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How to have fewer meetings

Meeting culture is out of control. It's time to rethink what kinds of meetings you say yes to, and make better use of the meetings you do have.

This story was published on our How To newsletter, Practical advice for work and life, delivered the way only Quartz can.
  • Lila MacLellan
By Lila MacLellan

Quartz at Work senior reporter

Published

Hi Quartz members,

Aren’t you glad this email isn’t a meeting?

I hardly have to ask. Recent surveys suggest knowledge workers spend anywhere from 30% to 85% of their workday in meetings. That kind of overload zaps employees’ energy while stressing them out about the work they’re not getting done. It’s a recipe for burnout.

Clearly, employees want fewer meetings. But companies that aim to liberate workers from office meeting tyranny have much to gain, too. Recent research led by a management professor at University of Reading’s Henley Business School found that productivity shot up by 71% at companies that reduced their meeting hours by 40%.

So what’s stopping companies from changing? Inertia? A lack of a plan?

We can help with the latter. Here’s expert advice on how to meet way less often.

The backstory

It was only natural that corporate culture became overly reliant on meetings. For most of human history, collaboration could only be done in person and in real time. The technology that allows us to put our heads together while working remotely has only existed for a relatively short period.

Once the pandemic arrived, a few things happened to make the meetings situation worse. Many corporate teams rushed to book online meetings to make up for the face-to-face time they would normally have in the office, as if that was the best way to keep information flowing and productivity high. Corporate leaders also said they feared that having fewer synchronous and in-person conversations would result in less innovation and collaboration. But overbooked schedules instead led to widespread fatigue that was pinned on Zoom, as if the app itself controlled workers’ time.

On the other hand, more teams began to experiment with working flexible hours, often to accommodate parenting and other caregiver schedules. That led to more asynchronous communication. Meanwhile, employers, recognizing that workers were exhausted, finally began to more deeply consider the costs of holding frequent unnecessary, unproductive meetings.

The case for reducing meetings

Here’s a short list of reasons to shrink your meetings list:

⌛ While they’re happening, meetings steal valuable time that could be used for deep work or more productive one-to-one discussions, but also just by existing on a calendar as a looming distraction.

🎭  When a meeting goes poorly, it takes time to recover and stop thinking about what went wrong. Having fewer meetings (and less drama) allows employees to be more engaged in those they do attend.

💶  Unproductive meetings lead to billions in losses annually.

📝  The tools for collaborating online (instead of meeting) generate clear records that anyone can follow, creating more transparency.

📅  Employees want to have control over their schedules, something that’s of paramount importance to parents and caregivers.

Your meeting reduction plan

Here’s what to do when you’re ready to overhaul your meeting culture.

1. Get organized

Take stock. Treat your time like money and examine your spending habits with an eye to making cuts. Too many companies hold regular meetings that have become so habitual that they’re not questioned, but there should be no sacred cow meetings, Douglas Ferguson, president of the Austin-based consulting company Voltage Control, told Quartz.

Ron Carucci, a founder of the organizational consulting firm Navalent, once shared the simple question he asks to assess a meeting’s value:  “I ask groups, ‘If you stopped meeting, who besides you would care?’ If they struggle to respond, I have my answer.”

Consult the team. Research suggests that people who lead meetings like them more than the attendees. So if you’re a manager, chances are your direct reports have opinions about which meetings are energizing or necessary and which are 🙄. A trio of management professors writing for Harvard Business Review suggests having the entire team set goals around meeting parameters and track the group’s progress.

Book meeting-free days. If you don’t work at a company that adopted meeting-free days during the pandemic, take matters into your own hands and schedule meeting-free days on a regular schedule. (Once a week, once a fortnight?) Be warned, however, that your blissfully open hours “aren’t as easy to use well as you may think,” time management coach Elizabeth Grace Saunders writes for Harvard Business Review. “You have to be proactive about being productive, instead of relying on other people to drive your productivity.” Plan ahead to figure out how you’ll use those days for uninterrupted work, and how you’ll respond to the inevitable requests to break your own rule.

2. Ask some questions before you book or agree to a meeting

Know when a meeting is necessary (it happens!) and when conversations can be asynchronous. “We see a place for meetings, we just don’t default to them,” Chase Warrington, head of remote at Doist, a productivity app, said at a recent Quartz at Work workshop. He believes it’s time to “decouple synchronous meetings and collaboration.”

A number of tools can help teams work together on a whiteboard or comment and ask questions on a document, instead of coming together at the same time. The key is to match your objectives with the right modality, says Tsedal Neeley, an expert on remote work and Harvard Professor.

Some rules of thumb: Use a text-based mode of conversation, like email, Slack, or other team messaging apps, for conversations that don’t require immediate responses or are simply about sharing information. Consider software made for online collaboration—digital whiteboards and other project management apps—for discussions that need input from multiple stakeholders. And save your online or in-person meetings for more complex or sensitive discussions, bonding, or to get on the same page if an asynchronous thread is creating confusion.

Try voice and video memos. Use voice or video memos to add some life to your for status updates, project announcements, and even training videos. Adding non-verbal cues through your tone of voice or body language will give messages a more human dimension, plus some new apps make it easy to produce fancy effects.

Decline, decline, decline. Don’t automatically accept meeting invitations. Ask yourself whether the meeting is likely to have a clear agenda and if you need to be there. When the answer is no, find a way to turn down the invitation with grace, perhaps with a scripted response.

Resist the temptation to hold pre-meeting meetings. And don’t hold a meeting to discuss your roadmap for cutting back on meetings.

3. Rethink your meeting habits

Improve the meetings you do hold. Bad meetings beget more meetings when employees need clarifications or a morale boost, so make yours effective. Write clear agendas with obvious goals; read up on the best practices for hybrid meetings; try matching the types of meetings you schedule to the right time of day, and keep venting to a minimum.

Remember that creativity requires downtime. When you need your team to generate ideas, let them work as individuals first. Even the man who gave us brainstorming meetings said he did his best thinking alone. And 80% of creative professionals say they trust their own instincts and research when evaluating an idea.

Keep learning

Want to be more productive? Stop scheduling out your day  (Quartz)

What are your meetings telling you about your company’s culture? (Quartz)

Priya Parker on how we should properly gather and return to the workplace (Charter)

The surprising impact of meeting-free days (MIT Sloan Management Review)

When do we actually need to meet in person? (Harvard Business Review)

Stop the meeting madness (Harvard Business Review)

Have a great weekend,

—Lila MacLellan, senior reporter, Quartz at Work (occasional meeting-skipper)

One 🛋️ thing

Meeting-free days are having a moment, but Grace Saunders, the time management expert, warned Harvard Business Review readers that they aren’t for everyone. Some people might find they feel lost and directionless when the hours stretch out before them without an interruption in sight. “For those who have trouble keeping their focus, become bored easily, or are extroverted, a meeting-free day may be a productivity killer,” says Saunders. People who like to socialize may also “crave people connection, and therefore distract themselves by wandering around to talk to colleagues or turning to social media.”

If this sounds like you, she suggests booking no-meeting half-days or even shorter meeting-free bubbles during your workweek, instead of entire days.

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