Winning Back The Workday: Tough On Meetings, Tough On The Causes Of Meetings

Michael Dean
Winning Back The Workday: Tough On Meetings, Tough On The Causes Of Meetings

To reach our most productive and creative selves, we need solid three or four hour stretches of uninterrupted work. Yet for most us, this sounds like an unimaginable luxury. Our days are broken into short stints, in which we never get up to full speed.

Meet Is Murder, a marvelously titled The New York Times article, recently affirmed for the millionth time that the problem is meetings. “They’re boring. They’re useless. Everyone hates them. So why can’t we stop having meetings?” the subtitle asks.  

But 3000 words later and we’re left with no answer at all. The Times piece falls to find a conclusion because it merely looks at various ideas for cutting down on meetings, not the reasons why people feel compelled to call so many meetings in the first place.

An excess of meetings is often the symptom of more serious problems. So to paraphrase Tony Blair: it’s time to be tough on meetings, tough on the causes of meetings. 

How do teams or whole companies can fall into an endless meeting malaise? Here are few reasons that spring to mind:

The devil makes meetings for idle hands

A common issue in Matrix organisations – a structure which instantly doubles everyone’s amount of meetings almost by definition – is half-baked knowledge and resource sharing initiatives. Foisted on managers without concrete outcomes, holding meetings becomes the only outcome.

On that note, individuals not knowing what’s expected of them, is another surefire way to cause more meetings. It only takes a few doubtful team members, missing clear deliverables, before meetings start being called so they can help with jobs that should really be done by one person.

Software engineers often look down on meetings because, after thorough planning sessions, every member of a well run agile development team will know what they need to accomplish over the next two weeks. Most departments are far less rigorous in their short-term planning.

Today, working long hours and boasting about business has become a badge of honour in many workplaces. But more often than not, putting in long hours has very little to do with how much work is being done. A day full of meetings and answering emails – both symptoms of the same problems – means working into the evening, just to find some time to get anything done. 

Over-communication is not healthy collaboration

Constant communication due to poor planning and fluffy initiatives often gets disguised as collaboration, as does a lack of trust for individuals to work on their own. Constant “check-ins” and forced group decision making is not the sign of strong teamwork. These activities not only take up time, they infringe on individual autonomy – one of the most important drivers of employee engagement.

In workplaces where more communication is viewed as better collaboration, the quality of communication slips. Meetings are usually called when a concept is unclear, yet what’s needed is not more communication, but better, more thoughtful communication, aimed at explaining something in an email or similar – not as the precursor to a meeting.

Make a meeting great again

Unwittingly or not, holding a meeting that’s driven by any of the above reasons will be a lost cause from the start.

Of course, meetings aren’t all bad, however. Taking time with your colleagues to solve a problem by developing new ideas can be a great source of inspiration and a lot of fun. There are easy, practical, every team can take to improve their meetings. Here are four that I’ve found really work:

  • Limit meetings to 30 minutes by default. This cuts down on small talk and puts the emphasis on the host to prepare. HBR has a useful guide to this.
  • Invite as few people as is possible. Having people “sit in” should surely not be the best use of their time. You can always let them know what was decided afterwards.
  • Never send a meeting invite before telling the person you’d like to discuss something, and first asking them the questions that could form an agenda. I find it borderline offensive if someone does otherwise – my calendar is empty because I’m working, not because I’m free to meet. If something can be solved over email or a chat message that’s always better than a meeting.
  • When scheduling a meeting always try to bookend the day, or the lunch break. 10:30 or 15:00 are the worst possible times for meetings as they break any chance of the attendees getting the three hours uninterrupted work we should strive for everyday.

We don’t need confrontational rhetoric to win back the time that meeting overload costs us. Everyone in an organisation can play their part: from executives becoming more vigilant to the causes of unnecessary meetings, to managers focusing on quality communication over quantity, and employees being considerate of their schedules and those of their peers.

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