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Meeting Ground Rules [2024 Guide]: 16 Research-Backed Guidelines for Effective Collaboration

These research-backed meeting ground rules and guidelines drive employee productivity during team gatherings.

By Max Freedman  •   November 27, 2023  •   10 min read

In 2019, managers spent a lot of time in meetings—21.7% of their workweek, to be exact. This staggering figure has only gotten worse (really, much worse) in the time since. In 2023, managers spent a whopping 39.9% of their workweek in meetings. That’s nearly half their working hours! 

These numbers come from our own research here at Fellow—and through this research, we’ve determined 16 meeting ground rules that circumvent these problems. Set these rules for better meeting preparation, timing, execution, and follow-up that lead to more efficient meetings. Say goodbye to no-agenda meetings, overcrowded gatherings, last-moment conversations for which nobody is prepared, and so many more meeting stressors.

Understanding meeting ground rules and their importance

Meeting ground rules are expectations and guidelines to which your team agrees for each and every meeting. The most effective rules for productive meetings focus on behavior—for example, how people ask questions and explain their ideas. These behavioral rules can lead to more creative, solution-oriented meetings full of confident participants. Additionally, meeting ground rules that clearly state how meeting attendees should prepare ultimately save time during the meeting itself.

Ground rules for team meetings are vital because they encourage active listening and participation, leading to more diverse ideas being shared and discussed. They also lessen the chances that your team will experience in-fighting, thus requiring you to break out your conflict management skills. The result of all these benefits is yet another benefit: meetings built on trust that function as safe spaces for even the most outlandish ideas.

Great meetings are just the start

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What sets these meeting ground rules apart?

The below meeting ground rules stand out from others because they’re backed by research. They come from our own research here at Fellow—we have unique access to relevant data since we’re a meeting productivity software provider. We’ve taken data from well over 100,000 calendars, not to mention millions of meetings, and looked at top-performing organizations in particular. The result is a set of numerically backed meeting ground rules for all kinds of gatherings.

16 research-backed meeting ground rules for an effective meeting culture

1Define a meeting purpose 

As Benjamin Franklin famously said, “If you fail to plan, you’re planning to fail.” That’s where your meeting purpose comes into play. Going into all your meetings with a clear reason or intention that you’ve communicated team-wide should rank among your core meeting ground rules.

For starters, telling everyone why you’re meeting encourages them to make informed decisions beforehand about how to prepare. Sharing a clear motivation for your meeting also keeps everyone focused and working toward achievable outcomes during your gathering. Plus, afterward, based on your meeting notes, you can check whether you achieved your main goal—and, if not, see why and do better next time.

2Don’t invite more than seven attendees 

You might think that the adage “the more, the merrier” means getting your whole team in the room for every meeting; while that impulse comes from the right place, it’s not as smart as you might think. 

Studies have found that every attendee over seven people leads to a 10% reduction in the likelihood of making smart, efficient, and actionable decisions. This idea is known as the “rule of seven.” With eight people in a meeting, you’re 10% less likely to achieve good outcomes, 20% less likely with nine people, and so on. In fact, when you have 16 or 17 people in a meeting, you basically render your decision-making process ineffective. 

When you can’t help but identify more than seven people who could be great for your meeting, there’s a solution: set your meetings as optional for some invitees. Chances are some of these potential participants will skip the meeting, and this makes you much more likely to hold a meeting with at most seven people.

Meeting agenda with attendees

3Think consciously about the cost of the meeting

Meeting management best practices are about more than what happens when you get everyone together. They also cover holding meetings with respect to your budget—because, yes, meetings cost money. Your employee salaries, meeting recurrence, and attendee limits all result in clear meeting costs.

Fellow’s Meeting Guidelines feature auto-calculates your meeting costs for you, and your whole team can use it. Embed this feature into your ground rules for booking meetings so all your team members can be cost-saving champions. You’ll start to see your team members demand higher-cost meetings less often—that’s the law of demand at work. The result is time back for your team, and as the saying goes, time is money.

4Schedule meetings at least four hours in advance 

Beyond what happens during your gatherings, meeting etiquette covers how and when you put your conversations on the calendar. This is a matter of productivity—your team members need an average of 23 minutes to fully refocus on work after other tasks, including meetings. A last-moment meeting can make a mess of the focus strategy that your team members decided on at the start of the day.

Another reason to give lots of lead time for meetings is that everyone is way more likely to show up fully prepared. Setting meeting guidelines that, sans emergencies, require at least four hours of advance notice—our benchmark at Fellow—ensures ample prep time and thus better meetings.

5Don’t invite colleagues with 20+ hours of meetings

With managers spending nearly half their week in meetings, anything you can do to cut down on more meetings for these team members is key. (“These team members” includes you, by the way!) On this front, one of the most effective meeting rules is to limit mandatory attendance for team members with over 20 meeting hours per week. 

With mandatory attendance limits, meeting-heavy team members get time back for deep work and task execution. You should de-prioritize information-sharing gatherings and debate or discussion meetings for these team members. Instead, send everyone thorough meeting notes after these meetings. The team members who didn’t attend can review these notes on their own time.

6Consider shortening meetings by 5 to 10 minutes 

According to the Microsoft Worklab Report, two hours of uninterrupted meetings drive stress buildup big time. That’s not just supposition—Microsoft’s researchers successfully correlated endless meetings with the beta brain waves associated with stress. This finding makes the below advice from Steven Rogelberg, author of The Surprising Science of Meetings, all the more valuable.

“Consider shortening regular meetings by 5-10 mins. Not only will this create added pressure, which is shown to make attendees more effective, but it will reduce lateness and allow for breaks between meetings.” 

When you do the math, these shorter gatherings lead to a 17% reduction in the time you spend in meetings. Talk about conducting efficient meetings!

7Come prepared with an agenda

As the saying goes, “no agenda, no attenda.” Heading into every group discussion or one-on-one meeting with a clear agenda should be among your core meeting ground rules. It’s how everyone will know beforehand what will be discussed and how to prepare. Plus, with Fellow’s AI agenda builder and meeting templates, putting together a powerful meeting agenda requires minimal work on your end. You basically have no reason not to do it.

8Be on time

If only out of respect for other people’s schedules, be on time for all your meetings. This guideline ranks among the most important ground rules for inclusive meetings in particular. When you and everyone invited show up as scheduled, you promote inclusivity since you lessen the chances of running over your allotted meeting time. This gives everyone ample reason to join the conversation instead of silently worrying about not having enough time for deep work. 

9Stay present

Uninterrupted attention and focus during meetings lead to better outcomes. They’re also, admittedly, not the easiest to achieve when note-taking and listening are both high priorities. Instead of losing focus as you try to balance these two activities, use Fellow’s AI meeting transcription to generate a record of your conversations. You’ll no longer need to take notes, freeing your brain up to truly get—and stay—in the zone.

10Create an inclusive environment 

Inclusive meetings start with inviting attendees whose views completely diverge, watching out for gender bias, and encouraging everyone’s participation. You also drive inclusion when you set ground rules mandating that attendees not interrupt or speak over each other. The same goes for requiring all meeting-related matters to be addressed in the room, not in the hallway afterward or via Slack either—inclusivity guidelines are also great ground rules for virtual meetings.

11Assume positive intent

It’s totally understandable to get a little upset in meetings every now and again. In these moments, you might feel like you’re being attacked, but that’s not the case as often as you might think. That’s why assuming positive intent is both a core way to create effective workplace communication and a top-quality meeting ground rule.

Meeting conflicts are easier to avoid when you’ve reminded everyone to take a step back and remember that malicious intent probably isn’t there in most situations. This meeting ground rule also makes it more likely that any conversations to resolve conflicts are calm and levelheaded. 

12Record action items and decisions

One of the best ground rules for difficult meetings—and all meetings, really—is to digitally store all decisions and meeting action items. Fellow’s action items feature streamlines this meeting ground rule for all teams. Use it during your meetings to leave no questions about who will do what and by when unanswered after your conversation wraps up. 

You can also sync Fellow with your task management software to ensure everyone sees their next steps and acts on them to follow through on your team decisions. 

13Share the meeting summary with stakeholders and asynchronous attendees

A great meeting summary recaps your gathering’s most important next steps, topics, and decisions for anyone who wasn’t present. It’s best practice to send this summary to key stakeholders and people who were invited but couldn’t attend, as well as everyone who did attend. Fellow’s AI meeting summary feature addresses this need effectively. It generates concise, comprehensive summaries of meeting discussions and decisions within minutes, allowing for quick and easy reference. This tool not only helps participants who missed the meeting to catch up on key discussions and insights but also streamlines the process of sharing information.

By providing an accurate overview of each meeting, it enables team members to identify areas that require their attention or action. Users can effortlessly share AI-generated summaries, complete with meeting recordings and full transcripts, soon after the meeting concludes. This ensures seamless communication and alignment among all team members, enhancing productivity and collaboration.

14Don’t extend the meeting

Sometimes you’ll get through your agenda before the meeting ends—and that’s great! It’s also not an excuse to keep the meeting going just to say you used every minute of it. Never extend the meeting, because that extra time is great to give back to your team for task execution!

The same goes for if your meeting is running past its end time. Instead of keeping it going, assign yourself a meeting action item to schedule another meeting. As long as you give your team more than four hours’ notice in accordance with the previous meeting ground rules, you’re doing it right.

15Set end dates for recurring meetings

To paraphrase the Greek philosopher Heraclitus, change is the only constant; to quote common science, the universe tends toward disorder. For both these reasons, any recurring meetings on your docket may begin to lose their value over time. Maybe the day of each week you’re holding them on no longer fits, or maybe the needs these meetings cover have become irrelevant. One of your meeting ground rules should thus be to set end dates for recurring meetings.

When you put a final date on your recurring meetings, you give yourself the chance to ask: Do we still need this meeting? If we do, how can we optimize it?

Even a date and time change can help—routine can cause disengagement. Lean into change since it’s inevitable, and better meeting focus and outcomes can result.

16Implement a no-meeting day across the organization

We’ll be the first to speak glowingly of meetings, but as with anything in this world, there can be too much of a good thing. An MIT survey of 76 multinational companies with at least 1,000 team members each backs this notion. When these companies set one no-meeting day per week, their teams’ autonomy, engagement, communication, and satisfaction all increased. Concurrently, stress and micromanagement decreased.

The result of this all? You guessed it—more productivity. Setting a no-meeting day across your organization every week should thus rank among your top-priority meeting ground rules.

Parting advice 

All the most effective meeting ground rules share something in common: They’re simple to understand and implement. They’re also only the start when it comes to why and how to improve your meetings. Watch Fellow’s research-backed meeting guidelines webinar to go deeper on ground rules. After that, use Fellow’s Meeting Guidelines to set meeting best practices and integrate them into all your events. It’s that easy to drive meeting engagement and deep work across your organization!

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