In early 2023, employees at popular e-commerce platform Shopify returned to work after the holiday break to some surprising news.
To reduce unproductive meetings, Shopify implemented a new policy: any recurring meeting with three or more people would be automatically canceled. Employees were instructed to leave them off for at least two weeks. The company deleted 10,000 calendar events – 76,500-plus hours to improve productivity and work enjoyment.
Shopify is one of many in its quest to reduce unproductive meetings. Other companies, like GitLab, Asana, and Slack, have also implemented measures to address this issue.
- GitLab holds an annual "meeting cleanup" day on February 14 to reset which recurring meetings are really needed. Employees are encouraged to evaluate their calendars and cancel any unnecessary or unproductive meetings during this time.
- Asana's Rebecca Hinds introduced an experiment called "meeting doomsday." Workers deleted all meetings and only added back ones deemed valuable. The 60 participants who completed the experiment saved 265 hours monthly.
- Slack implemented "Focus Fridays," where employees are encouraged to limit communication to only the most critical issues. Executives at Slack also practiced "calendar bankruptcy" to remove and evaluate standing meetings, similar to what Shopify has implemented.
- Basecamp founder and TED Speaker Jason Fried flat-out said that meetings are toxic. He “sees it as my top responsibility to protect our employees’ time and attention,” effectively canceling all meetings.
Why we need better meetings
These stories show that policies limiting meetings can positively impact our enjoyment, well-being, and productivity. Even though we might believe that meetings are essential.
It's now easier than ever to organize and attend meetings, including online. This also means that people may have to attend multiple meetings in a row and work outside of normal working hours.
Studies estimate that employees spend around 23 hours weekly in meetings, with more than half of that time considered unproductive. Employees spend nearly a third of their workweek in meetings that do not generate meaningful outcomes. (One meeting costs the equivalent of 34 years of work yearly!)
It's not just the time spent in meetings alone. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi's Flow theory shows that we do our best work in blocks of uninterrupted time, making us much happier as employees. But constant meetings make achieving flow and having deep work time tough.
Our meeting culture significantly reduces our ability to focus and concentrate. Did you know it takes 23 minutes to recover from every interruption?
A packed meeting schedule with unnecessary meetings negatively impacts employees in many ways. In a study by Benjamin Laker reported by Harvard Business Review, employee productivity was 71% higher when meetings were reduced by 40%.
Rather than a schedule being the boss, employees owned their to-do lists and held themselves accountable, increasing their satisfaction by 52%. Reducing meetings also increased autonomy, communication, cooperation, and engagement and decreased stress and micro-management.
Why we're NOT running better meetings
It's clear that meetings negatively impact us and that fewer meetings would boost our experience.
But as with any habit, avoiding meetings and managing our time better requires an upfront investment. And who hasn't been "too busy to make a to-do list"?
However, when employees don't think about the meetings on their calendars, they let their calendars and inboxes dictate them. We only have a limited number of weeks on this earth, as Oliver Burkeman's book 4000 Weeks painfully reminds us. Spending most of those weeks in unproductive meetings is not acceptable.
Nir Eyal, the author of Indistractable, says we're often "stingy with our money and generous with our time." This is entirely backward. We go to great lengths to protect our money, but when it comes to our time, we fail to protect it.
"To prevent people from stealing our money, we lock it up in banks behind vaults. We install security alarms in our homes to protect our stuff. But when it comes to our time, most people fail to protect it in any way. They’re then surprised when they run out of it, wondering “Where has all my time gone?”" – Nir Eyal.
Nir: "when we let someone steal our time and attention with distraction, we pay with a non-refundable, nonrenewable resource. Time is a finite resource, unlike money, which can be replenished. Nir says that just as we need a budget for our finances, we must also plan our time. If you don’t plan your day, someone else will.
People often have expensive meetings because they believe it's necessary for their job. According to research from Harvard professor Leslie Perlow, executives want to be good soldiers. Even if it affects their well-being and productivity.
Newly promoted managers especially contribute to the problem of meeting overload. According to research from Associate Professor Lebene Soga, they hold almost a third (29%) more meetings than their seasoned counterparts. The researchers think this is because they want to make a good impression and look busy.
So how to avoid meeting overload? Get F.A.I.R.
If you attend too many meetings and feel like they are wasting your time, it's time to change. Here's a helpful framework to give you more heads-down work time.
The F.A.I.R. framework ensures that your meetings are productive and efficient. F.A.I.R. stands for Format, Agenda, Invitees, and Reporting. Following these principles, you can cut your meeting time by up to 50%.
Meetings should be F.A.I.R to how to reduce meeting overload:
- Have a good format
- Have a clear agenda
- Have the right people attending
- Results in a report that helps everyone.
Testing whether our meetings are F.A.I.R. means meetings are productive and everyone's time is respected.
F.A.I.R. Step 1: FORMAT
Choose the right meeting format for your gathering. Audio meetings, instant messaging, or email can be more effective for one-on-one conversations or quick check-ins. Video conferencing is better for group discussions or presentations. Consider which format is most appropriate for the situation.
Finding ways to get the best of same-time and asynchronous means less wasted time and more inclusivity. This Gartner model helps us think about where which kind of collaboration should take place. It asks two questions:
- Will the task be done by one person or a group?
- Will the work best be done in-person or remote?
In-Person or Online? Or Both?
When deciding on the format, a crucial question is whether an in-person or online meeting is more appropriate. Rae Ringel's insightful article "When Do We Actually Need to Meet in Person" distinguishes between task-based and relationship-based gatherings.
A virtual meeting may work for tasks like updating a board or planning an event, or no meeting is needed. However, meeting in person is usually the best option for goals involving building or repairing team members' relationships.
The level of complexity involved in the job can also guide whether an in-person meeting is necessary. "Sometimes complexity is a more helpful framework for determining what form a meeting should take. This includes emotional complexity and the level of interdependence that certain decisions or outcomes may require."
For online or hybrid meetings, use interactive tools like polls or breakout rooms in online meetings to promote engagement and interaction. To ensure everyone feels included in your virtual presentation, designate specific times to speak directly to your remote team members.
Building some messages into the content directed specifically toward those dialing in is always a great idea. This will help them feel they're an important part of the discussion, not just an afterthought.
Meeting or Chat?
As Rae says, maybe that meeting shouldn't be a meeting at all, and employees agree. 83% prefer chat touchpoints over traditional meetings because it saves them time. Status meetings are a great example of frequent meetings with many people, meaning they waste a lot of time and money.
“The future of work requires that we think about what work should be real-time, and what should be anytime" – Javier Hernandez, Principal Researcher at Microsoft.
Basecamp suggests that status meetings can easily be replaced by 'automatic check-ins.' At 4:30 pm, the platform pings relevant team members instead of gathering everyone for a simultaneous call. The pings ask members what they worked on that day, allowing for efficient communication without disrupting workflow. On Mondays, it asks the important question "what will you be working on this week?"
We develop solutions for the future of work and are piloting a similar solution, which has greatly helped our team. If you're on Slack, you can soon download our Slack Plugin "Lexi Daily." It allows team members to share daily updates about their priorities.
We have found that recurring updates about team members' priorities and scope help us in three key ways:
- Instead of joining a call at a specific time, team members can share important information when it works best for them. This can prevent interruptions in their work, such as client meetings or ongoing projects.
- They can receive updates from others without being beholden to listen to them in a real-time audio format.
- We have a written track record of everything, so it's searchable when retrieving it later.
Video or no video?
Countless online interactions often lead to “Zoom fatigue“ and technostress. Stanford researchers discovered that excessive eye contact in video conferences can feel overwhelming. This leads to increased mental strain compared to in-person conversations.
For an inclusive workplace where we build and maintain psychological safety, making matters like using cameras an open discussion is key. Many people like working from home, because they don't have to dress up properly or put on their makeup. But having to turn on the camera during virtual meetings takes away this perk.
It's always worth conversing with the entire team, and without singling out anyone in particular, to discuss your 'rules of engagement.' Is being on video an important part of working together? Or can we appreciate that some may prefer not to show their faces?
To avoid getting burnt out on video calls, we could all turn our cameras on at the start and end. And only have speakers on camera during the meeting. The best approach depends on what works for each team.
Making sure everyone can hear and see well is crucial for online or hybrid meetings. That means displaying all participants equally on the screen and providing everyone with the same tools to interact.
With a remote or hybrid team across different time zones, schedule meetings at a time that works for everyone. Give people enough notice to plan ahead and consider rotating the meeting times to accommodate everyone's schedules.
F.A.I.R. Step 2: AGENDA
Having a clear and concise agenda is crucial for any meeting, especially when it comes to hybrid and remote teams. If participants receive an agenda ahead of time, they're more likely to find the meeting productive. P.O.P.: Purpose, Outcome, Process is a great framework for terrific agendas.
In her book "The Art of Gathering", Priya Parker argues that meeting organizers should identify a present need that needs tackling. Then, design a structure to bring people together around that need. Priya always says to be focused on the primary purpose of each gathering, instead of many different goals at once.
Meetings have two types of outcomes: tangible and intangible. Tangible outcomes involve specific items or actions people will leave the meeting with. On the other hand, intangible outcomes relate to people's emotional state or attitude, like commitment or excitement.
Good meetings need a solid process to achieve the desired outcomes. This process should include planning the activities, tools, and timing, and setting guidelines for how people behave. It's okay to share the meeting process notes with stakeholders, but not with participants to avoid derailing the meeting.
All three elements of Purpose, Outcome, and Process should be present in a good meeting. However, a clearly stated desired outcome is the absolute minimum. Never create or accept a meeting without it.
If you use Chrome and experience meeting overload, try Calendar Cleaner. This is a smart browser plug-in that helps you save up to 30% of your workweek.
F.A.I.R. Step 3: INVITEES
Like an exclusive club, your meeting "guest list" should only have the true VIPs and avoid excessively inflated invite lists.
The meeting duration is not limited to the scheduled time, as it multiplies with the number of attendees. For instance, a one-hour meeting with six participants actually consumes six hours of work time. Even a 15-minute meeting with four people incurs an hour of collective work time.
When considering salaries and hourly rates, meetings become costly very quickly. Furthermore, attention diverted during meetings adds to the expense. Recent research from Dialpad shows that the more people are in a meeting, the longer the meeting runs.
Action: for any meeting that you organize, carefully curate the invitees.
When you have a smaller group, everyone can be included and participate in the meeting. It encourages everyone to participate, give everyone a chance to speak, and actively listen to each other's ideas.
This is why Amazon instated the two-pizza rule. This is a management principle that encourages teams to be small enough (6-8 people) to be fed with just two pizzas. By limiting team size, Amazon aimed to reduce bureaucracy and encourage a culture of innovation and agility.
Don't feel bad about not inviting certain colleagues. They appreciate the time they get back by not attending. As Priya says in The Art of Gathering, the idea of "the more, the merrier" is deeply ingrained in society. But sometimes, excluding people is just as important, even if it feels uncomfortable.
Imagine attending a time management workshop but feeling too uncomfortable to share your struggles as your boss is in the room. Or imagine senior leaders being held back to discuss a sensitive topic, because everyone affected by their decisions is present. In situations like these, creating a safe and appropriate environment for discussion is crucial.
You don't have to attend every meeting that comes your way. If you feel like you won't contribute or get value from it, it's okay to decline. If declining is tough, you could try saying something like, "What should I postpone to be active in this meeting?" as suggested by Nir Eyal.
F.A.I.R. Step 4: REPORT
It's important to have a bias toward action and ensure everyone is on the same page following a meeting. Reporting what happened during the meeting is crucial. Make sure to share this information with all relevant participants, not just those who were invited.
The report should include any decisions that were made and any action items that need to be completed. This ensures that everyone is informed and accountable and ensures that everyone knows what they need to do and by when.
To make it even easier to keep track of meetings, AI-driven note-taking tools like Fireflies.ai can be incredibly helpful. They provide a written record of every meeting, so you can refer to them whenever necessary. This can also help avoid misunderstandings or information asymmetry between team members.
I've found Fireflies note-taking tool incredibly helpful and time-saving.
It's also worth considering using collaborative documents, like online Word docs, to take meeting notes. This allows everyone to continue the conversation and include others who couldn't attend the meeting. It also means that people can work asynchronously and contribute to the project or discussion when best suits them.
Finally, recorded meetings for subsequent playback can be a game-changer, especially for global teams with members in different time zones. This enables colleagues to catch up later and helps ensure everyone is on the same page, regardless of location or availability.
Let's Improve Work, Starting with Meetings
Let's start rethinking our work and focus on making meetings better if we want to be happier at work. Meetings take up a lot of our time, so it's a good place to begin. We need to change our mindset and realize that our time is precious. We should say no to meetings that are overwhelming and unnecessary.
So, let's resolve to be intentional with our time, avoid unproductive meetings, and focus on meaningful work that makes a difference. We can create a more productive, engaged, and satisfied workforce.
Remember always to choose the right Format, set a clear Agenda, be mindful of who should be Invited, and Report to attendees and non-attendees alike.