Complaining about meetings is almost a cliche at this stage. But for so many, meetings are treated like a necessary evil - something to be put up with and accepted. A lot of us are resigned to the fact that having lots of meetings is just something we have to live with - a factor of modern life and work.
This meeting induced pain is real and has consequences, not only for our professional teams and organisations, but also our mental health and well being. (Harvard Business Review article on "Meeting Madness")
Many people report a feeling of perpetual meetings, where it seems like our work time is being consumed by back-to-back meetings and leaves us with very little time to get our actual work done.
This is of particular frustration for people who work in areas where they need prolonged periods of focused time to get their work done. People in creative roles, or software developers need to have blocks of interrupted time to do their work effectively. Disrupting their time, even if only for short meetings has a detrimental effect on their productivity. Paul graham from Y Combinator wrote a good post about the effect of different scheduling approaches here : "Makers schedule, Managers schedule"
Even before the pandemic and the mass migration to remote work, meetings were absorbing much of our working days.
Meetings have increased in length and frequency over the past 50 years, to the point where executives spend an average of nearly 23 hours a week in them - Harvard Business Review
The cost of too many meetings
Firstly, there is a massive monetary cost associated with having too many meetings. Everyone agrees that meetings can be a waste of time, but they’re actually a significant waste of money, too. Time is money, and all that...
How much? Bain & Co in this study, estimated that a single meeting was costing one organisation $15 million a year. Often, meeting time has been abstracted in peoples minds and is seldom quantified in dollar amount. The dollar cost per hour of meetings in any organization can be staggering to realise. Collectively as a group, if we have more understanding of the actual time-cost of sitting in meetings, it can be a very strong motivator to make sure we are not running wasteful meetings or organising too many of them.
The estimated cost of poorly organised meetings is just shy of $400 Billion - Doodle report
Here is useful calculator that allows you to estimate the cost of a meeting.
Aside from the practical monetary cost involved in having too many meetings, there is also the impact that a bad meeting culture has on employees health and well being. Meeting fatigue is a very real problem and can lead to employee burnout and negatively impacted physical and mental health. The drudgery of attending too many meetings and being forced to participate in a toxic meeting culture can lead to strong feelings of discontent among teams.
The issue of too many meetings is not simply an operational problem that we can ignore. It is fundamental to the success of our companies and organisations.
Let's diagnose where the issues might be coming from and then look at what we can do to counteract the problems with meetings.
Why you are having too many meetings
When we unpack the reasons we have too many meetings, it clearly uncovers that the root issue is we are having too many ineffective meetings. For many it is not necessary to have back to back meetings, day in day out. The solution to reducing the number of meetings is actually in running the meetings you have more effectively. Hosting well run, efficient meetings naturally leads to a reduction in meetings and a more effective meeting culture.
Let's look more specifically at a couple of the key factors causing us to have too many meetings.
1. Your meetings lack clear purpose
Agenda part, planning, timing structure, preparation, making sure participants have the right information and get it in a timely manner, early before the meeting.
Doodle’s 2019 State of Meetings report found that 67% of respondents believe agendas are a key element of successful meetings.
2. Your "live" meeting time has no structure
Making the most of the time when we are actually on a call is super important. We have all experienced meetings that have gone off track or meander aimlessly wasting everyones time. The result of these types of discussions is firstly frustration amongst the participants, but secondly - usually leads to organising another meeting!
Having a facilitator, or at the very least a time keeper can be a useful role to fill. Someone with the confidence and authority to call when conversation is going off topic, can help in these cases.
Establish meeting ground rules, with collective buy in from your team. It is important that these are collaboratively agreed upon by the team, not handed down from upper management. Having your team define the rules helps define best practices bespoke for your team - but also has the added effect of creating a higher level of accountability among the participants.
3. Records & decisions of the meeting are not distributed efficiently.
A problem many organisations have is that often there is no definitive system for how decisions are agreed upon, tracked and distributed to the team and wider company. There is often a combination of notes, action items, docs, presentations, emailed around and then put on the cloud somewhere where people struggle to find it. The lack of a clear, documented system often leads to a breakdown in effectiveness.
Just like meeting ground rules, outline how decisions are tracked and documented in your org. It doesn't need to be fancy - simple and accessible is the goal. Make it easy for people to know where they can find the notes and decisions from the "Marketing Meeting" two weeks ago.
4. You aren’t leveraging technology effectively.
It's 2021, there are lots of useful technologies out there to help make meetings better. Of course you will have your meeting software of choice (Zoom, Teams etc) and likely some form of calendar scheduling software connected to your company ( Google, Outlook). However, relying on a calendar/meeting stack alone leaves a lot of gaps in your communication flow and seems to be at the heart of many organisations struggles with building effective meeting cultures.
Even something as simple as defining shared meeting folders, or using Agenda templates can help meetings run better. Smart scheduling, live meeting notes and accessible meeting recordings all help close the gap in meeting communications and stop information from falling through the cracks.
Clearword solves a lot of these problems of course and is free to try.
What can you do to avoid having too many meetings
Here are 6 things you can do right away to cut down on the amount of meetings you have.
1. Clear agendas and pre planning
Use simple agendas for all your meetings. Give your participants the adequate information they need to show up informed.
2. Schedule shorter meetings
This sounds simple, but by setting shorter meeting durations it forces participants to focus on the meeting goals and being more concise and targeted in their discussion.
3. Record meetings
It is amazing how transformative it can be when teams start recording meetings. It means we can be more present on calls, be better listeners and contributors while afterwards have a perfect record of what was discussed.
4. Try asynchronous
In your organisation look at your meeting schedule and ask how many of these meetings could be handled asynchronously. Try this expermient with your team and transfer update meetings to async.
5. Time block
Designate blocks of time on your teams schedule for focused work. Mornings for example have a 3 hour block for focused work ( or even do the opposite! ) mornings are for meetings, evenings for work. The important thing is to choose this with input from your team and design around how they like to work best.
6. Centralise meeting information
Simple, yet of critical importance. make sure everyone in your company knows where all the information related to meetings lives and that they have easy access to it. This helps facilitate a transparency of information throughout your company, keeping teams better informed and as a result needing to have less meetings!