How to deal with meetings overload: cancel a lot of them

Employees cannot be blamed for wondering whether all the meetings they have to attend are necessary

Before the pandemic, Phil Libin, co-founder and chief executive of mmhmm, a video communications company, was averaging 9.5 real life meetings per day, typically an hour each, plus travel. During the pandemic, his video meeting tally shot up to about 14 each day.

It got too much. So Libin cut back, to between four and five meetings a day. He says audiovisual recordings, texts and emails can be worthwhile substitutes. “We shifted everything to asynchronous. The only thing we should do synchronously is a conversation.”

His other meetings strategy was simpler still. “I just cancelled most of them,” he says.

As employees complain about burnout and grapple with navigating hybrid (a mix of remote and office) work, some employers are trying to cut back on meeting bloat. Microsoft reported a 150 per cent rise in the amount of time an average US worker spent on its Teams platform between September 2019 and September 2020, with a slight uptick the following year. The number of meetings per person also rose, as did meetings outside conventional 9-5 office hours, leading the tech company to conclude that more people have settled into a longer workday.

Series of tips

As part of Atom bank’s shift to a four-day week, the company has tried to cut back on meetings, sending out a series of tips, including limiting numbers and advising employees that “quite often the meeting is the starting place for getting things done. Make it the last.” Anne-Marie Lister, chief people officer, says: “People are asking whether they really need to be in meetings. They are finding efficiencies.”

Joe Allen, professor of organisational science at the University of Utah and co-author of Suddenly Hybrid: Managing the Modern Meeting, says that “meeting bloat” means managers spend about three-quarters of their time in, or preparing, for meetings. “Managers need to say, ‘Do I really need this meeting?’ And then cancel it.”

One overlooked problem with ill-thought-out gatherings is that they snowball. “One bad meeting causes three more meetings. Manage the monologuers, start on time.” Allen also recommends building in “recovery time”, finding that people need about five minutes to recover after a good meeting but 17 following a bad one. Allen is sceptical about the value of meeting-free days. “The other days will get slammed.”

Yet for Gihan Amarasiriwardena, co-founder of Ministry of Supply, a retail brand, meeting-free times helped the company reassess the way it worked, and he says that he has cut meetings from an average of 32 a week in April 2020, to about 18 now. This was through alternating focus time with collaborative work, on the basis of two types of working styles – “makers” and “manager” – a framework popularised by Paul Graham, co-founder of Y Combinator, a start-up accelerator.

Amarasiriwardena says: “If you are a photographer or designer, you will have more focus on ‘making’ [which requires] three hours heads down. If you are in professional services it will be more in ‘manager’ style [meaning more meetings].” Most jobs require a mix of the two.

Before the pandemic, Ministry of Supply set aside Wednesday mornings for working from home, uninterrupted by meetings. It worked so well that it was extended to the whole day. “Context switching is costly,” he says, referring to the effort required to move between different tasks and styles of work. “Half an hour to do deep work is hard.”

No meetings

In the early stages of the pandemic, the staff realised that Zoom had taken over. “One of our team members said we should just have a ‘makers’ week’ with no meetings all week – unless it’s super urgent,” says Amarasiriwardena. The alternate “manager” weeks – with meetings – are used to meet clients and for one-to-one staff catch-ups.

Bolt, the ecommerce company, uses a guide called the Conscious Culture playbook. It sets aside one day a week for internal gatherings, such as team meetings and one-to-ones. Then it requests one to two days of external meetings, including meeting clients or interviewing recruits, with the remaining days reserved for uninterrupted work.

This sort of planning requires strategic thinking at the top, says Henrik Stenmann, chief executive of Internet Intelligence House Nordic, a digital marketing agency, which introduced a four-day week in 2017. That provided the impetus to cut back on “dead time”. The company shortened the default meeting booking system – one hour meetings became 45 minutes and those at half an hour dropped to 20 minutes.

He also gave everyone in the company a mandate to reject a meeting invitation if it came without an agenda. During meetings, all devices have to go into a box. “If you think you can do two things at the same time, there’s so much evidence you can’t. We’re so used to having two screens, so we have a lot of bad habits,” Stenmann says.

James Macnamara, operations director at Blink SEO, a digital marketing agency, is sceptical about focusing on meeting bloat. “People can be very strict on meetings and then pour [that information sharing] into Slack and other communications.” Blink encourages a framework of “online hours” between 12.30pm-3.30pm for meetings, with a window for internal communications at either end of the day, at 9-9.30am and 5-5.30pm.

A challenge

Macnamara says that it can be a challenge for clients to adjust to the reduced meeting culture. Blink SEO has eliminated twice-weekly stand-up meetings during which staff updated peers on their work. Instead, it has created opportunities for people to chat, such as a book club and gaming sessions. “There is more we can do to get people together to talk naturally,” he says.

There is a risk that any sort of extreme corporate efficiency drive will “damage the social life of a company”, says Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, author of Shorter: Work Better, Smarter, and Less – Here’s How. “There are lots of meetings that are giving people the opportunity to be heard and speak. If the purpose is making a difficult decision, you can’t do that in a 10-minute standup, you need to give people the space and opportunity to breathe [in a longer meeting].”

Allen also recommends allowing time in meetings to preserve social niceties. “Having a quick few words of small talk makes the introverts and extroverts pitch in. Extroverts will probably chime in regardless – introverts probably won’t.” – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2022