Death By Meeting? Here's How to Ensure Results-Based Work
“When I started working at my first job out of college, there was nothing more exciting to me than being invited to a meeting,” says Fran, a 26-year old project manager in San Francisco. “I assumed that the more colorful blocks I had on my schedule, the more proof it must be that I was a vital part of the company.” But Fran, who says she was scheduled for at least two company meetings a day, quickly grew weary of the roundups.
“I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was cramming a full day’s worth of work into teeny little slots of time I had between meetings. Not only was I burning out, I was actually looking forward to those meetings because I knew I could zone out and catch up on emails on my Blackberry instead.”
Fran is far from alone in feeling that death by meeting -- the slang parlance for extraneous meetings quickly becoming the workday norm -- had become a serious inhibitor to doing her job. But she also couldn’t deny that while she zoned out at a fair number of meetings, they were still the quickest way to get her team - in Fran’s case, this involved multiple employees across various departments - on the same page, fast. Despite flexible work schedules and digital technologies like web conferencing, online meetings, and collaborative work chat programs like Slack becoming more common to see in offices, the time office workers spend in meetings has been rising steadily.
Like Fran’s predicament, the over-abundance of face-to-face meetings can sneak up on you. Offices that pride themselves on teamwork and collaboration often view the meeting as a tool to make good on that promise and bring teammates together for transparency, while ostensibly harnessing the collective brainpower of the full group. But a 2014 Bain & Company report found that senior executives at large companies spent more than two days a week in meetings - a percentage that showed all indications of rising exponentially. Grimmer still: the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that $37 billion a year is lost on unproductive meetings.
Yet for employees not situated at the top of the organization, trimming down time spent in meetings in a way that still ensures results isn’t as easy as chopping 20% off the calendar. To really create a positive and results-driven work environment where time isn’t spent mired in pointless meetings and endless bureaucracy, change has to come from the top, and it has to rethink corporate culture on the whole. Michael Mankins, leader of Bain’s Organizational Practices, explains: "Innovative companies are fostering cultures where time is treated as a scarce resource and invested as prudently as capital.”
How to Spot Unnecessary and Wasteful Meetings
Walk into the office of any growing startup and it wouldn’t be surprising if the landscape resembled a digital ghost town; sparsely populated desks scattered throughout the open floorplan while huddles of employees congregate around various breakout areas, laptops balanced on actual laps. Since changing corporate culture isn’t happening overnight, the first stop on the path to a more positive work environment is finding your trouble spots: unnecessary and unproductive meetings.
The most impactful indices of unproductive meetings are simple: Are there too many people? Any headcount over six, without good reason, suggests that the organizer just didn’t know who to invite. Does the meeting have a clear focus and an agenda? Is it longer than an hour? All of these data points are easily trackable and can give companies and employees a sense of where there time is spent with numbers to back it up. But sometimes the simplest measure of unproductive meetings is even easier than data collection; just look around. Are people paying attention and engaged, or are they checking their phones under their desk, having side conversations, and zoning out? If it’s the latter, you know it’s time to rethink your approach to meetings.
Migrate the Medium
One of the biggest culprits of unproductive meetings is their potential to drag on tangentially, while only being relevant to certain members of the group at any one time. While meetings may seem like a good way to openly brainstorm, ask yourself: how much time is the group spending working collectively on the task at hand, and how much time is wasted in discussions that dragged on longer than they needed to, simply because hour-long meetings are often set as a default? Not only does this sap productivity by taking everyone away from their jobs as a collective group; it drains energy and creativity as well.
One way to combat meeting fatigue is to change the medium. Rather than gathering the group around the conference room table, opt for stand-ups - meetings where all participants are required to stand. Significantly shorter than the traditional meeting, stand-ups not only get employees in a largely sit-heavy culture comfortable with the idea of incorporating standing into their workday, they also incentivize meeting participants to be concise without sacrificing quality. As one productivity consultant, Carson Tate, explained to the New York Times, “By shortening a meeting, you automatically narrow its focus. At my company, we call this crunching the container — making it smaller. As a result, you eliminate some of the meeting ‘fluff,’ including all the unnecessary chatter that veers off topic.”
While stand-ups can be a great way to organically shorten a meeting, an even better way is to consider not having a meeting at all. Would dropping by for an in-person chat move quicker? Can tasks be assigned over email, or a group-messaging program like Slack? Digital communiqué may seem brusque or less transparent at first blush, but when utilized properly, they can be a simple way to keep conversations narrowly focused, as Tate recommends.
That being said, before your off topic meeting discussions migrate to digital form, now often with GIFs, it’s worth making sure your organization doesn’t pendulum the other way into digital communication overload. As Bain learned in their study, the average executive in the 1970s received about 1,000 communications per year, with email bringing that number to 9,000 communications in the 90s. Executives today? Thanks to web conferencing and the rise of virtual collaboration, they receive over 30,000 pieces of communication a year.
Renew Your Relationship with Time
Getting blood flowing may be a good way to mobilize meetings in the short term, but experts all agree that the steps to a sustainably positive work environment go far behind ambulatory measures. Changing meeting culture for good in a way that reduces meetings and leads to a more results-oriented work environment has to come from the top, with a concerted effort to scale back meetings. The best way to do this? Rethink your relationship with time.
As Mankin, the Bain executive tasked with refining their organizational practices, originally said, the most innovative companies right now are treating time just as significantly as they are capital: by looking at it as a fixed resource. Rather than setting meetings as the idea to have one occurs, allocate annual goals for the number of hours per week that can be spent in meetings and set aside specific hours solely for work.
Ford adopted this strategy in 2006 after finding their executives were spending hours in meetings – at one point, having five days of meetings aptly called “Meetings Week” just to strategize about the meetings in the company. Managers were encouraged to ruthlessly slash meetings by assessing their efficiency and being selective about new additions to the schedule. The result led Ford to recoup thousands of hours within the year, so much so that they were able to significantly lower their operating costs in the same year other automobile companies were taking government bailouts.
As Bain found, the best way to plan for the ongoing efficacy and the efficiency of meetings is by setting clear organizational priorities ahead of time. Take a page out of Steve Jobs’ book and look to create and foster a culture of responsibility. At Apple, Jobs did this by having the company pick a few projects to focus on for the year, rather than letting a multitude of projects linger. Doing so immediately created a foundation for a results-driven work environment, one where every employee from the top to the bottom of the organizational chart was clear on the company’s priorities. He then set just a few weekly meetings – while slashing his other extraneous meetings considerably – that would go on to set the tone for Apple’s corporate culture.
“Every Monday we review the whole business,” Jobs told Fortune Magazine in 2008 about his famous Monday meetings with his top executives, reviewing strategy related to the company’s annual goals. “We look at every single product under development. I put out an agenda. Eighty percent is the same as it was the last week, and we just walk down it every single week. We don’t have a lot of process at Apple, but that’s one of the few things we do just to all stay on the same page.”
In Apple’s case, the company goes so far as to assign a “DRI” – directly responsible individual – to each action item that comes from a meeting. By trimming the meeting fat and simplifying his organizational goals, Jobs was able to cultivate a characteristic he found most important in employees: an accountability mindset.
To help managers find ways to trim meeting fat and reevaluate their relationships with time, Bain’s study found a few strategies particularly effective. The first took a page out of Jobs’ book, requiring employees to make a strong case for why a meeting needed to take place before it could be set. Delegating the authority to set meetings is another option; in the case of one company Bain consulted for, any new meetings had to be approved by the boss of the requestor’s boss – two full layers before approval. Trimming the number of heads in a meeting – current organizational theory suggests that anything above six becomes counterproductive – is another option that frees up resources while limiting the potential for wasted time.
Once meetings are approved and set, rethink your basics: does your default meeting time need to be an hour just because that’s Microsoft Outlook’s default meeting window? Meetings are often longer than they need to be simply because they’re set for too long. As Steven Rosenberg, a professor of organizational psychology at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, tells NPR, the idea of Parkinson’s law – a research-backed theory that tasks only take as long to complete as the time allotted – applies to meetings in a company as well. Simply put: if you allocate an hour for a meeting, it will take that hour. But "given the same agenda," Rogelberg says, "they give the group half as much time ... and lo and behold, when they're given half as much time at the onset, they finish in half as much time! And the quality of the meeting is just as good."
Keep the Trains Running on Schedule
Once meeting culture has begun to change, look to improve your meeting discipline. Companies should aim to be making the most out of the time they do invest in meetings. As Bain found, at most companies, hour-long meetings routinely began five minutes late – an 8% waste of the budgeted meeting time. If a preventable 8% loss wouldn’t show up on your balance sheet, should you allow it to be part of your meeting culture in a seemingly results driven work environment?
Organizers should not only set and circulate the meeting agenda ahead of time, it should be stated clearly at the start of the meeting so that all the participants remain on the same page, and tangential conversations can be avoided. Employees should be encouraged to come prepared, so that meetings are as solutions-focused as possible, rather than speculative. Jobs was so bullish on this point that he was known for routinely stopping meetings where employees had come unprepared. Encourage employees to be concise for the common goal of ending on time (if not early), and make sure everyone who is in the meeting participates. Doing so similarly narrows the focus onto the meeting’s agenda, while demurring side conversations and digital distractions.
As systemic change begins to take place, even micro changes at the individual level can help instill a better sense of time discipline and meeting minimalism throughout an organization. Blocking out time in your calendar for uninterrupted work, just as you would have a meeting, can prevent extraneous meetings and spontaneous distractions from derailing your productivity. Become comfortable with politely declining superfluous meeting invitations. Consider speaking to upper management if meetings are still having impact on your or your team’s productivity.
Much like incorporating a wellness-based culture that’s holistic starts from upper management, rectifying a culture of too many company meetings takes the same wherewithal. By treating time as the precious resource it is, rather than something to simply be ‘managed,’ all employees are able to take ownership in company productivity, ensuring both an energized and positive work environment, and one focused on results-oriented work.