Why having too many meetings is hurting your productivity and your people
Having too many meetings not only erodes productivity, but also impacts employee wellbeing negatively. This article provides some simple steps you can take to end the meeting madness.
As Aesop said, "It is possible to have too much of a good thing." Meetings are vital. They serve a deeply important social function in corporate life, and are reservoirs of value that can help organisations achieve their goals. That said, there is such a thing as 'too many meetings'. In fact, research has found that leaders spend as much as 80% of their time on meetings and meeting-related activities, and have upwards of 23 hours per week on average of work meetings.1
The rise of remote working has only increased this, with 19% of leaders who participated in a Forrester study commissioned by Sherpany reporting that they now hold weekly meetings, up from 4% pre-2020.
The latter has given rise to 'Zoom Fatigue', a buzzword that has become a mainstay in the press around the world, but that is rooted in a silent phenomena that has existed for far longer: Meeting Recovery Syndrome. This is the idea that following a long, difficult, or frustrating meeting, individuals need as much as 45 minutes to recover and find neutral again.2 This takes a significant toll on productivity, but also has dramatic health costs for individuals as it negatively impacts their wellbeing.
In this article, we explore the reasons why having too many meetings is a drain on your productivity and your people, before providing some remedies to help you and your teams to thrive.
Why should you avoid having too many work meetings?
When it comes to meetings, familiarity breeds contempt. If we aren't careful, the more meetings we have, the less regard we have for individual meetings and non-meeting related tasks. This leads to an increase in meetings overall, but also an increase in unproductive meetings. The combination of these two circumstances leads to what HBR refers to as 'the meeting madness.' In a seminal article by the meeting expert Steven Rogelberg, the meeting madness describes a situation that the majority of us can recognise: Being stuck in an infinite loop of meetings that achieve very little.
This problem scales unimaginably as an organisation grows. Seth Godin, entrepreneur and author, describes this in his book: “As a company grows, the number of meetings grows even faster, eventually reaching a point where so many meetings are taking place that paralysis kicks in.”3
Therefore, having too many meetings not only decreases the perceived value of each meeting among your people, but it actually leads to a 'circling the drain' effect, where vast amounts of potential, value, and wellbeing are lost.
In fact, in the United States, more than 55 million meetings are held each day, representing a cost that runs into billions of dollars each year.4
The central issue here isn't that meetings are bad - quite the opposite. They need to be respected and valued, and used sparingly. So how can you avoid having more meetings than you need?
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How can you avoid having too many meetings?
Meetings often serve as a safety net for initiatives, and there is a pervasive fallacy that says by having a meeting, issues will be solved more completed, or more issues will be solved. This is absolutely untrue. In times of increased remote working, with teams often distributed around the world and across time zones, it is vital to shake the sense that direct collaboration is the only way to move things forward.
In order to avoid having too many meetings, there are a five steps that you can take:
1. Having go, no-go checkpoints
Before any meeting takes place, it is vital that you have a go, no-go checkpoint to determine whether the meeting is absolutely necessary. You should consider whether there is an explicit need for a meeting, and whether the objectives can be achieved another way. If the latter is true, then these avenues should be used first, with a meeting considered a last resort.
2. Having clear goals for each meeting
Once you have identified that a meeting is necessary, the next step is to have concrete goals for the meeting. These should be clearly communicated to every participant before the meeting takes place, and should serve as the basis for discussions in the meeting itself. In formal meetings, these goals will provide the foundations for your meeting agenda.
3. Thinking deliberately about participants
If we are worried about having too many meetings individually, then, as a collective, organisations have plenty more to worry about. Nearly every meeting that takes place involves a matrix of stakeholders whose time is valuable. Therefore, choosing your meeting participants should be a conscious process, rather than defaulting to broad invitations. The latter risks having a greater number of passengers on the call, for whom the meeting is potentially a poor use of their time.
Remember that by inviting these individuals to the meeting, you are diverting this time from their already-busy schedules. Therefore, you should only invite people whose expertise is required, or for whom the outcome of discussions will have a direct impact.
4. Collaborating asynchronously
A vital step in the pre-meeting process is asynchronous collaboration. This involves each participant asking clarifying questions and collaborating on subject matter before the meeting begins. This is a great mechanism for driving initiatives forward before the meeting even begins, saving everyone precious time. In some cases, through asynchronous collaboration, the meeting itself may be rendered obsolete, and the meeting time can be saved and used for other tasks.
5. Establishing ground rules at your organisation
Finally, a great way to reduce the number of unproductive meetings in your organisation is to establish clear ground rules for meetings. This can include implementing policies that prohibit back-to-back meetings, instituting meeting-free times such as one day of the week, or one week of the year, and setting a limit on the number of participants who can be invited to a meeting without approval. By doing so, you set clear boundaries in which meetings can be organised and help to limit meeting creep - where 'too many meetings' becomes the norm.
How much time should you spend in meetings?
The consensus among meeting experts is that the ideal meeting length is 48 minutes.5 This is long enough to have a meaningful discussion, without risking people disengaging or switching off.
While it is difficult to prescribe how many meetings a leader should have each week, there are some aspects of meeting management that can be prescribed.
The consensus among meeting experts is that the ideal meeting length is 48 minutes.
The first is that there should be a sufficient gap between meetings for individuals to recover and to adequately prepare for their next meeting. Therefore, when arranging a meeting, it is important to avoid scheduling back-to-back meetings in people's calendars.
The second aspect is to deliberately consider the length of the meeting rather than simply accepting the default that your calendar system allocates. Do you really need the full hour? Could the objectives of the meeting be achieved in 50 minutes instead? This would give your participants an additional ten minutes to prepare for subsequent meetings or make a coffee before they return to their work.
The third aspect that can be taken charge of is one's own calendar. Booking focus time helps to stop meetings from dominating your schedule and interrupting important project work.
Therefore, while it is difficult to say with confidence how much time you should spend in meetings, there are concrete steps you can take to avoid the meeting madness from dominating your work life.
Too many meetings can be avoided after all
As we can see, having too many meetings each week has a significant impact on our wellbeing as well as our productivity, and as such it is important to avoid letting meetings take over our week.
Through a series of simple steps - at both the organisational and individual level - you can end the meeting madness and enhance the wellbeing and the achievements of their team in one go.
Read more about meeting management today to continue improving your organisation’s approach to meetings.
1 ‘The Science and Fiction of Meetings’, S. Rogelberg, C. Scott, and J. Kello, MIT Sloan Management Review, 2007.
2 ‘Blame your worthless workdays on ‘meeting recovery syndrome’, P. Rubenstein, BBC News, 2019.
3 ‘The Practice: Shipping Creative Word’, S. Godin, Portfolio, 2020.
4 ‘Do We Really Need Another Meeting? The Science of Workplace Meetings’, J. Mroz, J. Allen, D. Verhoeven, Association for Psychological Science, 2018.
5 ‘The Surprising Science of Meetings’, S. Rogelberg, Oxford University Press, 2019.