Meetings are killing your company

Nothing kills productivity in a tech company like a meeting-driven culture. Like with many problems, it all starts with good intentions. As your team gets bigger you create a weekly catch-up meeting to keep everyone informed. Then there are the biweekly and daily scrum stand-up meetings to coordinate. The meetings between Engineering, Product and Design to review plans and specifications. The meetings with other teams to keep them informed. The cross-department meeting the share technical knowledge and skills. The all company weekly meeting to communicate company vision. Soon enough everyone’s day is sliced up into small one hour slots between meetings, when they can focus on work.

Soon enough everyone’s day is sliced up into small one hour slots between meetings

This often appears to be working well for manager types, who see sharing information as a key part of their role. They are happy that their team knows what’s going on, buys into the vision and morale is high. Unfortunately working this way is a total productivity killer for everyone else. It’s well known that knowledge-based work like engineering or design suffers from context switching [1][2].

Every time someone joins a meeting they lose where they were in their thought process. After the meeting, it can then take up to 15 minutes to return to the same place. Then there’s the time lost before meetings start. When people know that they have a meeting in the next 15 minutes, they often won’t bother starting on new tasks. They know that they are about to context-switch and prefer to avoid it. As a result, an hour long slot between two meetings can turn into only 30 minutes of productive work. Usually not enough to get anything meaningful done. Multiply this up and you’ll end up with tens of hours of lost productivity.

an hour long slot between two meetings can turn into only 30 minutes of productive work.

It’s not just context switching that’s problematic though. A meeting driven culture can also disempower people. Managers begin to rely on meetings to take decisions. They feel the need to have everyone together in a room to share in the decision process. Everyone else starts to feel like they must take part in meetings or gets offended when they aren’t invited. This cycle promotes group-think and loosely defined responsibility for decisions. It also means making decisions can take much longer. They’ll tend to roll from meeting to meeting, with not much action taken in between.

Another problem is that the meetings themselves can often be a waste of time. This could be because they are poorly run. It could be because they aren’t relevant to the attendees who got invited anyway (just in case). It could also be because they are a regular habit. Recurring weekly meetings run even when there is nothing to discuss. Whatever the case, lots of time gets wasted, without people gaining much new information.

The worst problem with this culture is that the negative impact begins to multiply. People start to equate meetings with work. They get a sense of accomplishment from having contributed in a large number of meetings. Meetings after all are an opportunity to feel heard and stand out to other team members. Junior team members look up to seniors and see them managing lots of meetings. Running meetings becomes aspirational and contagious as a result. This encourages people to schedule and want to attend more meetings. New people joining your company pick up these habits and the problem continues to grow.

So how do you avoid too many meetings?

On the flip side, some meetings are necessary. You need to share information. People need to know what’s going on. It’s important that everyone is aware of the vision and buys into it. Likewise, certain roles do have to meet regularly and remote teams rely on meetings to coordinate. So how do you balance these needs, while ensuring you don’t develop a bad culture?

There are a lot of posts on this topic available online [1][2][3]. Here are a few things I think work well:-

1. Avoid recurring meetings. Every time you create a recurring meeting, you are losing tens of hours of productivity. Sometimes you need them but this should be the rare exception. Review all your and your team’s recurring meetings and delete as many as possible. Encourage everyone else to do this!

2. Cut down average meeting length. Many companies institute policies on meeting length. IBM famously tried to patent 40 minute meetings. Many calendar apps will also allow you to cut down the default meeting duration. Set this as low as possible (15mins on GCal). The key here is to force down the average meeting length. Your average should be 30 minutes or less if possible. Meetings of one hour or more are wasteful and people usually burn out anyway.

3. Cut down average meeting size. By setting clear expectations on meeting size it becomes more socially acceptable to not invite every single person involved. Set a guideline of something like 5 people max per meeting. Discourage people from running huge meetings by reminding them only to invite critical/relevant attendees.

4. Encourage decision making autonomy. Encouraging people to make decisions outside of a group setting and then share those decisions and rationale over email. This empowers those making decisions, avoids group-think but still allows people the opportunity for feedback.

5. Schedule meetings at either end of the day. Encourage people to only schedule meetings either early in the morning or late in the day. This creates large blocks of uninterrupted time where people can focus and get work done. Alternatively define clear blocks of “work time” where meetings are strongly discouraged.

6. Promote a responsible meeting culture. As always it is important to lead by example. When it comes to meeting culture people tend to look up to managers for guidance. If they see managers avoiding unnecessary meetings, they will tend to do so as well. Don’t schedule lots of meetings with others. When possible deal with issues over email instead of creating another meeting. Encourage status reports and other forms of pull-based information sharing that don’t require peoples full attention. Don’t slice up people’s days by scheduling meetings in big uninterrupted blocks of time. Don’t schedule huge meetings.

7. Develop and share meeting guidelines. Sharing a set of meeting guidelines with everyone in your company is a good way to avoid this culture. We like to add posters with meeting guidelines to every meeting room. This acts as a constant reminder of what to do. Here’s an example of a poster, you’re welcome to modify and use it – [PDF][PNG].

More than anything it’s important to be aware of this problem and do what you can to fight it. I’ve been a part of teams where this was an issue and until we addressed the matter head-on, it kept getting worse. Take a hard look at your company and figure out if you are overly dependant on meetings. If you are, start acting to correct this. You’ll regret it if you don’t.

Use Worklytics to track how much me
etings are impacting productivity

To help you track and understand how meetings are impacting productivity in your company, we have included a number of helpful reports in Worklytics. Find out more here.

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