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Are meetings a waste of time or necessary for growth?

Meeting of businessmen from different parts of the world in a coworking space

Earlier this month, Canadian eCommerce giant Shopify decided to significantly reduce the number of meetings taking place at the firm, raising questions about their importance when running a business. Are they a waste of time or necessary for growth, or does their importance depend on the stage of growth a business is in? We investigate.

How has Shopify cut meetings?

Shortly after its employees returned from their Christmas break, Shopify announced that they were removing all recurring meetings with more than two people “in perpetuity”. No meetings can be held on Wednesdays and meetings of more than 50 people will also be limited to a six-hour window on Thursdays, with a limit of one a week. Shopify’s leaders are also set to encourage workers to decline other meetings and remove themselves from large internal chat groups.

According to a study from September last year, on average, employees spend about 18 hours a week in meetings and only decline 14% of meeting invites even though they’d prefer to back out of 31% of them. Reluctantly going to noncritical meetings also wastes about $100m a year at big organisations. Therefore, there appears to be a good case for streamlining business meetings.

Wendy Hamilton, the CEO at TechSmith, also says it’s right to be cautious about the number of meetings being held.

She comments, “Meetings are fundamental to any work environment as they provide significant opportunities for individuals to interact, collaborate, and problem-solve. But to protect overall productivity, companies must be cautious about the number of meetings. Businesses should not assume a given meeting is important even if it has existed for some time. They should regularly listen to employees to check in on the perceived value of the meeting.”

However, Charlie Levitton, Head of Business Sales for UK&I at SMART Technologies, says meetings are hugely important when running a business.

He elaborates, “That’s true for every level too. Meetings inspire creative thinking, allow for diversity of thought when they’re extended to different people within an organisation and can be a safe space for new ideas to be tested or brainstormed. Crucially, having multiple people in a meeting room – be it virtual or in person – speeds up decision-making processes, which is vital to any organisation looking to scale up quickly.”

Chris Griffiths, the founder of productivity and mind mapping app ayoa.com, agrees that they are important, but says companies are not using them properly.

He explains, “Meetings are important to business in terms of both collaboration and connection. Brainstorming sessions, in particular, can hold great value in igniting creativity within an organisation – but only when facilitated correctly. The problem for many businesses is that meetings have become a knee-jerk response to every task, project and problem. They are part of a bigger picture of “busy fool syndrome” – that is, an addiction to a generalised sense of busyness over real, productive output.”

How prevalent is poor utilisation of meetings?

Everyone we spoke to acknowledged that the problem is not with meetings themselves, but the way that companies are using them. According to Griffiths, modern, digitalised workplaces also exacerbate improper usage.

“So much of our working day is spent mindlessly “doing” – attending meetings, replying to emails, and ploughing through our to-do list – yet there is little, if any, strategy behind this,” continues Chris.

“Interrupting your day to attend yet another meeting can break your flow (it takes us an average of 23 minutes and 15 seconds to refocus after breaking our attention). And that’s not to mention that back-to-back meetings literally cause stress to build up in the brain – a serious price to pay for meetings which are so often ambling and directionless.”

Dr. Jim Hamill, director at Reimagine-Leadership, agrees with the adverse impact this can have on productivity.

He explains, “The problem is not meetings per se but the mismanagement of meetings. Email overload and poorly planned/managed meetings are two of the main ‘productivity busters’ in business today.

“Research from Harvard Business School concluded that the average employee spends 31 hours per month in meetings – time that could be used more productively. The estimated cost of this lost productivity was $37bn per year for US companies. Similar results have been found in a range of other studies.

“So, the problem is not so much with meetings but with poorly managed meetings. This was highlighted clearly during lockdown when excessive face-to-face meetings were replaced by a new illness called ‘zoom fatigue’.

“Another point worth noting is the culture of ‘having a meeting’. Most traditional meetings tend to be top-down – a way for the hierarchy to disseminate ‘how things will be done around here’. Few meetings, in my experience, are truly interactive or two-way.”

Adam Keating, co-founder and CEO of CoLab, also believes that the way meetings are utilised needs to change.

He comments, “Meetings exist primarily to communicate information, solve problems and make decisions – all of which is critical. The problem is they are most often used as a crutch in place of effective communication.

“When you look at a large company, they waste so much of their time in big meetings where most people aren’t engaged and the meeting itself is poorly run and should have been a message. We ran a study on 93 hardware engineering leaders (managers, directors and VPs) who told us that last year they spent an average of 8-9 hours per week sitting in design review meetings… and that’s just one type of meeting.

“In that case, they are using the meeting to do the actual review work, which is backwards if you compare it to how software engineers do pull requests and code reviews. Software teams mostly do that part async and then use a meeting if something is particularly important and needs problem-solving.

“If you look at most meetings, they can be replaced by good async communication that not only saves people time but can keep others informed. Meetings really should only exist for one of three purposes: 1-1s, problem-solving sessions or critical broadcasts for team morale/alignment.”

However, Levitton believes the prevalence of unproductive meetings is a symptom of the hangover caused by the pandemic.

He says, “It’s estimated the average staff member spends upwards of 35% of their working time in meetings. For most roles, that is clearly unproductive and unsustainable. Management teams are, therefore, understandably looking for creative ways to bring that figure down. Facebook, for instance, has introduced “no-meeting Wednesdays” while Amazon launched the two-pizza rule, where all meetings should be small enough that participants can be fed with two pizzas.

“The reality is, though, that unproductive meetings are a by-product of the pandemic when we scheduled way more meetings into our diaries just to stay connected with our colleagues. Most businesses haven’t managed to find that equilibrium back post-lockdown, and so some are resorting to cancelling meetings altogether.”

Does their importance vary depending on the size of the business and industry they operate in?

How meetings are utilised is clearly an issue, but it’s essential to think about meetings in different contexts too. Large and small businesses, and companies in different sectors, all have varying needs, so does this extend to the importance of meetings too?

Keating believes it does.

He comments, “The problem is the effectiveness often does too. Most small companies are pretty nimble and move fast. But as they get bigger, they have more meetings to try and communicate. It doesn’t work particularly well, so more and more people are invited to the meetings who don’t participate actively, so even more time is wasted.”

Hamill thinks so too.

He says, “In small businesses, meetings can be more frequent, informal and less hierarchical – chats rather than meetings. The problem is mainly in larger businesses where meetings are more formal and rigid – especially in industries which are heavily regulated e.g., banking, pharmaceuticals, the public sector, etc.”

Hamill also believes business culture influences their importance.

He explains, “The frequency of meetings and how they are managed is very much a reflection of an organisation’s culture – hierarchical v. agile, shared decision-making v. bureaucracy, etc.

“Many organisational cultures place a strong emphasis on hierarchy, formality and respect for authority. This will obviously have a major impact on how meetings are conducted and what decisions are taken – mainly top-down with the manager or leader making most of the decisions.

“In more open cultures, meetings will be less formal, with a more open and flexible agenda and with all attendees encouraged to contribute and participate in the discussion.”

Levitton, however, believes meetings are important for any business.

He says, “Irrespective of the sector a business operates in or the size of their organisation, all businesses need to have meetings to discuss company ambitions, plan for how they’ll be achieved and even just to catch up on the day-to-day running of a firm.”

Is cutting meetings the solution to improve productivity?

Despite the issues with how companies are currently using them, meetings can still provide lots of value, particularly where collaboration and creativity are concerned. Therefore, cutting them completely is not the answer to bolster productivity.

As mentioned earlier, Facebook has stopped meetings taking place on Wednesdays and Amazon has introduced a rule limiting meeting sizes to groups that can be fed by two pizzas. So, Shopify is not the only large company that feels streamlining meetings will improve efficiency.

Keating also believes that limiting meetings to only essential ones and laying some ground rules can help avoid pointless meetings.

He says, “Limit recurring meetings to only essential ones like an all-hands short broadcast for alignment and 1-1s. For everything else, challenge whether a meeting is needed or if async communication would work better.

“For any meeting needed, limit the number of people attending, ensure everyone attending has a clear purpose, and there must be a very clear goal and agenda for the meeting, or it doesn’t happen. Also, train your leaders on how to effectively communicate and run meetings. It’s a skill that most just assumes everyone has but this isn’t true.”

Hamill believes asynchronous communication can help too.

He comments, “We now have a broad range of digital tools to ‘reinvent’ what we mean by a meeting – tools that encourage a more collaborative approach. Most organisations are only scratching the surface of what these tools can achieve in terms of proactive employee/customer engagement.

“Based on the digital tools available, the idea of asynchronous meetings is gaining traction, i.e., meetings where participants are not required to be present at the same time, using collaborative digital platforms to participate in a meeting at their own convenience.”

TechSmith is an excellent example of how asynchronous communication can replace excessive meetings.

Hamilton explains, “We would have assumed that because we did not have a heavy management or administrative culture, we were light on meetings. But after our month-long asynchronous-first experiment, 85% of employees indicated they would be cancelling some meetings going forward. Businesses should focus on evaluating what requires a synchronous meeting and what can be handled via asynchronous communication.

“As workforces continue to evolve, corporate leaders will need to evaluate not just the who and how of a communication, but also the where and the when. Finding a balance between synchronous meetings and asynchronous communication will ensure every employee’s time is being utilized effectively.”

Levitton also sees the benefits in better utilising the digital tools that are now available to organisations.

He explains, “Since the pandemic, many businesses have relied on one or two of the major collaboration tool providers that are on the market, without truly assessing whether their features are right for their business.

“But having collaboration software that is customisable to each organisation has added tools like screen sharing, whiteboard features, and screencast capabilities, which can all help towards making sure a business meeting is as effective as possible. The ability to add files to meetings and displays can also significantly reduce downtime. These are just some of the benefits that TeamWorks can provide.

“It’s all too easy in business to scrap something altogether than invest the time and energy into finding ways of doing it better. Banning workplace meetings is a prime example of that. At a time where we have more technical ability at our fingertips than ever to encourage productive meetings, we should be harnessing it – not scrapping it.”

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