Is It Time To Put Your Company On A Meeting Diet?

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Shopify and others have experimented with asking employees to halt some meetings. Could this be a boon to over-scheduled workers—or a draconian, top-down attempt to simplistically solve a complicated problem?

In January, Shopify decided it was in drastic need of a meeting cleanse. A bot was used to wipe calendars company-wide of any recurring meeting with three or more people. Total time savings: 320,000 hours, the equivalent of hiring 150 new people.

Though the move might seem extreme, there’s ample research behind it. Meetings eat away at our time to think, reflect, create and innovate. They’re especially good at gobbling our most productive, focused time. In short: We’re loading calendars with well-intentioned gatherings that inadvertently sabotage our best efforts.

This isn’t to say we should cancel them all. A one-size-fits-all approach rarely suits anyone. But we do need to dispatch with the wasteful and tighten the remaining, allowing us to make the best use of our brain power.

The science is overwhelming

During the pandemic, meeting volume exploded. The average user of Microsoft’s Teams platform saw her meeting time swell by 252 percent between February 2020 and February 2022.

Some of this stemmed from managers’ urges to ensure people were working. But it was accompanied by the healthier notion that some things are more efficiently discussed verbally. And at their best, meetings build a sense of community and human connection essential to good corporate culture.

The problem is that the bad eclipses the good. A Harvard survey of employees at 76 companies found that when meetings were reduced by 40 percent, productivity jumped 71 percent. With bosses controlling less of their time, employees worked harder and held themselves more accountable. Job satisfaction rose by 52 percent.

The reasons are obvious. With fewer and shorter meetings, days are no longer stacked with constant interruptions. The time needed to focus and complete tasks expands. Work isn’t pushed to nights and weekends – something is needed now because we’re spending an average 58% of our official workdays in meetings.

The cost savings are enormous. Meetings can cost companies about $25,000 per year per professional employee. For firms of 100 people or more, that comes to about $2.5 million annually. For companies with more than 5,000 employees, that lost productivity translates to $101 million a year.

Harvard offers a calculator so you can see for yourself. Plug in the hourly salary of each person in attendance and you’ll face the uncomfortable truth. If your last meeting wasn’t worth the $5,000 it cost, it’s time to make a change.

Separating the wheat from the chaff

It’s not that difficult to whittle away at the waste. Take one of the most common reasons for calling a meeting: getting everyone on the same page. Without requiring review and reflection beforehand, the meeting quickly becomes a tribute to inefficiency. No one’s prepared to solve problems or make decisions; creativity and healthy debate are squelched.

One remedy is to get ruthless with the rules. If agendas and accompanying materials aren’t sent 48 hours in advance, cancel the meeting. Employees swiftly learn the importance of preparing.

You should also keep strict time limits. If it’s scheduled for 50 minutes, it should never run beyond. This teaches participants to stay on topic while excising the drudgery. No one’s ever complained about ending a meeting early.

Shopify isn’t alone in sending a message to schedule meetings more purposefully. It didn’t actually ban recurring meetings. It simply enforced a two-week pause to make employees consider their utility.

Amazon has a two-pizza edict—i.e. the meeting should be small enough to feed everyone with two large pizzas. It’s a way to prevent meetings with dozens of people where nothing is achieved. Other companies like Meta and Clorox are designating a no-meeting day each week. If that’s too constricting, you can always divide the off-limits zone into two half days, such as Wednesday afternoon and Friday morning.

Smart companies are also realizing that managers need training to conduct meetings efficiently. We ask our clients to think about three components: What needs to happen before, during, and after the meeting? It forces managers to focus on the inputs and outcomes of each step, rather than approaching meetings without a plan.

Finally, much of what we do in meetings can be diverted to programs like Slack and Basecamp. These tools allow people to communicate and collaborate but are more flexible than certain recurring meetings everyone’s come to dread.

When Shopify announced its cleanse, one engineer told COO Kaz Nejatian that he was finally freed up to do what he’d been hired to do: write code.

Think of it as akin to a diet. It all begins with cutting down on volume.

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