Fewer Meetings, Please


In a recent post, Fighting for Time, I wrote about the condition of time poverty, which a group of researchers defined in this way:

Defined as the chronic feeling of having too many things to do and not enough time to do them, time poverty is increasing in society. Data from the Gallup US Daily Poll – a nationally representative sample of US residents– shows that, in 2011, 70% of employed Americans reported that they “never had enough time,” and in 2018, this proportion increased to 80%.

One of the reasons that workers are disinclined to return to a 40-hours in the office schedule is they value the time they save from not commuting. The US Census Bureau reports that the average commute in 2019 was a record 28 minutes, with 40% of Americans commuting one way for a half hour or more. Almost 10 percent commuted more than an hour, one way.

According to Liberty Street  Economics, Americans are saving 60 million hours of commuting, now; a huge amount of time that was uncompensated, note. No surprise, job satisfaction has risen by 2022 to 62%, the highest in decades, and hybrid workers were the happiest in the sample.

But people still have other barriers to time poverty. A major culprit? Meetings.

Even prior to the pandemic, meetings were an enormous cost:

We surveyed 182 senior managers in a range of industries: 65% said meetings keep them from completing their own work. 71% said meetings are unproductive and inefficient. 64% said meetings come at the expense of deep thinking. 62% said meetings miss opportunities to bring the team closer together.

Atlassian estimates that $37 billion are wasted on unproductive or unnecessary meetings.

But the real problem isn’t that so much time is dedicated to meetings. The real issue is that companies don’t carve out large productive chunks of time for individual ‘me-time’, and instead we’ve become inured to the implicit company policy of allowing anyone to call a meeting and inviting whoever they think should attend. This time war is a zero-sum game, and ‘we-time’ seems to trump ‘me-time’, to devastating effect.

I read a truly insightful post by Judd Antin, the former head of UX for Airbnb. He wrote,

Meetings are a symptom, not the disease.

And what, then, is the disease?

First of all, Antin argues that meetings represent broken processes:

Meetings are a symptom of broken process. We use meetings as a crutch, a fallback. When we don’t know how to get work done, or we’re not willing to invest in a process that will actually advance the goal, we schedule meetings. I bet it’s the same executives who pooh pooh process (that’s just bureaucracy!), or won’t participate in it, that generate most of your meetings.

And so the path to fewer meetings is fix the processes:

The most important cure is to invest in great process. Whatever you’re making — products, marketing, research, policy, or service — you need to have a clear, complete process for getting it done, from end-to-end. Until you do, you’ll probably be stuck in meeting hell.

Meetings are like smashing something with a hammer because you don’t have any other tools in your shop. Great process is lightweight, efficient, and adaptable. Too much is bad but not enough is worse.

Antin makes clear that some meetings still need to happen, but a great deal of the claptrap around meetings — everything except synchronous communication about a well-defined issue — should be taken out of meetings. Like status updates, presentations, and information sharing that should be done asynchronously. (He makes an exception for social meetings which have different purposes, like celebrations.)

Another trend that pushes for me-time is simply declaring that certain days of the week are meeting-free. This has had great results in many companies that have adopted it.

Ben Baker and a group of colleagues researched 76 companies with more than 1,000 employees that had experimented with one to five no-meeting days per week.

Nearly half (47%) of the companies we studied reduced meetings by 40% by introducing two no-meeting days per week. The remaining companies attempted something even more ambitious: 35% instituted three no-meeting days, and 11% implemented four. The remaining 7% eradicated meetings entirely.

When meetings were reduced by 40% (the equivalent of two days per week), we found productivity to be 71% higher because employees felt more empowered and autonomous. Rather than being pinned down by a schedule, they owned their to-do lists and held themselves accountable, which consequently increased satisfaction by 52%.

Also, along with the productivity gain, engagement rose 32%, job satisfaction rose 52%, and stress fell 43% with two meeting-free days a week. Note that reported micromanaging fell 52%, as well.

Looking at the findings, for a company with a five-day workweek, the researchers recommend three meeting-free days, because numbers are even better.

The key takeaway from these research studies is clear. There is a fast path to curing the symptoms of time poverty at work. If you haven’t already, institute a hybrid work model, and give back those uncompensated hours spent in transit. Pare down to only the most essential meetings,  by investing in well-defined business processes, and cut out all the usual meeting claptrap by making whatever can be asynchronous. And finally, designate two or three days each week as meeting-free, and watch productivity, engagement, and job satisfaction surge.

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