HOW many times have you heard someone complain about having to sit through another useless or time-consuming meeting?

The usual grouse is that such meetings waste precious time and cause unnecessary frustration at work. Many wonder why they are held in the first place.

'I've heard people at the managerial level complaining about too many meetings and too much time wasted in meetings,' says Mr Harold Kwan, chief executive of human resource consultancy HRM3 Asia.

'They say the meetings are too long and people who do not need to be there are brought in.'

Often, it is because the person chairing the meeting is inexperienced and therefore nothing is achieved after one, two or three hours, says Mr Kwan.

Still, he says meetings clearly have a place in organisations as they help to inform and reinforce a company's culture, bring people together or solve problems.

'Communication is very important, and sometimes, you just can't replace the face-to-face meetings with e-mail,' says Mr Kwan.

The trick is to prepare well for meetings that are necessary, stay focused and to ditch those meetings that are not needed even if it has been the norm to hold them over a long period, experts say.

'The difference between a successful meeting and a futile one is in the preparation and the staging,' stresses Mr William Willems, regional vice-president for Regus Australia, New Zealand and South-east Asia, a service office firm.

Otherwise, it is just going to cost the company a great deal in terms of the hours wasted, experts say.

Plan, plan, plan

THE first thing you can do is define the purpose of the meeting. Whoever is chairing the meeting has to be clear on why the meeting is being held, experts say.

As Mr Willems points out: 'Meetings are so much a part of corporate life that people often hold them as a 'default' option.'

According to Mr Kwan, a big sin a lot of people at big organisations commit is to have many internal meetings, instead of external ones to meet their customers.

'They are doing business with themselves, rather than with their customers.'

Once you are clear about what you want to achieve at the meeting, set up an agenda and stick to it.

The chairman, says Mr John Harris, head of HR for Asia Pacific at Alexander Mann Solutions, needs to have a set agenda on who will be speaking, what will be discussed, and how much time will be spent on each topic.

'The agenda is matched with minutes after the meeting, which are collated, distributed, and followed up on the next agenda,' he says.

Mr Willems emphasises that agendas should be distributed in time for participants to read and to act on them.

A lot of responsibility clearly lies with the chairman, whom experts believe should also limit the number of attendees.

'Generally, the greater the number of participants, the greater the risk of them losing energy,' says Mr Willems.

'Think about whether people really need to be there, or whether they could be updated about the outcomes.'

After all that is done, it is time to look at the lighter aspects of the planning such as having proper facilities and food.

Poor room ventilation and bad vibes can hinder the productivity of the participants at a meeting, Mr Willems says.

'Consider renting meeting rooms by the day, half day or hour,' he says.

'Arranging the right meeting room demonstrates respect and efficiency: it's a good subliminal message.'

He also asks meeting planners to think about the extras. 'Hungry or thirsty participants are less productive, so they may need tea, coffee, and water, and possibly snacks or lunch as well.'

When conducting the meeting, keep it short and sweet. 'Whoever is running the meeting needs to keep conversation on track, invite other people to speak, and act as a mediator throughout any discussion,' says Mr Harris.

'You have to respect people's time. Wasting other peoples' time is a sin,' says Mr Kwan.

But keeping to time is not only the responsibility of the chairman; the attendees, too, play a part. 'If you arrive late, don't expect a recap from the chair. This keeps the meeting on track, and reduces the knock-on effect of meetings running late,' says Mr Harris.

Traditionally, we think of meetings as those held in a room where everyone is physically present. However, today, meetings can easily be held via videoconferencing. 'Using high-quality videoconferencing can save thousands in travel costs and time, and is better for the environment,' says Mr Willems.

Many meetings, if done well, will leave people feeling good about working for the firm or about themselves.

'A good business meeting can leave you feeling energised, enthused and five years younger,' says Mr Willems.

'A bad one can leave you wanting an immediate change of job or even career.'