First things first, what is an ad-hoc meeting?
Ad-hoc meetings occur outside your scheduled tasks and meetings. Unlike recurring meetings, which occur over regular intervals and have a consistent theme, ad-hoc meetings deal with a specific topic or discussion. They’re also known as impromptu meetings or one-off meetings.
They’re often used during emergencies and crisis navigation. For example, let’s say a top-paying client is considering ending their contract over the next few days. An ad-hoc meeting might be necessary to identify the best way to keep them on board—and fast.
But the real problem is that ad-hoc meetings are used when they’re not necessary.
For many people, it’s second nature to ask a question or make a phone call to get immediate help with an issue they’re facing. In the workplace, these activities disrupt the flow of work and impact productivity.
Because of their spontaneous nature, last-minute meetings are usually unplanned and lack an agenda, which isn’t ideal. Of course, this varies from meeting to meeting—sometimes you may be able to create a brief agenda; other times you might not. It all depends on the purpose of the meeting and how much time you have.
Ad-hoc meetings are sometimes necessary, but if they’re a habit and your team is being interrupted several times a day to “hop into a huddle,” then it becomes a problem.
The problem with ad-hoc meetings
During a crisis, ad-hoc meetings can help teams make fast and informed decisions. But using them too often can cause issues in the workplace.
Ad-hoc meetings disrupt deep work, impacting productivity and your team’s wellbeing. They also lack structure, making it difficult for participants to know what to expect and when the meeting will end.
Having too many ad-hoc meetings can also influence your work culture. Synchronous meetings have a place, but having too many of them shows employees that these meetings are the norm (especially without addressing when to have synchronous meetings explicitly in your communication guidelines).
Let’s look at these problems in more detail.
Disrupt deep work
Deep work involves focusing on a single task for an extended period without distraction. It’s the type of work that cognitively challenges you and requires your undivided attention. You need to get rid of any distractions to do it properly.
This is where ad-hoc meetings can be a serious problem.
Disrupting deep work can have a detrimental effect on productivity and quality of work. After being interrupted, it can take up to 23 minutes to regain focus. In a bid to catch up on lost time, the focus might not be as deep as it was before the interruption.
It’s also a pretty self-serving habit. Put yourself in the shoes of someone engaged in deep work.
You're focusing hard on the task at hand when you’re interrupted by a colleague who wants a meeting to discuss a problem or question. Your colleague expects you to drop what you’re doing and support them.
Imagine this happens several times a day because synchronous ad-hoc meetings aren’t discouraged in your workplace. How do you feel?
You might feel as though your colleagues value their work above yours. You may also feel frustrated about your broken concentration. Either way, you have to carve some more time out of your day to replace your lost work.
Lack of preparation
Over one-third of employees waste time on calls and meetings that don’t accomplish anything. To make sure that you run an effective meeting, you need preparation. Ad-hoc meetings rarely allow a lot of prep time.
Ad-hoc meetings are off the cuff. No one knows how long they’ll last and what exactly needs to be discussed. They’re often unstructured and lack the preparation they need to be productive.
Some people perform well on the spot, but others like to sit and formulate a well-rounded response. Ad-hoc meetings rarely allow people to do this, but asynchronous communication is a good alternative.
Poorly organized meetings also impact the economy. In the U.S., time wasted in poorly organized meetings costs the economy almost $400 billion.
A work culture with too many meetings
If you’re constantly running unplanned meetings, it’ll start to feel like the norm. Your team will start to expect regular ad-hoc meetings and will likely start running them, too.
This type of work culture isn’t a good thing.
Too many meetings can cause meeting overload. Employees can feel burnout, which can impact their physical and mental wellbeing. If you have a remote team, employees can also experience Zoom fatigue with too many virtual meetings.
Around 67% of employees also say that too many meetings distract them from making an impact at work. Fortunately, there are other ways of communicating that reduce Zoom fatigue and keep employees working as productively as possible—more on that in a minute.
Does your ad-hoc meeting need to be a meeting?
If ad-hoc meetings are such a problem, why do we have so many of them?
The truth is, they’re a bad habit. A lot of the time, ad-hoc meetings can be avoided with proper planning and preparation.
So, how do you know if you need an ad-hoc meeting?
If you have an urgent problem that’s high-priority and requires the attendee's immediate attention, an ad-hoc meeting could be necessary.
If it’s not urgent, you can handle the situation with less pressure and less time wasted.
Think carefully about whether a meeting is necessary at all.
There might be another way to solve your problem without pulling people away from their work. Let’s look at those alternatives.
What are alternatives to an ad-hoc meeting?
Nine times out of ten, an ad-hoc meeting isn't going to be the best use of your time and resources.
Think about how many times in your organization someone is asked to "look over a document" (or a section of code, or a presentation, etc.) before sharing it. To do this, your team members drop whatever they’re working on to glance over a colleague’s work. It breaks their focus and steals their time to focus on something that isn’t a priority.
What should they do instead?
With an async tool like Yac, you can share your screen or record your thoughts in a voice message. Colleagues can listen in their own time (in a group discussion or a 1-on-1) and fire their thoughts back.
With async meetings, you’re also not restricted by availability. You can communicate with your team when it suits your schedule and around your best times to focus.
Setting response expectations will be crucial. Your colleagues will need to know that there’s no need to reply instantly and that taking the time to formulate a response is encouraged.
Here are some other benefits of using async communication:
- Achieve the same outcome as an ad-hoc meeting. With a little extra flexibility, you’ll still arrive at the same outcome with async communication. You might even arrive at a better outcome, with colleagues given more time to consider and respond. If you’re using screen sharing and voice messages, you’ll also be able to pick up nuances of speech lost in text-based communication.
- Increase productivity in other areas of the business. Because your team hasn’t been pulled from their daily work schedule, they’re able to continue being productive in other areas. If someone is incredibly focused on a challenging task, they won’t be disrupted. They can finish their work and reply to your communication when it suits them.
- Create an inclusive work environment. Not everyone performs well on the spot. They need time to prepare for meetings and be thorough with their responses. Async communication allows them to do exactly that. It allows everyone to put their best foot forward so you can get the best possible outcome.
Email, project management tools, and communication platforms like Yac are examples of async communication (but watch out for immediate response expectations and email overload).
Practical advice for planning and executing ad-hoc meetings
If you need to have a real-time ad-hoc meeting, you’ll want to consider how to do it so it’s the least disruptive.
We’ve already talked about preparation, but there are other factors to think about. Let’s look at what they are.
Prepare as much as possible beforehand
It’s not always possible to prepare for an ad-hoc meeting in advance. But if you do have the time, come into the meeting as prepared as you can be.
Here’s what we’d suggest you do:
- Prepare a meeting agenda. If you have the time, prepare an agenda for the meeting. It doesn't have to be incredibly detailed, but even just a brief outline of what you want to cover will make sure that your meeting stays on track.
- Create a brief. In your brief, outline the purpose of the meeting and what you hope to achieve. Again, it doesn’t have to be detailed. A few sentences sent before the meeting start time can get everyone up to speed.
- Set a goal. Have a clear goal in mind before the meeting starts so you can keep things moving forward. Setting a goal beforehand is also a great way to keep the meeting on track. Without an end goal, meetings can veer off course and take longer than necessary.
- Find a meeting space. If you’re meeting in person, get your meeting space arranged before inviting people to join. Whether that’s a link to a virtual meeting room or a conference room for a last-minute formal meeting, arrange this as soon as you can to avoid hanging around.
- Outline your timeframe. It’s helpful for everyone involved in the meeting if you set a timeframe. Let them know how long you expect it to take so the meeting doesn’t go over time and steal everyone’s entire afternoon. Here it’s better to overestimate than underestimate.
Only invite necessary participants
Don’t invite everyone to the meeting if they don’t need to be there. If you do, you’ll be wasting their time and stopping them from doing other work.
By inviting unnecessary participants, you’re also making the meeting harder than it needs to be. For example, if you have a large group, there might be a lot of conflicting ideas that you’ll need to sort through. This is much easier to navigate with a limited number of relevant decision-makers.
To help you narrow it down, ask yourself the following questions:
- What is the desired outcome for the meeting?
- Does this person have the knowledge and experience I need to find a solution?
- Will this person be directly affected by the outcome of this meeting?
Think carefully about who needs to be involved and only invite those people. You can give participants the option of attending or viewing the meeting notes later.
Stick to an agreed time limit
Keeping a meeting on schedule is easier said than done—especially if it’s an ad-hoc meeting with a hastily thrown-together plan.
Here are a couple of suggestions to help you keep your meeting within the specified timeframe:
- Stick to your agenda. Having your points listed beforehand helps you keep track of the meeting’s progress. You’ll be able to see if you’re falling behind or ahead of schedule.
- Be the leader. Guide the meeting in the direction you want it to go. This will help you keep things moving in the right direction and avoid any tangents that could prolong the meeting.
- Think about meeting size. We’ve already made sure you only invite participants who need to be in the meeting. This is also relevant for keeping your meeting on schedule. If you have too many people involved, you could find yourself struggling to keep the meeting on track.
- Manage the ramblers. Some people like to talk, and that’s not a crime. But it does add time to your meeting. Sometimes you'll need to step in, politely thank them for their contribution, and ask if it’s okay to return to their point another time.
You’re already asking people to give up their time to be in this meeting. The least you can do is keep it within the agreed timeframe.
Use the right tools
If you’re part of a distributed team, you’ll need tools and platforms to support your meetings. Having the right tools in place will make your meetings as streamlined and efficient as possible.
Ultimately, the best tools to use will depend on your organization. Only you know what platforms work best for you and your team.
To point you in the right direction, here are a few things to think about:
- Smooth communication. When it comes to ad-hoc meetings, quick and easy communication is vital. If you want to go async, Yac allows teams to share video messages, voice notes, and integrates with Slack. For real-time meetings, look to apps like Fellow and Shepherd.
- Stay organized. Being organized is a necessity for ad-hoc meetings. You need to keep on top of all your meeting minutes, action items, and other documentation to make sure everything runs as efficiently as possible. Platforms such as Doist, Notion, and Asana will help you organize your documents and files. Yac can complement these tools, adding a voice element to answer questions, start conversations, share information, etc. Link to docs, webpages, and more in topic threads within your discussions.
- Consider a virtual meeting space. For remote or hybrid teams, a virtual meeting space limits background distractions and keeps things professional. Take a look at Workfrom to see how it works and create your own virtual workspace.
- Hold reverse meetings. Encourage all team members to hold “reverse meetings.” In this approach, colleagues set hours they’re available to meet (say Wednesdays from 9 a.m. to 11 a.m.). All ad-hoc style meetings should be rearranged to these times or held async.
- Don’t forget about asynchronous communication. Yac lets you send voice messages and screen shares for respondents to check out in their own time. You can set deadlines (e.g., “Please reply by end-of-play tomorrow”), react with emojis, and share links within voice messages—all while preserving that human element of an in-person meeting.
There’s a time and a place for ad-hoc meetings, but most ad-hoc meetings as they’re used today cause more harm than good. They can disrupt deep work, impact productivity levels, and create a work environment that encourages meetings even when they’re not necessary.
To make sure you use ad-hoc meetings effectively, you need to understand when to use them. If you have a problem that doesn’t need immediate attention, use async communication.