My conclusion: as attendees there is not much we can do about it…be attentive, well-mannered, and participate where appropriate. But if you ever get the chance to lead a meeting, please-please-please take the opportunity to make the meeting work for everyone!
Ask yourself: do we have to have a meeting to accomplish this? What do we have to accomplish by meeting’s end? There are a lot of good reasons to have face-to-face meetings: to ensure that everyone is “on the same page,” provide a time to delegate tasks with the feeling of full accountability to one’s peers, and they provide a natural time frame for completing tasks (by the next meeting!).
Make sure you have a good reason & have identified those things you have to accomplish by meeting’s end. Then call a meeting.
Invite only those people who need to be there. Otherwise you waste people’s time and they’ll waste everyone else’s with distractions if they don’t really need to be present.
Provide an agenda. An agenda-less meeting is hard to control if you are the leader and hard to follow if you are a participant.
Don’t read out loud. Ever. At all. If you send materials ahead, let people know they’ll be expected to read them before the meeting. If you bring written materials to the meeting, give a short amount of time for silent reading instead of taking up the whole meeting reading out loud to a presumably literate audience.
Limit “ice breakers.” Ice breakers can be a great way for everyone to get to know each other and relax at a meeting, but they can take up a lot of time—especially if everyone present already knows each or a few participants get long-winded with what they are sharing. Limit ice breakers to the very first time any group meets.
Prevent hijackings. Don’t let participants hijack the meeting by going off topic, skipping around the agenda, or distracting other participants with highly emotional content. This is easy to control if the person leading the meeting says something like “I’ll put that on the agenda for our next meeting,” “We’ll get to that in a few minutes when that item comes up on the agenda,” or “You and I can talk about that [emotional content] one-on-one at a later time.”
Make sure everyone knows what they have to do by the next meeting: what work has to get done, how that work has to be presented at the meeting, and what to do should any questions arise before the next meeting.
Don’t let the meeting continue virtually. Meetings are good precisely to handle the kinds of things that are badly handled by technology: large-group conversations, consensus-building, and decision-making. Email is a horrible venue for a group of people to have discussions, make decisions that can truly be acted upon, or vote. And when emails or texts related to meeting content continue to fly between meetings, participants start to wonder why there even are meetings if the conversation constantly bleeds over into other communications.