How to Lead a Healthy Meeting

From tackling morale issues to banishing doughnuts from your 9 a.m., here's how to make meetings count.

Businesspeople applauding their colleague after a great presentation

Engaging attendees and being honest about workplace issues can lead to more fruitful meetings.


Your time is important. Your colleagues' time is important. If you're going to ask them to give their precious minutes or hours for a meeting, you should make sure it's a valuable, relatively healthy endeavor. In PowerPoint language:

Goals: Increase energy, health of employees; decrease under the desk Twitter scrolling
Challenges: Possible disinterest, enthusiasm; limited attention span and more

Action items:

Provide healthy food choices. Nothing like a carbohydrate-loaded spread of bagels and doughnuts to energize folks in a 9 a.m. meeting. "Whether it’s a formal or informal policy, say that when we’re having a meeting that involves food, we’re going to consciously decide to make healthy choices available," says Jason Lang, lead for workplace health programs within the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion. Among the bagels and doughnuts, for example, provide fresh fruit. And maybe over time, you could even eliminate the glazed and cream-filled options altogether. For meetings at off-site locations, make sure the caterer or facility providing food offers nutritious menu choices.

[Read: High-Protein Breakfast Ideas.]

Get up. "It’s a lot to ask of anyone to maintain their focus and energy and to contribute to the objectives if all they’re doing is sitting," Lang says. So stop sitting. For check-in meetings, during which, say, team members are just giving updates, have employees stand instead of sit, suggests Jocelyn Glei, director of 99U, an educational website aimed at helping people make their ideas happen. Not only are employees taking a break from sitting – not a bad health move – but chances are, the meeting will become more succinct and efficient, because people probably won't want to stand for more than about 15 minutes. Glei and her colleagues have honed in on perfecting these check-ins, she says, by asking only for updates that are new and pertinent to the whole group. No one wants to sit (let alone stand) around as two colleagues digress about a detail only relevant to them, so those two should follow up on that topic in a separate conversation, she says.

A more active option: walking meetings. The CDC suggests adults rack up at least 150 minutes of physical activity each week, and Lang points out that a few 10- or 20-minute meetings per week can knock a decent dent in that number. So for your next meeting, take a lap around the office, or better yet, head outside and enjoy the fresh air. A word to the wise, though: Walking and talking works best for small groups without much need for visuals, such as PowerPoint presentations and worksheets.

If a walking meeting simply isn't practical – 30 people shuffling through an office parking lot while staring down at worksheets is probably a safety hazard, after all – you can still work a little activity into a sitting meeting during breaks. Which leads us to ...

[Read: How to Sit Less and Move More.]

Take breaks. Even an A+ employee can start losing interest in a meeting after sitting and trying to absorb information for an hour. It's just exhausting, says Amit Sood, author of "The Mayo Clinic Guide to Stress-Free Living" and a professor of medicine at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn. After about an hour or hour and a half of focusing, "our brain gets depleted and starts making errors and may get irritable," he said in a U.S. News article about staying focused in long, boring meetings. So after an hour or so, or when you sense folks are losing focus, take a break.

A break could mean simply dismissing everyone for a few minutes, or it could mean having folks stand up and stretch. Whatever kind of break you choose, meeting participants will likely welcome the chance to recharge. "Breaks are essential to being focused and productive," Glei says.

Clear the air. "To have the most productive meeting, you have to have emotional health among your team," says Jeanne Malnati, a psychotherapist and founder and CEO of The Culture Group, a Chicago-based company focused on improving workplace culture. If there's mistrust or animosity among team members, it's unlikely they'll collaborate productively in a meeting, Malnati says. "There's just too much emotional baggage." It's up to the meeting or team leader to have those "tough conversations" addressing bad blood in the team so everyone can move on. Once the air is cleared, "people are then going to come with more energy and excitement and focus on the task and goals at hand," Malnati says.

Leaders should do some self-reflecting and note any personal grudges they might have – even if they're subconscious – so they can consider "extending grace," as Malnati says, and better cooperate in a team environment. Still a little bitter that Joe got the promotion two years ago instead of you? Set yourself free.

[Read: 10 Tips for Tackling the Toughest Workplace Conflicts.]

Be real. Similarly, don't ignore low morale. "Too many meetings are run from your head and spreadsheet," Malnati says, "and that's good, but to have that much more productivity, you've got to bring the gut in and get the feel of a room." Instead of tiptoeing around a morale issue, or painting on a fake smile, Malnati urges leaders to be authentic. Name the issue and own it, by expressing your own disappointment in, say, not meeting a quota, and have others chime in with their thoughts and feelings.

Engage colleagues. And you can do so by putting the odds in their favor. Consider asking meeting participants to leave their distracting cellphones at their desks or turning them off, Glei says. She adds that the presenter should pause and welcome engagement, instead of embarking on a monologue. And "only include people in the meetings who are decision-makers or who have opinions and impact on the meeting," Glei says, "not people who are immaterial to the meeting, because those are probably going to be the people who zone out."

[Read: Do You Know How to Run a Meeting?]