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Hannah Taylor

Ad Hoc Meeting: How to Reduce the Need for Unplanned Meetings

Helpful for rapid problem solving, but rarely the best use of your team's time - the ad hoc meeting. Learn how to keep these impromptu huddles and gatherings short, sweet - and rare.

Are you free for a quick chat?

When those seven short words pop up on your screen, it’s natural to immediately feel one of two things: anxious about what the sender needs, or frustrated at being pulled away from your work by the impromptu meeting.

And chances are you’ve been the one to request the last-minute meeting more than a couple of times.

Ad hoc meetings are part-and-parcel of office-based work, and while they can be beneficial, the general consensus among workers is that they wish they happened less frequently.

So, how can you reduce the need for unplanned meetings in your department? Today, we’re exploring the upsides and drawbacks of ad hoc meetings, how you can reduce their frequency, and steps to make the most of those you can’t avoid.

What is an ad hoc meeting?

If you’ve ever been called into a meeting with no notice or spontaneously arranged one yourself, you’ve attended an ad hoc meeting.

The main characteristics of ad hoc meetings are that they are unplanned and focus on a specific topic, though they may also lack an agenda and be poorly organized.

Ad hoc meetings are typically (but not always) used to address unforeseen problems, challenges, or changes that arise in the workplace. For example, if a project is going off the rails or a client is dissatisfied with a recent set of deliverables, a project manager may call for a one-off meeting with the team to quickly formulate a plan of action.

In these situations, an impromptu meeting is necessary to navigate the crisis and find a solution quickly. But not every ad hoc meeting is needed.

Problems arise when impromptu meetings are set up unnecessarily. Let’s look at a few examples of unnecessary ad hoc meetings:

  • Calling a colleague to get an answer to a question
  • Arranging a last-minute meeting because you forgot
  • Requesting a ‘just to chat’ meeting with no agenda
  • A meeting irrelevant to your role or team
  • An ad hoc meeting that ends up running for an hour or more
  • Last-minute team huddles

The upsides and drawbacks of ad hoc meetings

Ad hoc meetings have many drawbacks, but they aren’t the root of all evil. Let’s look at use cases for when an ad hoc meeting can benefit businesses and their teams before reviewing the problems they can cause.

What is an ad hoc meeting good for?

They save time: If a worker is struggling with a task and requires support from a colleague, an unplanned meeting where they discuss the issue in real-time can help the worker overcome their issue and prevent delays. However, this is only assuming the colleague offering support is available at that time to share their expertise.

They allow people to be reactive: As mentioned, ad hoc meetings are most beneficial when faced with urgent problems. If a team needs to react to a changing situation quickly or combat an issue before it turns into an unmanageable fire, an ad hoc meeting is the best way to bounce ideas around and get everyone on the same page as quickly as possible.

Diaries are jam-packed, and waiting for the ideal moment for everyone to regroup can cause delays that the team can ill afford. In such an event, we give you the green light to arrange an emergency meeting.

What problems can ad hoc meetings cause?

They disrupt deep work: Deep work is critical to productivity and efficient problem-solving. When employees stay focused, they enter a flow state, allowing them to focus on a single task for an extended period. Deep work is incredibly valuable as it gives workers the time and headspace to dedicate to cognitively demanding tasks, such as researching, drafting plans, creating designs, and writing client proposals.

Ad hoc meetings are kryptonite to deep work. If you’ve ever been interrupted during a deep work session by an unplanned call, you’ll know it can take ages to get your head back into your task. In fact, it can take around 23 minutes to get your focus back after a distraction.

People don't have time to prepare: Effective meetings require time for preparation. If workers have mere minutes, or even seconds, of notice for a meeting, they can’t get their ducks in a row before entering the conference room or Teams call.

Last-minute meetings routinely lack agendas, meaning team members won’t know exactly what will be discussed or what’s expected of them until they’re at the meeting. While some people perform well under such circumstances, others need time to consider the matter at hand before responding.

They can be stressful: Following on from the point above, ad hoc meetings can be stress-inducing for many people. Feeling put on the spot can trigger feelings of anxiety, while knowing an unplanned meeting could derail the rest of the workday can be very stressful.

They reduce productivity: Recent research reveals everything we need to know about how pointless meetings impact our productivity. Not only do 83% of workers spend between four to 12 hours in meetings every week, but 65% say meetings interrupt their workflow. This is because of something called context switching. Context switching is when you stop working on one task to focus on another (say, pausing on drafting a pitch deck to join an ad hoc meeting).

Too much context-switching can quickly retail your productivity, leading to fatigue and even burnout. If a business or team is plagued with disruptive context-switching behavior, with ad hoc calls interrupting workers several times a day, it can derail workflows and impact productivity.

They mess with operational efficiency: Operational efficiency is all about how efficient your business is at converting inputs into outputs and determining profitability. Utilization is a key metric in measuring operational efficiency, with business teams using time tracking software to forecast how time worked will convert into business profits. Unsurprisingly, too many meetings can impact utilization rates.

In many businesses, creative workers, such as designers and copywriters, have their time carefully organized using resource management to ensure they aren’t overworked, that project work is effectively allocated, and to track billable hours. When workers are pulled into too many impromptu meetings, this careful resource planning goes out of the window.

For example, if a designer is resourced to spend six hours on a project on Monday but is requested to attend a one-hour meeting that has not been planned for, it becomes impossible for them to deliver six billable hours without working overtime.

How to cut back on ad hoc meetings

Some ad hoc meetings are necessary, such as in an emergency. But reducing unnecessary meetings is essential to increase productive work, focus, and employee engagement. Here are some steps you can take to cut back on one-off meetings.

Ask yourself: could this meeting be an email?

We’ve all seen jokes on social media agonizing over a meeting that ‘could have been an email.’ It seems the irritation at spending time in unnecessary meetings is a universally shared experience.

It’s incredibly frustrating to be drawn away from your work to attend a meeting that could easily have been an email. At best, it's distracting; at worst, it seems as if your colleagues don’t respect your time.

When you next go to arrange an ad hoc meeting or make an impromptu Teams call, remember to ask yourself, ‘Could this be an email’? If your question or request isn’t urgent, sending an email or instant message is the preferred alternative.

This way, your colleague can assess whether or not your request requires an immediate response and get back to you in their own time based on their priorities.

Decline any meeting with no clear agenda

If you receive a last-minute calendar request for a meeting with no explanation for why your attendance is required, you should feel free to decline. The best practice is to ask the organizer about the intended outcome of the meeting so you can make an informed decision about whether or not to join.

Try asynchronous meetings

At Runn, we’re all about asynchronous meetings, having found them to be hugely beneficial to our productivity and team spirit.

Asynchronous communication is when there is a gap of time between when a person shares information and the recipient responds. This communication style is ubiquitous (and valuable) to remote teams and teams working across time zones — like we do at Runn.

You may be wondering how an asynchronous meeting works. First, we must understand that asynchronous meetings don’t occur in real time. Strictly speaking, they’re not meetings as we know them; formal meetings where everyone is in one place (virtual or in-person) at the same time are known as synchronous meetings.

An asynchronous meeting is the opposite and makes a great alternative to ad hoc synchronous meetings. Instead of waiting for everyone to be available for a meeting, participants use written communication and recordings, such as those made using tools like Loom, for quick collaboration and to share feedback, project updates, and advice with their colleagues.

There are many benefits to asynchronous meetings, including improved documentation, increased productivity, and a better balance for workers who find unplanned meetings anxiety-inducing.

Here’s a quick guide to determining whether you should use an ad hoc or asynchronous meeting:

  • Ad hoc meeting: If you have a problem that requires an urgent solution, such as a relationship-saving client issue or operational emergency, arrange an ad hoc meeting.
  • Asynchronous meeting: If you have a request, question, or problem that isn’t time-sensitive or high-priority, opt for an asynchronous meeting.

Introduce meeting-free days

Even having one day a week free of meetings can reap huge benefits for all workers. Creatives, whose resourcing is often interrupted by unplanned-for catch-ups, can find meeting-free days especially useful for getting on top of their workload and entering the all-important flow state.

For meeting-free days to work, it’s recommended you make this a company-wide policy and ensure everyone on the team sticks to it.

Be respectful of others' time and priorities

When we’re faced with a problem, it’s easy to feel like it’s the most critical thing in the world. However, everyone juggles dozens of responsibilities daily — not to mention planned meetings — so it’s important to be mindful of others' priorities and to-do lists. 

If you’re in a position of seniority, your team will always rally around you when needed, but requesting them to do so too frequently can lead to poor team morale. Instead of expecting everyone to drop everything to help you, take the time to consider whether your request is truly urgent or if you can leverage asynchronous communication techniques.

How to make the most of ad hoc meetings

In an ideal world, we’d plan our days and weeks perfectly and then execute them without a hitch. In reality, ad hoc meetings are unavoidable; tasks fall through the cracks, plans change, and urgent matters arise. However, with the right approach, you can have a productive ad hoc meeting.

Here are our five tips for hosting efficient ad hoc meetings.

Be clear on the purpose

When sending out a calendar invite or asking a colleague to join a call, take the time to write a quick agenda or meeting notes that briefly explain why their attendance is required.

This context will not only help them to prepare for the meeting but can reduce anxiety and show their time is valued.

Set a time limit

There’s nothing worse than being called into a meeting with no clear end time.

If you decide calling a last-minute meeting is necessary, set a time limit for the conversation — and keep it short. This encourages conciseness and stops ramblers from taking over. You’ll be surprised at how much can be accomplished in a 20-minute meeting when that’s all you’ve been allocated.

Limit the number of meeting attendees

In an emergency, it can be tempting to alert everyone impacted by the situation. But there’s truth to the saying that too many cooks spoil the broth.

The smarter move is only to invite those the issue directly affects or whose input you need immediately. Sticking to a small group avoids too many voices complicating matters and helps you stay on schedule. After the ad-hoc meeting, they can then debrief their direct reports separately.

Assign clear deliverables

It’s important to leave any meeting with a clear course of action. Impromptu meetings work best when they’re productive, which means taking five minutes at the end to make sure you're heading in the right direction. Define who is responsible for which action points, your timings, and your priorities.

Use the right tools to monitor resourcing

Utilization rates are a key measurement of operational efficiency. Therefore, considering your team’s availability when arranging any meeting, especially an ad hoc meeting, is essential. You can do this by using resource management tools.

If you’re aware a particular team member is working to a deadline or has a particularly full day, you can make an informed decision about whether or not to invite them to a meeting.

Final thoughts: don't lose time to poorly-organized meetings

Unproductive meetings, including unnecessary ad hoc meetings, cost businesses around $37bn annually in wasted time and resources. By taking advantage of the tips we’ve shared today, adopting asynchronous techniques, and tracking utilization with the right tools, you can make sure your team doesn’t lose any more time to unproductive meetings.

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