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How to Schedule Meetings So They Are Convenient, Effective, and Fun

Prepare Meetings Effectively

If all participants take time beforehand to prepare for the meeting and are ready to make decisions, you will save everyone a lot of time and conduct goal-oriented, to-the-point, effective meetings. If everyone takes 10 minutes to prepare, it often saves 20 minutes of meeting time—for all participants. Preparation is especially important for the person who runs the meeting and, if applicable, the moderator.

Improve Efficiency by Preparing and Running Your Meeting Wisely

Create an agenda for each meeting as soon as it is scheduled:

  • Set a clear timeframe for each item, and limit the speaking and discussion time.

  • Clearly identify the goals: What do you want to achieve with this meeting? Which information should be passed on or gathered (how, to whom, by whom), which questions should be answered, which ideas developed, which decisions made?

  • For each item, assign someone to be responsible for the item.

  • Limit the number of participants. Five to seven people is optimal. Too many participants can make a meeting unproductive—unless the objective is to inform a large group of people and answer their questions, or to get the opinion of many different experts, departments, or individuals about a topic.

  • Start with the most important topics. Place the topics with the lowest priority at the end, assign them less time, and end the meeting on time. If you constantly run overtime, you will end up using 20 minutes for a topic you could have covered in 8 minutes, had you given yourself a time limit.

  • If certain participants are only required for two of seven items, put these items on top of the agenda and let those participants leave afterward.

  • Make sure all participants receive the required material well beforehand.

You can attach the agenda to the meeting request (just like attaching files to “regular email messages”). Attendees just have to open the meeting in their calendar by double-clicking it to access the agenda. However, using a SharePoint meeting workspace for the agenda (see the next section in this chapter) has many advantages compared to this method.

The following tips can help you run your meeting more effectively:

  • Designate a meeting leader. If necessary, also select a moderator for difficult topics/groups, someone who is not involved in the content of the meeting itself but has a “referee function” (introduce new participants and the topic; limit the speaking time per participant to three minutes max, for example, and stick to it; and at the end summarize and clarify the results).

  • Start and end the meeting on time. If you wait for latecomers once, you will soon always be waiting—each time a little longer. If you allow the meetings to run overtime, you are well on your way to meetings that never end.

  • If you are not making any progress with a topic, let the meeting leader decide after a specified amount of time whether you will cast votes about continuing, make at least some partial decisions, or postpone the topic to another day (including everything that needs to be prepared, clarified, and decided). A small break can help cool down heated tempers and allow everyone to think more clearly again.

  • At the end, collect feedback from everyone. How did they like the meeting and the style in which it was led? Are there ideas for improvement? The first few times you may get silly or insignificant answers, but soon they will become more useful.

  • Keep meeting minutes that mainly summarize results. Distribute it soon, preferably still during the meeting or at the end of it for everyone. Typing the notes in Microsoft Word or Microsoft OneNote and showing them during the meeting all the time (on a digital projector) is best to make sure that everything is represented correctly and that nobody can later argue that certain decisions weren’t made or were meant differently. Assign persons who will be following up on each item, and clearly specify what they have to do as well as a due date.

Use Meeting Workspaces to Prepare Meetings

In the last pages of this chapter, we will briefly introduce you to Microsoft SharePoint. If you are working with Windows Server 2003/Windows Server 2008 in your network, you can use Microsoft SharePoint Foundation (Windows SharePoint Services), which is part of the basic package. Even if you don’t use this kind of server in your company, you can still rent these services from third-party providers, for example, to use SharePoint sites on the Internet together with virtual assistants, your advertising agency, and your customers. You can also take advantage of SharePoint Online, which is part of Microsoft Office 365 (cloud-based Office applications from Microsoft Online Services, available for a small monthly fee per user). If you are not sure whether these functions are available to you or how to set up a new SharePoint site, ask your system administrator for advice and, if necessary, request a user account for SharePoint.

What can project/meeting workspaces in SharePoint do for you? You can attach any documents necessary for meeting preparation, as well as an agenda, directly to the meeting request or send them via email, without needing to use SharePoint. But this old-fashioned method (without SharePoint) has several disadvantages:

  • If the agenda (or other documents) changes—which is frequently the case, because with a meeting request you are practically sending a proposal that will be amended by the other participants—the participants need to look for the newest version in your email messages, or each time a new version arrives delete the file attached to the appointment and replace it with the latest one. According to Murphy’s Law, someone will always use an outdated version when he needs the data shortly before the meeting.

  • Another drawback can be illustrated with an example: Suppose Melissa sends the agenda together with some documents. Both Robin and Boris individually think of a few additions and changes that each of them notes during the day and then sends to Melissa in the evening. She now has two different “new” versions of the files with different changes—partially in the same sections of the document, so she can’t merge them manually with copy and paste. The situation requires a lot of work and further requests for clarification—it would have been better if first one person had edited the file while the other (knowing that the edit was taking place) had waited and then reviewed the updated file.

  • Even if you don’t have to deal with such simultaneous changes that end up causing conflicts, some meetings and topics can trigger a flood of email messages with additional attached documents and suggestions for changes, followed by comments from the individual attendees through email and their dismissal via yet more email. It gets even more complicated if you try to get a collective opinion about an issue: One person sends the question to all, everybody answers to all recipients. You end up having to gather the email messages from the last few days to get a cross-section of opinion. Because a simple email message with “Yes” or “No” or one of four options may seem a bit too blunt, most people add a few lines that aren’t really necessary and make evaluation more difficult.

The Advantages of Meeting Workspaces

SharePoint can help by allowing you to create central team sites in your company’s intranet. These sites can be set up directly from a meeting request and later retrieved from there. If you use SharePoint in such a way to prepare a meeting, the website you have created is called a “meeting workspace.” The advantages of such workspaces include the following:

  • All data is stored at a central location, just like on a bulletin board. You no longer need to sort and manage hundreds of email messages with data for the next 20 meetings; instead you can find all data for each meeting in one location, and it’s always up to date.

  • You can also store all relevant documents at this central location. There are functions allowing you to lock a document if it is being edited. This way others will know that they cannot edit it at the same time and, if necessary, they can ask you to free it up again.

  • Meeting workspaces are very easy to work with and quite intuitive. With just a few clicks you can create, for example, surveys or discussions, just like in a forum, which will spare you a flood of email and that can later be evaluated, looked through, and summarized much more easily than individual messages in the inbox.

  • You can get notified immediately (or at certain intervals) about what’s relevant to you, without being flooded by mail about other changes: For example, Robin only takes a brief look at the latest documents shortly before the meeting to prepare himself. They already contain many changes, but he’s not interested in the change history—only the results count. Charlie is informed about all the changes in the documents and the discussion items he is responsible for once a day in an email summary. Holly gets immediately notified about any changes to her agenda item, but not about other updates, and so on.

You can set up the meeting workspace with a few clicks directly from the meeting request in Outlook 2003, Outlook 2007, and Outlook 2010 and later open it from the appointment you have created with the meeting request. If you are working with an older version of Outlook or other programs, you can open the link from your invitation email message in your browser and still access the data. Because the data is stored online, you can access it from any other computer, for example if you don’t have your own computer with you (assuming you have noted the link and that the other computer is connected to the Internet or the company intranet that contains the site).

Automatically Get Notified About the Changes Relevant to You

To keep you informed of what has changed without your constantly having to perform manual comparisons, the meeting workspace automatically sends you email updates. Maybe you don’t care if certain agenda items, address lists, and things like that have been changed before the meeting, but the changes to other elements are very interesting and important to you. To avoid receiving too many change notifications that don’t matter to you, you can manually set the notifications for each item and individually specify what you want to be notified about and how often.

Take Advantage of Document Libraries

If several colleagues are supposed to review the same document before a meeting, according to Murphy’s Law nothing will happen for a whole week and then everything will happen at the same time: One colleague inserts new slogans and photos, another the latest numbers and data, and a third the new concept, but each of them make their insertions into their own copy of the old file. Now you have three new files, and in each one of them the data of the other colleagues is obsolete, so that actually none of them is up to date. This creates more work, additional email, and a week later at the meeting, you will end up with a lot of confusion and trouble finding the most current file, into which somebody has laboriously entered all the changes by hand....

Here’s the solution: Add a document library for managing shared files to your workspace (see Figure 5-11). The following functions make document libraries especially useful:

  • The ability to Discuss documents with comments just like in an online forum (instead of having separate email messages to everyone, the contributions are gathered where they belong, and only those people who are interested in them are notified)

  • The ability to check documents out (lock them) and check them in again (so the file can only be edited by one person at a time)

  • The ability to create and view a version history, which lets you track checked-in changes and (if configured) allows you to restore older versions of each document

You can access these functions via the menu attached to a document’s entry in the workspace. When you have checked out a document, your colleagues can see that it is being edited. After you have selected Check Out, the option changes to Check In.

Figure 5-11

Figure 5-11 Use document libraries to track changes made by several people, thus avoiding chaos.

When checking in, you have the following choices:

  • Reject the changes and undo the checkout.

  • Confirm the document changes done so far (so your colleagues can download the updates), but leave the document checked out for editing.

  • Confirm the changes and share the document again (report as checked in).

You can also add a comment that will explain later on in the history what kinds of changes you made.

Discover the Advantages of the Other SharePoint Web Parts

There are many additional Web Parts you can take advantage of. The most practical and most important are:

  • Contacts Contact lists with address data, for example of external contacts, which you import from the Outlook Address Book and can embed as a contacts folder in Outlook.

  • General You can use the general discussion Web Part to add a forum for discussing topics.

  • Surveys These include automatic evaluation and graphical results display, for example, for voting before the meeting starts to already have results at the meeting. There are various question types to select from (such as selection list, Yes/No, and evaluation scale), and you can specify whether the names of participants should be visible and whether they can vote multiple times or just once.