Excessive workplace meetings hurt employee productivity

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The workplace is meeting-happy these days. We meet to discuss projects. We meet to create processes. We meet to share daily goals. And we meet to decide when to meet. We’re encouraged to collaborate and cooperate, so we dutifully attend a growing number of meetings each week.

On the surface, the idea seems logical. Get more done by bringing people together to discuss issues and generate ideas. But that isn’t an excuse to bury people’s calendars with an avalanche of colored blocks, each denoting a new meeting. Indeed, the increasing number of unnecessary meetings in the workplace wrecks havoc on the productivity of knowledge workers, who require long stretches of time to think, create, and get stuff done.

People have griped about meetings for years. Peter Drucker, a management thinker and writer, noted that there will always be a surplus of meetings. But, he advised, “meetings have to be the exception rather than the rule.” The reason, he rightly pointed out, is because if you’re meeting you’re not working. “For one either meets or one works,” he explained. “One cannot do both at the same time.”

Years later, the workplace still struggles, and it seems to have gotten worse. Meetings often disrupt our work and eat away at our workdays. They even cost companies both time and money. The number of meetings in the workplace is excessive, and this is one office trend that needs to stop.

The Pitfalls of the Conference Room

Excessive meetings are disruptive — especially to knowledge workers. It’s tough to do quality work when you’re bouncing between meetings: squeezing in 15 minutes of work here and 30 minutes there. Plus, having worked at meeting-intensive companies in the past, I found that my attention was everywhere and nowhere as I physically and mentally shuffled between working and meeting. There’s a lot of truth in Drucker’s observation that “an organization in which everybody meets all the time is an organization in which no one gets anything done.”

Meetings can also be costly. A weekly one-hour meeting with 15 people is not a loss of one hour of productivity, but 15 hours. From a monetary perspective, if each person has a billing rate of $50 per hour, then the company loses $750 each week for that one-hour meeting, or $37,500 each year (accounting for 50 work weeks). That could be money well-saved, since they don’t seem to have much value. According to research in a recent Harvard Business Review article, 71% of senior managers stated that “meetings are unproductive and inefficient.” If you’re curious to see what a meeting is costing your company, check out the Harvard Business Review’s meeting calculator. A little foresight can save your company a lot of time and money.

The biggest challenge is that meetings are too easy to schedule, resulting in many unnecessary meetings. Just a few mouse clicks and you can add an infinite number of meetings to someone’s calendar without much thought — and that’s a problem. The meeting requestor often fails to think through some basic questions: Why does this meeting need to occur? What needs accomplished? Who really needs to attend? When meetings are scheduled without intent, people attend meetings when they’re not needed, and little gets done.

If someone wants to meet with you, then it’s a good idea to follow the advice of author and entrepreneur, Tim Ferriss. Ask the meeting requestor to email you a meeting agenda, he suggests, to explain the “topics and questions” that’ll be covered. The benefit is two-fold: Attendees know what topics will be covered and can prepare accordingly and meeting organizers have to think through the details. Being clear about a meeting’s aim can streamline meetings that are necessary, and help weed out ones that could be easily handled by an email or phone call.

Let’s Be Practical

There’s good news, though. Some companies, like mine, seem to recognize the benefit of having fewer meetings; each day I have large blocks of uninterrupted time to think and work. Plus, today we have tools to prevent the excessive number of meetings. Instead of scheduling a meeting with Fred, send him an email with your question and he’ll get back to you. Rather than having a stand-up meeting each morning, use project management software like Basecamp. People can still detail their daily objectives and ask questions, but when it’s convenient for them and without disrupting anyone’s day. These tactics also avoid the common trap of getting derailed on tangential subjects, which seems to be a mainstay of meetings.

Companies need to be cognizant of the cost of meetings and consider the total impact they have on employee productivity. Discussing ideas can be invigorating and enlightening, when meetings are organized to enable such discussions. But it’s equally important to have stretches of uninterrupted time to create and work, and let new ideas foster.

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Programmer and Writer: amymhaddad.com | programmerspyramid.com | @amymhaddad

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