time, and tapping away through your emails shows you’re not engaged.
  • Finish the meeting with a summary of what’s been said, and a list of suggested actions. Follow up those actions a few days in an email, perhaps with meeting minutes to refresh memories.

In general, I rarely have to have meetings these days as a freelancer. They usually happen at the start of a working relationship, and the rest of the time I mainly use Skype or email to communicate each way. Obviously that’s not for everyone, and varies from business to business. A monthly catch up meeting might suit your business down to the ground. See what works for you.

How do you feel about meetings? Do you have any handy tactics for making them more effective? I’d love to hear them in the comments!