It’s no secret that meetings are often a colossal waste of time and money. A comprehensive 2019 study by online scheduling service Doodle found that inefficient meetings cost the US $399 billion, and the UK $58 billion. And that’s not even taking into account the effect meetings can have on our productivity. Of course, these stats are pre-pandemic—but while you may have thought that working remotely would reduce the problem of excess meetings, we know that wasn't the case.
With employees working from home, casual watercooler chats or quick deskside brainstorm sessions evolved into 30-minute Zoom calls which not only interrupted focus, but also increased the risk of burnout and Zoom fatigue. While a study by Harvard Business School found that post-pandemic meetings were on average 12 minutes shorter, employees were attending 13% more of them.
Faced with these figures, some companies have banned meetings on certain days; Asana, for example, has a company-wide meeting ban on Wednesdays. But other companies are going much further. Digital-media company TheSoul Publishing has banned meetings outright, with employees booking in one-to-one Zoom calls if they absolutely must discuss a matter face-to-face.
TheSoul Publishing VP Victor Potrel says the no-meeting policy has been liberating, and boosted both productivity and creativity—but are meeting bans really such a good idea? Do the risks of banning meetings outweigh the perks? And in the quest to improve the quality of our work and lead happier working lives, are meeting bans ultimately counterproductive?
The idea of banning meetings outright certainly comes with potential pitfalls, and most relate to whether the quality of communication and collaboration will be compromised. No matter how reluctant we might feel to attend a meeting, they can be very efficient ways of communicating.
Without meetings, communication can easily bleed into other tools that can be equally disruptive, like Slack or email, and a problem that could be solved in minutes during a quick morning catch-up can turn into a chain of back-and-forth messages spread out throughout the day when not dealt with directly.
Banning meetings can also send a toxic message to teams: don’t ask if you’re unsure about something. By shutting down opportunities to meet and signalling that in-person communication is low-value, companies run the risk of silencing staff and limiting creative exchange.
Of course, if meetings don’t happen, conversations may move into more closed channels, which not only limits the flow of information and inclusion in decision making, but can also directly lead to the creation of company silos.
Finally, there’s the issue that without meetings, employees may miss out on basic human connection. Work shouldn’t be dry and transactional, and speaking to one another’s faces, making eye contact, and listening to each other helps us keep the experience personal and meaningful. This is especially important in the context of increased remote working, where loneliness is consistently rated by employees to be a tremendous challenge.
So what’s the solution? We know that excessive meetings are unproductive, expensive, and generally just a waste of everyone’s time, but because the idea of banning meetings outright is so new, we just don’t know whether it’s ultimately better in the long run. And rather than removing meetings altogether, perhaps a better idea would be to focus on reforming them.
If the main problems with meetings are that they’re often unnecessary, go on for too long, or interrupt focused work, there are ways to address these issues. One idea is for companies to introduce dedicated meeting days; this gives employees several days when they can focus solely on their work. It can also improve workflow—particularly in hybrid teams—as people will know when they’ll have the chance to ask questions and collaborate, so they can come prepared and harmonize their schedules.
If employees feel that meeting times themselves are sub-optimal, booked in such a way that they make it impossible to do focused work around them, you can use smart tech to schedule meetings that have the least impact on everyone’s time and headspace. Dewo, for example, protects long stretches of time for uninterrupted working, removing the short “bubbles” of time trapped between meetings and considering everyone’s personal schedules to find the best time to meet.
It’s also helpful to allow employees to make their own decisions about whether or not they want to attend a meeting. Given that so many meetings are now virtual, this makes it much easier for employees to opt in or out—as well as to leave the meeting early if they realize they won’t contribute anything. Rather than sending out meetings invitations that make people feel obliged to attend, you can also introduce an opt-in approach to ensure only the people who need to attend actually attend.
If your meetings have a habit of taking too long, consider time boxing them. Many companies already time block their meetings, setting chunks of time aside to discuss certain issues—but this doesn’t solve the problem of meetings running over, and cutting into time that’s meant for deep work. Parkinson’s Law dictates that work expands to fit the time given to it – so if you set aside an hour for a meeting, it’ll take an hour – and perhaps much longer.
If you instead set aside half an hour for a meeting and plan to address each issue you have within that timeframe, you’ll have a far more efficient meeting. Working against the clock and knowing you only have 30 minutes to discuss your points can help employees stay focused and motivated. Plus, when you know a meeting will be short, it becomes much easier to cut to the chase and get the job done. While it’s nice to be nice, you don’t need to exchange pleasantries and small talk every meeting.
Great meetings maximize considered exchange and decision making—they don’t introduce new information that lead to knee-jerk reactions. The key is to do as much of the thinking ahead of the actual meeting. Always circulate material and questions for reflection before any meeting, and give people enough time to thoroughly digest them. This allows precious meeting time to be dedicated to working through nuances and different perspectives—and ultimately producing more valuable outcomes.