We’ve talked a bit lately about workplace productivity and how relying on meetings can actually reduce productivity. Studies across industries show that company executives are overwhelmed by the sheer volume of meetings they’re required to attend. Sadly, it isn’t just them. On average, executives spend almost 23 hours per week in meetings. By stark contrast, in the 1960s that number was under 10 hours each week.
Time and time again studies show that most solutions offered are bandages over a deeper problem. Modern work culture demands an increasing number of meetings, and it’s impacting employee engagement and productivity. We need to make deeper, lasting changes to our work cultures. Change that encourages better productivity habits and reduced absenteeism, including eliminating excess meetings.
Why Bother Reducing Meetings?
Executives and managers at all levels have seen increases in the hours they spend in meetings each week, but it isn’t just them. Meetings that should be between a few key decision-makers end up involving entire teams of people who barely speak up. They can be productive when used correctly, but too many meetings can have serious detrimental effects to trust, company culture, employee engagement, absenteeism and productivity.
It Interrupts Workflow
A study cited in Harvard Business Review identifies a productivity-related idea called time fragmentation. Thoughtful work requires more than 30 minutes to make progress, and studies have shown it takes over 25 minutes to get back on track after a distraction. Anyone who’s had their workflow disrupted by an abrupt meeting notification knows how frustrating that is!
Constant meetings leave us distracted, scrambling and — eventually — burnt out and unable to focus even when we do have time. And these distractions add up. When calculated out, the HBR study revealed that every two hours “worked” only equated to one hour of productive working time. Over time, our teams take a substantial hit to their productivity.
It Eats Up Valuable Time
Like it or not, we can only complete one task at a time (and despite how some may feel, human beings can’t actually multitask). From a productivity standpoint, that means we can’t complete valuable work if we’re sitting in a meeting. And if we try to do other work during a meeting, we can’t be an active, helpful participant in the discussion.
We need to choose one or the other. If we try to multitask our work suffers. When we have important work to complete, each meeting takes time away from that task, sometimes enough to require working overtime. And for as popular as overtime is in the US, studies continually show that working overtime can negatively affect the employee, their health, their productivity, absenteeism, and more. Remember: being busy doesn’t equal being productive.
It Could Negatively Impact Company Prospects
So many executives meet regularly to discuss company affairs: How can they make their company more appealing to applicants? How do they keep their customers interested and engaged? How can they earn greater market share? Especially for companies struggling to run meetings effectively, reducing the number of meetings could be the answer.
A study authored by two German university-level researchers came to an interesting conclusion. The summary by Harvard Business Review noted that after studying over 90 meetings at 20 organizations, their study found that “dysfunctional meeting behaviors (including wandering off topic, complaining, and criticizing) were associated with lower levels of market share, innovation, and employment stability.”
In short, hosting too many badly-run meetings could have negative effects on your company’s prospects.
It Encourages Micromanaging
We’ve talked before about the importance of building trust within teams and how that process must start with leaders trusting their team first. Ideally when a team is working on a project, the manager provides them with the necessary details and trusts their team to come to them with questions. Micromanaging comes into play when managers feel the need to evaluate every minute step in a project, eliminating room for their team to learn from making mistakes.
There’s a big difference between weekly “What do we have going on this week?” meetings and requesting constant status reports. You don’t need check-in meetings at 2:30PM three days a week, and pushing for them can erode team member trust.
Creating a Culture with Fewer Meetings
With those downfalls in mind, maybe you’ve decided it’s time to cut back on meetings. Knowing where to start is the next logical step, but a company culture reliant on meetings may seem impossible to change. If you’ve ever heard of a domino effect, you’ll know that sometimes starting small is the greatest way to affect change. Here are a couple small changes you can make to encourage more intentional use of meetings.
Control What Comes Into & Out of Meetings
Two things can help set up meetings for success without requiring follow-up meetings: agendas before the meeting, and meeting minutes afterward. Before you even put a meeting on the books, determine what the agenda is going to be. Highlighting topics to cover and the end-goal of the meeting will help you decide which people really should be there for the discussion.
During the meeting itself, designate one person to take notes, making particular note of any action items. By encouraging note-taking, someone not in attendance can still benefit from the information uncovered or decisions made without sitting through the meeting themselves. It’s a great way to keep your team on the same page without pulling them away from their work.
Evaluate Each Potential Attendee
Think of how many times you’ve sat in a meeting dreaming about all the other things you could be getting done. If you find yourself in that position, you’re representing a surprising portion of meeting attendees. An effective meeting requires having the right people in the room and — more importantly — leaving the wrong people out of the room.
The general rule of thumb is that having between six and eight people is an acceptable number, though studies have shown that only 3-5 people in a meeting will actually contribute to it. Make sure you evaluate why you’re inviting someone to your meeting. Do you think they’ll have valuable input, or are you inviting them out of habit?
Make “No” An Acceptable Answer
Many people feel it’s rude to reject a meeting invitation, or feel like they need to apologize for it. They may have prior engagements, or allocated that timeblock to work on something else. Work on creating a culture that makes it okay for people to reject meeting invites. We don’t know all the intricacies of our coworkers’ workloads. Sometimes they need to say “no” to a meeting invitation, and that’s okay!
This could look like asking for clarity on the purpose of the meeting to determine if your presence is necessary. Additionally, provide your own clarity to meeting invitees on why you’re inviting them to your meeting. In any case, making it acceptable for people to turn down meeting requests is a great way to ensure everyone’s work gets done.
Normalize Leaving Early
Just like saying “no” to a meeting invite, a lot of office cultures view leaving a meeting early as rude. But if you take a look at the meeting agenda and realize that out of six topics, you can only contribute to the first two, it isn’t a productive use of time to stick around for the rest. The best use of our teams’ time is focusing on their areas of expertise.
There are several ways to normalize leaving early. First, work on making yourself comfortable with leaving early, or push past your comfort zone to do so. Beyond that, if you realize an attendee’s time is better spent elsewhere, let them know it’s okay to leave. “Hey Jordan, it looks like the rest of the agenda items are focused on IT, not finance. Did you want to go start working on that report we talked about earlier?”
Over time, you won’t need to ask as often. Once they realize that it’s okay, your team members will take initiative to ensure their time is well-spent.
Explore Other Avenues
Even before modern communication technologies like Zoom calls, meetings weren’t the only way to share information effectively. We have emails, a quick note on a Post-It, virtual collaboration boards, collaborative documents and more. If you’re sharing information, sending out a summary report is often easier to digest and fit into their schedule.
Talk with your team to discuss what meeting alternatives they think could be helpful, do your own research, and experiment together to figure out what works best for all of you.
It’s Time to Break the Habit
While it’s easy to shift the blame for reduced productivity onto team members, remember that cultural habits start with us. As leaders, we need to take initiative and lead changes within our organizations. It’s our duty to our teams to change direction. Lean into what’s best for everyone in the long-term while balancing organizational needs.
Creating a culture that prioritizes other types of communication beyond constant meetings is uncomfortable. While hiccups are nearly inevitable, the positive impacts are worth it. Making small adjustments to your own actions and habits gives you potential to create lasting change and revolutionize your team’s collaborative work.