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Are meetings being used as substitutes for wellbeing policies?

Written on 
December 18, 2019

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Meetings are one of the most unproductive, resented forms of shallow work going. The average executive alone spends 23 hours a week in meetings (one-third of which is deemed to be unproductive), with the rest of us spending about 15.5 hours per week in them. So with the rise of interactive tech and asynchronous communication, will face-to-face meetings become obsolete? Is it wise for organizations to adopt an opt-in approach towards them? Or does clamping down on meetings deny workplaces of important cultural spaces?

The problems with meetings

The way we work and communicate has changed enormously over the past decade, and yet for many companies this has had no effect on how many meetings are held each week – and in fact, the rise of more managerial and strategy-focused jobs has generated more meetings in general. Eradicating meetings altogether (or at least only calling them when they’re vitally necessary) can seem like it’ll make a world of difference...

This is primarily because they appear to be such an clunky form of communication. In terms of resources they can quickly become expensive, and a lack of structure or clarity often makes them wildly unproductive (costing the US alone $37 billion each year)! Directionless and over-stuffed, many people use meetings for other purposes – to covertly check messages, catch up on news or simply daydream (which 90% of people admit to doing). When poorly planned, they can also carve up our day, creating pockets of inter-meeting time which are inadequate for focused deep work.

Imagine having a wide-open calendar with long, uninterrupted blocks of time to dedicate to meaningful work. Imagine not having to sit there grudgingly, silently stagnating in a boring meeting that doesn’t concern you. Imagine being able to opt-out of meetings you know you won’t verbally contribute anything towards. Sounds good, doesn’t it?

Using meetings as therapy

But the issue is, meetings themselves aren’t necessarily inherently unproductive – we might just be using them for the wrong things. According to Professor Patrik Hall from the University of Malmo in Sweden, we should use meetings as a form of therapy. Rather than treating them as spaces to plan and make decisions, they should be seen as opportunities to share feedback. They should be about giving people the time and space to be heard – for providing an outlet to express frustration or share something important.

According to these experts, it doesn’t actually matter what the meeting is about, or what attendees are meant to be discussing – the real purpose of attending should be an "opportunity to complain and be acknowledged by colleagues". If this is true, perhaps one of the reasons why meetings are so maligned is because their very purpose is misunderstood.

All too often meetings are called to discuss things on a vague level – there’s no prepared agenda, no real material to discuss. If people aren’t sure what the meeting is for, how will they know what they’re getting out of it? It’s no surprise, then, that attendees are left feeling frustrated and marginalized – especially when the meetings are organized and dominated by senior staff. This can lead to the feeling unheard and undervalued... certainly not the best way to boost staff wellbeing.

We need to remember that we’re all human beings – removing meetings, or even limiting them, will never remove or limit our inherent need to communicate. We all want to feel included, as though we’re part of something larger than ourselves; this is why Professor Hall believes the real purpose of regular internal meetings isn’t to assert the authority of an organization, but to remind employees that they’re part of it – that they belong.

Prioritizing employee wellbeing

But even if meetings are utilized in a more supportive, collaborative way, that’s only the first step to better supporting employee wellbeing. Good employee mental health depends on staff connection; on open, candid dialogue; on thoughtful, flexible management. While regular, open meetings are a great space for enabling this, they need to be backed by a structural commitment to wellbeing.

We’ve written at length about how managers can support wellbeing across their organization, but a few of the main takeaways include:

  • Normalizing conversations around wellbeing in company-wide forums
  • Creating a safe culture where people can speak honestly and ask for help
  • Investing in staff-wide mental health training and making it part of employee onboarding
  • Implementing solid mental health policies which ensure people can access the right support
  • Leading by example to show that mental health is just as valid as physical health.

Leadership directly impacts the occurrence of mental health problems, and studies show that lack of support is one of the most prevalent factors in employee anxiety, stress and depression. To avoid this, managers must prioritize compassion and regularly check-in with everyone. These can be one-on-one chats, but they can also take the form of focus groups or meetings. The key difference here is that supporting employee wellbeing is not a byproduct of the meeting – it’s the sole purpose of it.

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