“If you had to identify, in one word, the reason why the human race has not achieved, and never will achieve, its full potential, that word would be ‚meetings.’”
– Dave Barry, American Journalist
vacation time is over – everybody is back at work. Actually, it seems more like everyone is back in meetings. To me, it feels like agreeing on appointments has never been more challenging. Lunch breaks are broken. People get jumpy when you call them without an appointment. Next workshop or training dates? Maybe January 2024.
Microsoft Research using participants‘ EEGs proves that back-to-back meetings accumulate stress. Harvard Business Review reports that 71% of senior managers consider meetings unproductive and inefficient, as do 92% of their employees. A survey by „The Muse“ reveals that approximately 67% of meetings are considered failures. Nevertheless, the number of attendees did increase by 13.5% compared to pre-pandemic levels. As a result, more than 90% of workers multi-task in meetings. U of North Carolina’s Prof. Stephen G. Rogelberg estimates that the flood of meetings costs a company approximately USD 25.000 per employee and year.
I could go on, and the stats are damning.
But what’s the cause of this „Meeting Madness“ (as HBR already titled in 2017)? You get different answers depending on who you ask (or read). Here are the top four from my perspective as a consultant and manager:
Remote and Hybrid Work
Per Microsoft Research, meeting minutes per week have risen by a factor of 2.5 from pre-pandemic times. Serendipitous encounters don’t happen anymore. Issues previously resolved in a chat at the water cooler or coffee machine are now scheduled as 30-minute calls.
Work Complexity has Increased
It will continue to increase with digital components (which are inherently complex) being added to almost every product or project. In the absence of organizational structures and decision-making models being adjusted, this requires more meetings to align stakeholders.
Mis-implemented Agile Methodologies
While Agile can help manage complexity, Scrum (and its scaled derivatives) are typically implemented as a by-the-book process due to a lack of training and coaching. As a result, the focus is on getting the rituals right rather than doing the right things. Which in turn results in more meetings and fragmented calendars.
A Lack of Leadership and Outcome Orientation
Missing enablement by goal-setting, prioritization, removing impediments, coaching, and empowerment seems rampant. Instead, we find too many meetings with a sizeable number of participants spent on activity reporting and micromanagement.
Some companies have taken to radical measures to stop the folly. Shopify canceled all recurring meetings with three or more participants and introduced meeting-free Wednesdays, cutting out 36 years (!!) of meeting time p.a. with this move. GitLab and Asana cleared out employee’s calendars with similar measures. Meta, Canva, and other tech firms have introduced no-meeting days.
Paring Down Meetings
Short of addressing the more significant issues above, where a different vantage point and -approach to adjust structures and working models is required, here are some immediate measures we have found to go a long way in most organizations. However, they will still need some management backing and benefit from gentle nudges by Agile coaches or Scrum Masters.
- Conduct a calendar audit. Eliminate or reduce (frequency, duration, and attendees) recurring meetings involving larger groups.
- Enforce purpose and agendas. Encourage colleagues to actively decline meeting invitations without a stated purpose and agenda.
- Appoint a meeting facilitator for every meeting. (Not the person in charge of the topic being debated!)
- Always close a meeting with a summary and/or a rundown of agreed action items.
- Post meeting notes and action items ASAP after the meeting.
- Encourage and respect the use of „calendar blockers“ for thinking, preparation, and winding down.
Beyond meeting improvements themselves, here are additional measures we find helpful in reducing the need for meetings:
- Empower and encourage individuals to make responsible, autonomous decisions in „two-way door“ contexts.
- Encourage proactive asynchronous communication (email, chat, systems (JIRA, Salesforce, Monday.com, …)) for:
- Status updates and FYIs
- Proposals and feedback
- Simple questions
- Agree and enforce „single sources of truth“ for every type of information. E.g. project progress: JIRA dashboard; account updates: Salesforce; quick questions: Slack; etc.
- Provide context proactively using organizational workspaces like Confluence, your Intranet, or similar.
- Focus and align your organization using quarterly goal setting rituals like e.g. OKRs.
As said above, reducing meetings by implementing these measures will make a difference. Research by Henley Business School suggests that productivity is 71% higher when meetings are reduced by 40%.
However, more than these measures will be required to alleviate the significant drivers. Organizational structures and process models need a fundamental reorientation to address the challenges of technological change. We’d be glad to discuss them with you.
Dear Manager, You’re Holding Too Many Meetings
Henley Business School’s Benjamin Laker and his colleagues share study results and suggestions for meeting reduction.
This Is How 4 Leaders Fixed Their Company’s Meeting Overload Problem
The Muse’s Abyse Kalish’s roundup of strategies for decreasing meeting load. Learnings from four successful business leaders.
Enjoy your meeting-free weekend!
All the best,