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Does banning meetings help workers get back their time?

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Some companies are weeding calls out of calendars to boost worker productivity. The idea is good in theory – but how about in practise?
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Victor Potrel hasn’t had a meeting in years. In 2019, when he began his executive role at digital-media company TheSoul Publishing working remotely from London, there were no lengthy inductions; all the information he needed was available via on-demand video. Nor did he need to block out hour-long calendar slots to liaise with his boss. Instead, he used Slack channels and software tools to get up to speed on various teams and ongoing projects. 

To this day, there are no scheduled meetings at Potrel’s workplace. Rather, employees can book a direct one-on-one call with at least 24 hours’ notice in exceptional circumstances only. “It has to be a very specific goal, not a general brainstorm that you can do with other tools,” explains Potrel. “Most of the time, doing the preparatory work for a call makes you realise you don’t even need one.”

For Potrel, the stringent no-meeting policy has been liberating. “It’s improved my work,” he says. “It feels like you get to organise your own time, rather than have others do it for you. For creatives, it means you can focus on your own expertise and where you add value – and that’s not by discussing things in a meeting.”

Unlike Potrel, many workers spend large chunks of their day in conference rooms and on virtual calls. Much of that time is wasted. Before Covid-19, one survey of 1,945 workers by consulting firm Korn Ferry found that 67% of respondents felt that too many meetings harmed their impact at work, with 34% wasting up to five hours per week on pointless ones.

This meeting culture goes right to the top of organisations and, ironically, also affects those sending the invites: research has shown that meetings keep most senior managers from completing their work, with executives spending nearly 23 hours a week in them on average.

Zoom has replaced many meetings during the pandemic. But video calls can be just as unproductive as in-person gatherings and still pressure people to attend (Credit: Getty Images)

Zoom has replaced many meetings during the pandemic. But video calls can be just as unproductive as in-person gatherings and still pressure people to attend (Credit: Getty Images)

Remote working has only exacerbated the problem of excess meetings, with casual deskside chats replaced by default half-hour Zoom calls. Analysis of employees' meeting invitations at 21,500 global companies by Harvard Business School revealed that although meetings were on average 12 minutes shorter versus pre-pandemic, people were attending 13% more of them, with the number of invitees rising by 14%. 

More meetings, for more employees, mean more fragmented workdays – which impacts on productivity. Zoom fatigue creeps in, the risk of burnout spikes. Companies are taking notice, with more and more businesses instituting meeting-free days. But does such a policy really give workers back their back? Or can it actually lead to unintended consequences – more confusion, emails, side conversations – creating even greater work?

How meetings bloomed

Humans are inherently social beings; our instinct to meet in order to strategise and share ideas predates modern civilisation, let alone office culture. “We’ve gathered since caveman days,” explains Steven Rogelberg, director of organisational science at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, US. “Meetings are a manifestation of human tendencies.”

As knowledge work boomed in the mid-20th Century, businesses gradually moved away from command-and-control style leadership towards collaboration. Over time, organisations became flatter and less hierarchical. As start-ups flourished, so too did the notion of the collective. Meetings became the best process to allow the coming together of ideas, inspiring innovation.

“We’ve evolved to recognise that teams can reach greater heights through the process of engaging with others, capturing employees’ voice and creating opportunities for synergy,” says Rogelberg. “So, while meeting activity is human nature, it’s also an evolution on how to truly drive and engage people.”

Once video-conferencing technology became more sophisticated throughout the 2010s, meetings were no longer constrained by room size or office hours. However, being permanently available comes with consequences. “People are inundated with meeting requests,” adds Rogelberg. “It’s become too easy to take someone’s schedule away from them. People don’t think – they just click ‘yes’ to the invite.”

It’s become too easy to take someone’s schedule away from them. People don’t think – they just click ‘yes’ to the invite – Steven Rogelberg

And while meetings can enable teams to brainstorm, align thinking and take decisive action, the best meetings are few and far between. Without clear goals, meetings lose focus. They often bloat – what should be a quick one-on-one conversation becomes an hour-long call requiring entire teams. “We’re still a mess at them and have a long way to go,” says Rogelberg. “There are so many issues: a dearth of meaningful training, a lack of feedback on how well they’re run, and not enough facilitation from leaders to ensure everyone is contributing.”

Bad meetings have knock-on effects that spill into the workday, as well as depriving workers of their time. Meeting recovery syndrome, where workers ruminate post-meeting, can dent productivity. Constant context switching comes at a cost: it’s a form of multitasking, which our brains aren’t built to handle. “Every time you switch your attention from one thing to another, you pay for that switch in terms of time and energy,” explains Sahar Yousef, cognitive neuroscientist at University of California, Berkeley.

New, better tools?

It’s little wonder, then, that some companies have banned meetings, either permanently or for specific days each week. Many tech-related start-ups, which often employ remote workers in different time zones, like TheSoul Publishing, prioritise efficient asynchronous communication rather than live calls. But since the pandemic, amid hybrid working and concerns regarding Zoom overload, bosses in other sectors are also re-thinking meeting habits.

Asana, a US-based start-up that provides work-management tools to businesses, has a company-wide meeting ban on Wednesdays. Its global research has showed that unnecessary meetings have increased by an hour per week on average since the pandemic. Its own ban is “a commitment to focus and flow”, says Anne Raimondi, Asana’s chief operating officer and head of business. “From designers, to programmers, to customer-facing employees – you have work you can only get into with uninterrupted blocks of time.”

Forbidding meetings once a week not only gives Asana employees more time to focus on their work, says Raimondi, but it also provides stronger meeting structures during the remaining workdays. “Having the no-meeting day in the middle of the week is helpful for workflow – everyone knows there’s time to go in depth on something related to strategy or planning. Then, I have the opportunity to craft good agendas for when we do meet.”

TheSoul Publishing has gone to more extreme lengths with its blanket ban on meetings. Internal emails are also prohibited, meaning its script writers, animators and editors can focus nearly exclusively on heads-down creative work. Rather than direct calls, written communication in programs like Slack is encouraged. Meetings, however, aren’t replaced by a deluge of direct messaging.

Experts say meetings shouldn't be eliminated altogether, but rather seriously re-evaluate how they're run and how long they take (Credit: Getty Images)

Experts say meetings shouldn't be eliminated altogether, but rather seriously re-evaluate how they're run and how long they take (Credit: Getty Images)

“We use platforms optimised for asynchronous communication,” explains Potrel. “It means information is transparent, concise and can be accessed by anyone – whenever and wherever they are. Business has evolved, and meetings aren’t a modern tool. We’ve found better ones to manage and organise information.”

Even the company’s brainstorming sessions don’t happen in person. Instead, written ideas are submitted for production teams to review. But Potrel does not believe that means employees miss out on human connections. “When people focus on the task at hand, they form professional relationships,” he says. “They interact with others towards the same goal. They can share interests on Slack channels and meet outside of work. You don’t need socialised moments in meetings for people to feel connected.”

Well-meaning initiatives?

Emptying calendars of meetings may seem like a productivity win-win. Asana and TheSoul Publishing introduced meeting bans soon after they were founded; their policies are deeply embedded into their corporate cultures. Banishing meetings for growth companies down the line, however, is a much harder task. Raimondi says she’s been at organisations where they’ve tried to introduce guidance around meetings and put bans in place, but their impact has been limited. “Rather than have a day full of calls, you just end up with one three-quarters full instead.”

A common pitfall is that the unproductive Zoom calls are simply pushed to either side of the meeting-free day. Worse, time-stretched managers sometimes ignore company policy: they see a yawning gap in workers’ schedules on a no-meeting day, and set up an hour-long call. Employees, meanwhile, presume the meeting must be important and feel obliged to attend – a well-meaning initiative ends up being counterproductive. “People creating these policies don’t necessarily honour them,” says Rogelberg.

There can be other unintended consequences, too. Meetings can be a surprisingly efficient way of exchanging information. Without alternatives in place, a quick question during a morning catch-up can be replaced by email ping-pong – a workday is spent tackling an insurmountable inbox.

And although Potrel says he doesn’t miss connection without meetings, some experts say meetings do give us necessary collaborative benefits. “I think in-person meetings can be really effective,” says Eleanor O’Mahony, of Ireland-based employee-communication platform Workvivo. “It’s much easier doing brainstorming sessions with a change of scenery. The functional meetings can be kept virtual. It's about using the right medium at the right time.”

Reform, not remove

The no-meeting trend is fairly new: there's little concrete data to support whether it works and what gets lost. It’s why most of the discussion around it is anecdotal. However, it seems that without addressing pre-existing issues, an outright meeting ban simply moves the problem elsewhere.

Rogelberg advocates reform, rather than removal. “The goal isn’t to eliminate meetings, it’s to eliminate the bad ones.” He suggests clustering calls together, so workers have concrete blocks of time to find flow. “By shrinking meeting size and duration, you can give workers back their time. You need to do the hard stuff – changing meetings and the ecosystem in which they sit so they’re more effective. Just banning them on an afternoon isn’t enough.”