Is it time to ban meetings?

Meetings can serve an important role, but how can we make them more productive?

Some companies have meeting-free days, others limit attendance, but almost everyone agrees: meetings need to be fewer and shorter.

Around the world, unproductive meetings are a universal problem that costs workplaces an estimated US$37 billion every year.

Bloated, inefficient meetings are unpopular among workers. A 2015 Harris Poll survey that asked 617 US workers what “gets in the way of your work” found “wasteful meetings” got the highest rating, at 57 per cent, ahead of emails and phone calls.

In July 2016, automotive industry website Edmunds Inc introduced what it calls “Thinking Thursdays”, the one day every week when meetings are banned, to take the pressure off staff’s overburdened calendars.

Related: The hidden cost of unproductive meetings (audio)

As a result, meetings at the company fell from 750 to about 600 a week, and these numbers indicate that people don’t reschedule meetings to other days. Because colleagues are better able to connect, work moves faster, allowing time for more ambitious projects.

How many meetings is too many?

It is impossible to say how many is too many, says Dermot Crowley, author of Smart Work. Instead of simply counting meetings, he says a better metric is the comparison between the percentage of time spent in meetings and that spent on other work. Crowley calls this the “compression percentage”.

“If you give too much of your time away to meetings, your schedule gets too compressed, and you leave no time for other priorities,” he says.

A compressed schedule is common among senior executives, who Crowley says often spend up to 90 per cent of the working day in meetings. The consequence is “they end up catching up on other stuff at night and on weekends”.

To achieve a better split – Crowley suggests a 60-40 ratio of meetings to desk work – requires both “a personal commitment to protect and fight for your priorities, but also a culture that promotes this sort of balance”.

When are meetings necessary?

Meetings should be the last resort, says co-founder and CEO of Basecamp, Jason Fried, in a Harvard Business Review IdeaCast.

“Only when people really, truly need to come together because they’re unable to communicate in another way and another schedule do they actually need to get together in a room,” he says.

Fried singles out status meetings – where people take turns providing status updates to the rest of the room – as particularly inefficient.

“That stuff is better served up by writing it up and distributing it and letting people absorb that on their own time,” he says.

Meetings can serve an important role, however.

“Meetings are a valuable way to collaborate when we get the right people together in a focused way,” says Crowley, who identifies three types of worthwhile meetings.

The first is presentation, where information is presented and discussed, followed by engagement and clarification. The second is facilitation, which may take the form of decision-making or coaching. The third is ideation, such as brainstorming and planning.

What are the alternatives to meetings?

The most obvious alternative, email, is an imperfect one. Inbox congestion, already a common workplace gripe, is set to worsen. The average number of business emails sent and received every day is expected to reach 124.5 by 2018, up from 112.5 in 2015.

Email’s effect on productivity is clear. One study found that removing email made participants more focused and less stressed. The risk in relying on email to replace meetings is swapping one problem – too many meetings – for another, an overflowing inbox.

Some workplaces avoid internal email, using instead tools such as Slack and Yammer. 

“Sometimes information is better communicated via a tool like Yammer rather than holding a meeting,” says Crowley. “That way people can digest in their own time.”

Leaders can lessen the burden too. 

“Sometimes it is more effective for a manager to step up and make a decision, to take ownership of that and communicate the decision to the team,” he says. 

Crowley believes the value of strategies such as Thinking Thursdays lies in the way they challenge the status quo and “keep us thinking outside of the square”.

Rather than banning meetings outright, Melbourne-based Potomac Asia Pacific director Erick Fibich FCPA recommends asking why a team feels that a policy such as Thinking Thursdays would increase productivity. 

“A better approach would be to really understand their issues as to why meetings are ineffective,” he says.

How to make meetings more efficient

Too often meetings are too frequent, too long and involve too many people, says Crowley. 

“We need to make meetings fewer, faster and more focused.”

Some organisations limit the length of meetings. In a 30-minute meeting, every minute counts, says leadership consultant Peter Bregman. In his experience, people prepare, listen and focus better in short meetings, and are rarely late.

Every meeting needs a clear purpose, which then dictates its structure.

Related: Is this your organisation’s most important hidden cost?

“A meeting for decision-making ideally is for six to nine people,” says Fibich. Any more than that “just adds complexity and difficulty in achieving the purpose of the meeting”.

It’s also important to make sure the right people are in the room, especially if decisions need to be made. On the flip side, don’t feel compelled to accept every invite. Find out if you really need to be present.

Start with a clearly communicated objective outlining what needs to be achieved by the meeting’s end. An agenda – a list of what needs to be covered, prioritised from most to least important – should be mandatory for every meeting. 

“This focuses the meeting and stops it getting off track,” says Crowley, who emphasises the importance of documenting meetings in the form of minutes and following up on action items.

Don’t be afraid to think outside the box. Meeting-free days are one way organisations are addressing the problem. 

Other organisations have come up with other sometimes unusual solutions. At US baby food company Plum Organics, team members are provided with pencils and colouring-in books during the weekly creative-thinking meeting. The company says this helps new product development.

Read next: Why isn’t video conferencing more popular?


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