As every small business owner knows, you only get so far on your own. All organisations, big or small, need staff to get together and collaborate – whether to come up with new ideas, develop relationships, or make decisions. A meeting is the best way to do that.

But often meetings get a bad reputation. In many workplaces, too much time is lost to unnecessary or unfocused meetings, and morale nosedives. 

As a small business, you can avoid the trap of unproductive meetings by building a positive meeting culture. In a positive meeting culture, staff know that every meeting they attend will add value to their day rather than draining it.

The first step to better meeting culture is to decide what matters to you as a business. What are your values and how should these influence your meetings? If you value punctuality and efficiency, all meetings should start and end on time. If you want to emphasise participation, everyone at a meeting should take a turn speaking. 

As a small business you have the advantage of greater flexibility and self-determination in choosing how you hold meetings. Develop guidelines for best meeting practices which fit you and your team. Improving meeting culture is a shared endeavour but you must take the lead. Get staff onboard by explaining your rationale and implement best practices yourself. 

Ultimately, your meeting culture is as unique as your business – so try something new and go with what works. Here are suggestions to get you started. 

Keep key meetings short and regular

Key meetings should be established as part of your company routine. Keep these short and to the point, and try to hold them at the same time and place. This works well for meetings like a daily stand-up, a Monday planning session, or a Friday review of the week. 

These should form reference points for teams to keep in touch and updated. Staff can plan their time around these fixed appointments and will be able to better prepare their contributions, since they are familiar with the format. Sticking to regular times for these key meetings also minimises disruption, since there can be no clashes over scheduling. 

Reduce other meetings to a minimum

Cut down the meetings you organise. Ask yourself (honestly): what can I confidently expect to gain by being in a room with these people? 

If you’re unsure then you’re probably wasting other people’s time. Only meet with a clear goal, which cannot be achieved by email. This might include: brainstorming new concepts, presenting new information to a team, or gathering feedback and making shared decisions. Keep attendance to a minimum in all cases. For each person you invite, have a clear idea of what their contribution should be – no gatecrashers!

Then cut down the invitations you accept. Don’t be afraid to ask the organiser what their meeting goal is and how you will help achieve it. If you’re not convinced, kindly and firmly decline. Establishing this as part of your meeting culture makes people accountable and shows respect for their time.

Try something new

Unproductive patterns do emerge despite your best efforts. If you’re in a rut, don’t be afraid to try something new, even if it raises eyebrows. Building a positive meeting culture sometimes calls for experiments and outside ideas. 

This could mean changing the format of your meeting, introducing an icebreaker or play element to the proceedings. Relocate to a nearby park or rent creative meeting rooms for an hour or two, to break the routine and inspire participants somewhere outside the usual four walls. This can impact group dynamics and shows your staff you value giving them the space for new ideas.

Prepare the documents you need

Share documents in advance using software like Google Drive or WeTransfer for large files like audio or images. Give the files meaningful titles, assign appropriate permissions for editing, and send out with plenty of time to spare. There’s no use expecting detailed feedback if nobody had time to read the text through. Make it clear if you want them to write up comments ahead of time so the discussion can get started right away, and encourage people to arrive with the document already open on their screen, so there’s no time lost while they click and search through their folders. 

Guide the discussion toward your goal

If you organised the meeting, this is your job – don’t just hope the discussion will stay on track by itself. Especially with a small team, in which you know each other well, it is easy to kill time chatting about other topics.

Try to prevent this by identifying a clear goal for your meeting and communicating this in advance – this should be what you want to achieve together. Remind everyone of this goal and, whenever you feel the discussion moving away from this, gently but firmly bring the talk back towards your goal. If you are able to keep a meeting focused, people will respect you and take your meetings seriously. 

Be punctual

Show you keep your word by starting and finishing on time. Start without people, if they are late, and always finish ahead of time so you have a few minutes for recap. This is your responsibility to manage – nobody else. Use a timer if it helps to keep the discussion focused and productive, and you could even set reminders to sound at 15-minute intervals. It sounds harsh but meetings that chronically overrun are terrible for morale. Stick to your word on this and your staff will trust you

Put outcomes into writing

Set down the outcome of the meeting – specifically the actions which need to be taken, the person responsible, and the time frame involved – in a quick email and send it to attendees after you have returned to your desk. This is crucial for keeping everyone on the same page and avoiding any ambiguity, especially for future reference. If everyone knows what is expected of them, they can perform to their best. 

Julian Jost is CEO and co-founder of Spacebase, the global booking platform for modern, convenient and inspiring meeting spaces the world over. 

Meeting stock photo by nd3000/Shutterstock