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Are You Holding Too Many Meetings?

Are You Holding Too Many Meetings?

If your company is spending over half its work time mired in pointless discussions, it is probably wasting time. Click through for a fresh look at how meetings are handled.

In 2017, the Harvard Business Review published a survey that highlighted an uncomfortable truth: 71% of respondents regard meetings as a sheer waste of time. An all-too-typical tale illustrates the absurdity. One meeting organizer routinely distributed slide decks for every sub-team in a department to review in advance. When members dutifully showed up, she just walked them through the decks. Why waste everybody's time so flagrantly? If you must drag workers away from their genuinely productive tasks, at least try to make the most of each occasion.

Meeting overload drives teams bonkers

Contemporary executives spend about 23 hours per week in meetings, up from 10 hours in the 1960s. The National Bureau of Economic Research reported in November 2023 that the number of meetings had escalated by 12.9% since 2020. (Marketing and advertising are especially meeting-prone.) The damage affects focus, engagement and productivity. A reliance on Zoom and Teams communications has compounded the problem.

The ultimate price is that such interrupted time interferes with ''deep work,'' a concept coined by Cal Newport, a Georgetown University computer scientist who studies the impact of the digital age on work. He uses the term to discuss an undistracted focus on a cognitively demanding task.

Employees complain that it is not merely the time, which can be bad enough if you have to work late or weekends to make it up, but also the inefficient squandering of that time. Some meetings are purely and unabashedly ceremonial. Sometimes attendees wait so long to start a meeting that total wait time minutes gradually add up to hours. Participants dial in and contribute little. Audio and visual issues erupt, disturbing the flow again. What goes awry? Often, the cause is too many invitees or an extended discussion that should have been resolved with an email or Slack message.

Another insanity is to hold a meeting to schedule further meetings. Managers could measure and track a meeting-time-to-task-completed ratio, keeping watch and cutting back if it expands.

Reducing the hours lost

You can fight back. Above all, respect people's time and consider it a valuable resource. Before you summon a meeting, start by asking whether it is necessary or whether issues could be addressed by email, message boards or messenger apps. Then try these tips.

  • Evaluate the purpose. Are several meetings duplicating a topic? Consider the attendees. Are they attending voluntarily? Can the list be condensed?
  • Decline your invites graciously. Explain you have nothing useful to contribute but offer to review notes as needed.
  • Block out personal time on your calendar to preempt invites.
  • Establish official no-meeting days with your team with a consistent schedule for their routines.
  • Don't fear cutting meetings short when there is nothing left to discuss. No need to run out the clock. Everyone will welcome getting back 10 or 20 minutes of their day.
  • Promote messaging tools, collaboration tools and asynchronous communication outside real time.
  • Let others take the lead sometimes. It gives you breathing space and boosts morale, making other team members feel valued and responsible.
  • Use video conferencing software to record virtual meetings, and give your team a bulleted list of takeaways.

Setting the agenda

Creating an agenda in advance helps preserve focus and expectations. You can distribute it with the calendar invite. You can also prepare an action item list, leaving extra time for questions. It is a good exercise too. If the meeting does not lend itself to an agenda, it might be a limited enough topic for emailing instead.

The agenda can be just a few sentences that pinpoint the purpose and objectives of the meeting. But they should identify clear, concrete output goals. The key is that no one should be wondering why they are there. If you discover there is no plain purpose, it makes more sense to cancel.

You might actually accomplish more by having short daily meetings or one-on-one, face-to-face conversations.

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