Rethinking Meetings

Written by Holtby Turner

Articles on the future of work routinely predict the death of one or more aspects of office life. As early as 1975, BusinessWeek predicted the paperless office, and almost 50 years later, paper shows no sign of disappearing from the average office. 

Just like email and messaging apps like Slack were supposed to save us from meeting overload, we have four in our calendar this afternoon. It is a universal truth that meetings are seen as one of the greatest banes of the modern working life. In the US alone, it is estimated that there are between 36 and 56 million meetings a day. Research reported by Australian software giant Atlassian states that employees attend 62 meetings a month on average, and report that 50% of these represent time wasted. 

That is over 30 hours a month wasted in unproductive meetings! Despite data on meetings being rightfully challenged on accuracy, clearly the numbers as ballparks alone spell out massive potential improvement in productivity and efficiency. But how can we rethink and improve meetings in the future?

Mad Meeting Mondays, Anyone? 

One step, suggested by a number of leading companies, is simply to eliminate all meetings on certain days. The company behind the popular productivity app Asana are pretty strict with meetings, unsurprisingly, and have a policy of “No Meeting Wednesdays”. Aria Healthcare has a similar “No Meeting Fridays” rule. A more extreme form of this is practised at Southwestern Consulting, which only has meetings during their “Mad Meeting Mondays” and otherwise go meeting-free. Nothing mad in that, in our opinion. 

For other companies less prepared to abandon meetings for an entire day, they might look into shortening meetings instead. In her hilarious five minute Ignite talk, ex Microsoft Product Engineer Nicole Steinbok suggests that the optimal length of a meeting isn’t forty-five minutes, or sixty minutes, or (God forbid!) even longer. 

Instead, she suggests scheduling twenty-two minute meetings, which fit perfectly into two per hour, without causing lateness. With enough prep they are long enough to get key things decided, and quirky enough to ensure that people don’t request too many. 

Other ways to ensure that meetings don’t last for too long is to scrap the notion that they should involve sitting down. In many successful organisations, sit-down meetings are the exception rather than the norm, and standing or walking meetings are encouraged. Popular with startups who have limited time and resources to get things done, are Daily Stand-ups. Initially for tech leads’ agile way of working, they are now widely adopted by teams of all shapes and sizes: 10 minutes max. One line only on your priority for the day. And everyone has to speak. 

What’s curious about these daily stand-ups is that they have been shown to improve creativity and teamwork, according to researchers Andrew P. Knight and Markus Baer. A variant of the standing meeting is the walking meeting. As well as the opportunity for a good stretch, walking meetings are shown to increase creativity, according to Oppezzo & Schwartz’s work for the Journal of Experimental Psychology a few years ago. No wonder they were a favourite for Steve Jobs and Sigmund Freud, no less.  

With Meetings, Size Matters

Another major trend is to create greater variety in meeting attendance. A key benefit of standing and walking meetings is that they cannot accommodate as many people, forcing a more measured approach to inviting people. Jeff Bezos mandated years ago, that Amazon’s internal innovation teams must be small enough in size that two pizzas would be enough to feed them if they worked late (suggesting this as a maximum size of a meeting as well). Project software firm Basecamp’s founder Jason Fried is on record as saying he can probably count on one hand how many times they’ve had a meeting with more than four people!

At the other end of the scale, many contemporary organisations have copied the ever-popular all-hands meeting. Google and Facebook, despite their size, still run several all-hands meetings a year, with top executives and the CEO in attendance. While costly, these meetings are great for company culture, and offer both accountability and transparency through open, company-wide Q&As. 

In all these cases, however, one truth remains the same: a meeting is only as good as its participants when they are engaged. Maya Bernstein and Rae Ringel’s research for Harvard Business Review’s article Plan A Better Meeting With Design Thinking, revealed that: 

90% of people daydream during meetings, and 73% admit to doing other work during them. As technology exacerbates this, an important issue in designing the better meeting of tomorrow is how to create a truly focused meeting – or a mindful meeting, as I heard it called recently. The key steps here are to ensure that things such as laptops, tablets, and (perhaps most important of all) phones are kept out of the meeting unless critically necessary. In the future we may well see phone baskets as standard equipment at meeting-room doors!

No matter which approach you take, improving meetings in your company is a sure way to improve both productivity and employee morale. For companies who wish to succeed in the future, making this a strategic priority should be a no-brainer. Now, maybe we could schedule a meeting to talk about your meeting needs …

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