By Thom Dennis, CEO of culture and leadership specialists, Serenity in Leadership.
Excessive meetings can be a financial drain and detrimental to productivity, creativity and efficiency in the workplace. One survey found companies of over 5000 employees would save nearly $100 million per year if they reduced unnecessary meeting attendance. The recently revealed meeting calculator developed by e-commerce company Shopify estimates the cost of workplace meetings using data relating to attendees’ roles, meeting time and the number of participants to highlight how much companies may be losing on unnecessary and inefficient meetings. So is there a real problem with the increased number of meetings organisations are now timetabling and what needs to be done?
A 2023 Microsoft survey of more than 30,000 workers worldwide showed 68% of workers feel they don’t have enough uninterrupted focus time during the workday. The survey also showed that inefficient meetings are felt to be the biggest workplace distraction, followed closely by having too many meetings. Only 35% thought they would be missed in the majority of their meetings but the fear of missing out is a real problem. Excessive meetings can lead to decision fatigue and delay due to constant discussions and input from more people than is necessary, can be distracting, are often not the best use of an employee’s time, and affect work-life balance as workers struggle to make up time and feel overwhelmed.
However, meetings are of course also extremely valuable for sharing information and updates, to make key decisions, brainstorm, solve challenges, help workers commit, prioritise and sticking to deadlines, build relationships, encourage inclusion, obtain feedback, to motivate and energise, and to develop buy-in to the organisations’ purpose and objectives.
How has hybrid working affected meetings?
Each organisation handles meetings differently but advances in technology along with significant social changes suggest it is unlikely that meetings will ever be the same again post-pandemic. Yet some managers want to get back to the way things were, and there are big pressures in many organisations to get everyone back in the building which is being met by an equal amount of pushback. Many want to find new ways to communicate in an open forum to suit their work/life balance.
Hybrid meetings are challenging and those that are not present in the room invariably tend to miss out. There is also the temptation for those online to be distracted or to give the impression they are not really present in the meeting. Equally many feel that meetings are more effective online, as there is less time taken out of the working day for them to take place, and there is a higher chance that everyone that needs to attend can, even if they are not in the office.
Effective online meetings are aided by the use of digital collaboration tools. Cloud-based meeting solutions and technologies including virtual whiteboards, chat features, and recording and transcription capabilities increased in the workplace by 44% from 2019 to 2021. Employees are able to share updates and work together without taking the time out for a meeting.
What is clear is when hybrid workers are in the office it only makes sense that they are not using that time writing emails but being amongst peers and the team. Many businesses got rid of real estate and now don’t have enough space for people to be at work, even before the pandemic, and lockdown forced them to make it work and speed up the transition.
To follow are some suggestions on how to ensure the meetings taking place in the workplace are productive and cost-effective.
- Focus on outcomes, actions and deadlines. The objectives and priorities of the meeting need to be precise. For example, are you working something out or sharing information? Ask those in attendance to be truly present and make it clear you require participation from all otherwise there is no need for their attendance. Use digital tools to communicate what can be said outside of a meeting.
- Give everyone an opportunity to speak and encourage deep listening. Avoid any one person monopolising the meeting including those with a personal agenda. Encourage laptops to be kept closed. Decisions made must be communicated and adhered to unless formally changed afterwards. Too many decisions are apparently made in meetings and then subtly forgotten shortly after.
- Have a great facilitator that holds the boundaries, who keeps the room on meeting-related subjects but also ensures everyone is involved and contributing. Making it conversational and informal encourages the inclusion of those who might not otherwise speak up. Outcomes from facilitated meetings are almost invariably greater and more positive with less time wasted, fewer diversions, more clarity of communication, and increased participation.
- Different opinions should be welcomed. Ensure respect is at the heart of any meeting including when there are disagreements. It is a waste of time if individuals feel they are not being listened to or don’t feel involved or it is not clear what the function of their attendance is. Avoid groupthink. Encourage innovative and collaborative discussions but only if it is relevant for everyone in the room otherwise a separate smaller meeting may work better.
- Have a streamlined and goal-centred agenda which is shared in advance to keep the meeting on track. Make sure that you stick to the time limit of the meeting. Equally, a good clear written record of the meeting means those who didn’t attend can easily catch up with what went on, which is often much more efficient than just passing over a recording that is a chore to listen to.
- Only invite the people truly relevant to that meeting and allow them to opt out if they think their time is better spent elsewhere. Employees need to be able to say this isn’t for me but equally leaders need to explain why they should be there if required. Frequently, leaders arrange meetings based on their own convenience, often without taking their teams’ requirements or schedules into account. This leads to frustration, as these avoidable meetings are perceived as unproductive timewasters.
- Ensure accessibility – Opt for virtual meetings if it allows for better accessibility and turnout of the right people, but book face-to-face every so often.
- Pre-planning – Check if a meeting is absolutely necessary. Ensure meetings are being held on days when crucial participants are available, so they don’t need to be rescheduled or repeated later on in the week. Have fewer recurring meetings. If group meetings fall short of meeting the objectives, consider and experiment with different alternatives such as introducing one day each week for meetings and ‘no meeting’ days.
- Lead by example – As with any work process, leaders and managers should model efficient practices including prioritising and streamlining, which can then set the tone for the rest of the business. Let employees be more accountable for their actions and outcomes by reducing meetings.
- Getting together is healthy. We are social beings. Everyone is different and for some their needs may not be fully accommodated by online meetings, especially those that live alone or in difficult circumstances. Balance is key, as is flexibility.