Why you need ground rules for meetings (with examples)

Written by 
David Young
July 19, 2023
A group of older colleagues sitting in a meeting
Why you need ground rules for meetings (with examples)
Written by 
David Young
July 19, 2023

Just imagine: You call a meeting and send out invitations. Each team member shows up on time, ready to participate. You have a productive conversation, work through any conflicts, and come out at the end with decisions made, expectations set, and action items clarified. Maybe you even end early, too.

In the real world, meetings usually don’t look anything like this. Many things can go wrong. Team members may arrive late and distracted; the conversation may go off the rails. One or two people may dominate the discussion and leave out everyone else. The results can not only be frustrating, but also a waste of time.

This is why you shouldn’t be afraid to set a few ground rules for your next meeting. Here’s how the right rules can lead to successful meetings and better team collaboration.

Why teams should establish ground rules for meetings

It’s important to establish ground rules for your team meetings so that they stay productive. Otherwise, what’s the point of having a meeting in the first place? Depending on the needs of your team, these ground rules can have a lot of positive effects. Here are some specific ways ground rules can benefit your next meeting:

  • Save time: By setting an expectation for attendees to read through the agenda or review the meeting pre-work, you can prevent the first 10 minutes from becoming another catch-up. Instead, you can start getting the real work done faster.
  • Solve problems: Setting down guidelines for etiquette and for keeping the conversation on track will help drive more focused discussions. This will make it easier to address challenges, remove roadblocks, streamline decision-making, and lead your team to better problem-solving.
  • Promote creativity: A good set of ground rules will go far in encouraging everyone to participate and share their ideas, from executives to ‌summer interns. And since diversity has long been shown to boost creativity, this can have a sizable impact on your company.
  • Empower people: With the right ground rules in place, participants will leave your meeting with a better understanding of any problems, as well as clarity on the next steps they need to take. This lack of ambiguity will encourage them to get the job done.
  • Build relationships: Ideally, your ground rules won't only create productive conversations, but rich and rewarding ones as well. They’ll help bring out each participant and get everyone working better together as a team.

How to set meeting ground rules with your team

Ground rules are only effective if they’re followed. That’s why you shouldn’t simply treat them like some sort of fiat. Instead, you should work with your team to come up with the rules everyone agrees would be most effective.

Start by acknowledging and defining the problems you are trying to solve. Discuss past meetings and how they could be improved, then make a list of everything you’d like to see changed. Perhaps you’d like more structure in your team meetings, or more opportunities for participation. If there are too many items to address at once, work with your team to prioritize them.

Next, start brainstorming some rules with your team. Encourage team members to write down their own ground rules for solving the problems you’ve identified. Once you have enough, vote on the ones your team thinks would be most effective. If you can, see if you can combine one or more rules to make them even more comprehensive.

The final step is to start implementing them. Hold a few meetings with your new rules to see what works — and take note of what doesn’t. Give yourself space to make mistakes. Hopefully, you’ll soon have a set of solid ground rules that help you hold effective meetings every time.

10 Meeting ground rules to use for your next team meeting

Coming up with a list of meeting rules doesn’t mean starting from scratch. Here are a few sample ground rules you can adopt and transform to work with your team.

1. Embrace a digital-first mindset

This rule could also be titled, “Could it be an email instead?” Too many meetings these days are held that easily could have been handled asynchronously, whether through email, chat, whiteboard, or some other means. By taking a digital-first mindset, you can help encourage each team member who wants to set a meeting to first consider other, more efficient ways of getting the work done.

Pro-tip: When in doubt, use this flowchart to determine if you should have a meeting

2. Create and follow an agenda to stay on track

By making it a requirement for every meeting host to come up with an agenda for their meeting, as well as enforce it, you’ll not only help give them more structure, but also give them more intention. 

The practice of simply thinking through each minute or block of a meeting can help clarify what's actually needed during this meeting time. Should you spend the first 10 minutes catching up with everyone? Is five minutes at the end enough for making a decision?

Related: Plan out and run an effective meeting with the Lead Better Hybrid Meetings template from Mural

3. Set a clear goal for the meeting

Just as important as setting a meeting agenda is defining an overarching goal for your meeting. Why are you even having it in the first place? Make this rule even more useful by specifying that the goal shouldn't only be about solving a problem, but also coming up with clear action items for each participant. You want people to come out of the meeting with more knowledge and a clear job to do. That’s the goal you want to meet.

4. Lead with positivity

Even if the reason for calling a meeting isn’t a happy one, setting the expectation that you'll approach your problem with a positive and constructive attitude can go a long way. Instead of focusing on what went wrong, you should push participants to look for opportunities for improvement and places they can grow. This can boost morale while getting everyone in the right mindset to solve the problem.

5. Establish a signal to bring the team back on topic

Inevitably, your meetings will go off topic. In fact, this is especially true if your team members all get along with each other. People will feel relaxed enough to keep on talking, even if it isn’t relevant. 

Establishing a quick and clear signal can be an effective way to bring the meeting back on task and treat your team members’ time like the valuable resource it is. This could be a simple codeword that anyone is allowed to say, or using the “raise your hand” feature on Zoom. Whatever it is, make sure everyone knows and respects it so you can return to the main topic and keep your conversation focused.

6. Use good virtual meeting etiquette for remote and hybrid meetings

Remote and hybrid meetings are just as common as in-person meetings these days. Yet whether because of an increased risk of distraction or the fact that participants are in their own homes (or local coffee shops), it can sometimes be hard to keep up normal rules. This makes it important to establish etiquette guidelines specific to virtual meetings

These may include specifically asking participants not to multi-task or have side conversations. It may also mean coming up with a concrete policy on muting. Whatever it takes, be mindful of the needs and challenges of all your participants, virtual or not, in order to keep your meetings running smoothly.

Related: A complete guide to running hybrid meetings

7. Create opportunities for participation from both in-person and remote attendees

One of the biggest challenges with hybrid meetings is making sure everyone feels like an equal participant. In particular, without a physical presence, virtual meeting attendees might have a more difficult time with this participation inequity.

In order to keep them engaged and present, you should establish some rules to help level the playing field. For example, you might require all participants to raise their hand virtually (e.g., in a chat), or maybe ask everyone, online and off, to make introductions first. This way, your meetings will stay inclusive, even when participants are miles apart.

8. Be mindful of any accessibility needs

Making your meetings more inclusive means not only considering your virtual attendees, but also anyone with additional accessibility needs. These could be participants with sensory issues, neurodivergent individuals, or even those who suffer from anxiety. By being mindful of any special accessibility needs to consider beforehand, you can help make them more mindful of these individuals. 

For example: Not everyone may feel comfortable speaking up about their needs, which is why it can be smart to leave room for participants to submit anonymous feedback afterwards.

Related: Beyond diversity: your guide to building a more inclusive workplace

9. Be aware of different time zones, if applicable

With the rise in remote meetings (see some rules for that above), participants may now be joining from multiple different time zones. This means that the 8 a.m. meeting you just scheduled is really a 5 a.m. wake-up call for someone else. In order to avoid this, be explicit about requiring everyone to look at and consider the different time zones of all their participants. When someone four hours ahead of you wants to schedule a morning meeting, you’ll appreciate it.

10. Record notes and action items

Even when the meeting goes well, it’s never safe to assume everyone will remember what they need to. By requiring someone to take minutes and document action items, you can make sure  there's  no misunderstanding later on. 

While you can make a record of everything that’s said if you’d like, what’s most important is for you to take down any key decision or details that are shared. Make sure that you can use these notes to follow up and hold people accountable later on so that you can track progress and start seeing results.

Related: Be sure to track action items with the Mural Meeting Notes template

Ground rules help set a quality standard for meetings

In the end, putting in place ground rules isn’t about gaining more control over your meetings or participants — it’s really about making sure you are maximizing your time together so you can solve problems, come up with creative solutions, and get work done. 

As you start creating your own ground rules with your team, just remember to involve everyone and be mindful of online meeting considerations, undiscussable issues, and meeting accessibility needs. By co-creating rules as a team, you’ll help ensure they remain effective and enforced.

Looking for more advice on running effective and productive meetings?
Check out our comprehensive meeting guide to get more ideas or get started with Mural to hit the ground running and accomplish more with your team.

About the authors

About the authors

David Young

David Young

Contributing Writer
David is a contributing writer at Mural, focused on covering collaboration, meetings, and teamwork. He's been working in the hybrid tech space for over 10 years and has been writing about it nearly as long. When he's not doing that, he's probably cooking up a meal.