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The Future of Work Issue

Too many meetings? There’s a bold solution.

The pile-up of meetings at a company can slow progress. Here’s how to clear the lane so your teams can drive more meaningful results.

Words by David Silverberg

Illustration by Jordan Bogash

Steven Rogelberg has been busy, and that’s putting it kindly. 

Rogelberg is a professor of psychology and management at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte and author of The Surprising Science of Meetings: How You Can Lead Your Team to Peak Performance.

Of late, the lauded speaker has been consulting with dozens of enterprise-sized firms about a subject that might be touchy for many: Meetings. More specifically, he’s been talking with leaders about how they can hold meetings that have more impact

Steven Rogelberg

Meetings have been the subject of increased scrutiny in the last several years. People across the org chart have endured burnout-inducing conditions—many inflamed by a schedule jammed bumper-to-bumper with meetings. It’s time for a change.

“There’s been a tremendous appetite to maximize the effectiveness of meetings,” Rogelberg tells The Workback. “It has certainly come to a head because the pandemic elevated the topic.”

But also: “Meetings are a principal form of collaboration.”

The news cycle wholly supports Rogerlberg’s assessment: Some enterprises are leaning hard in a direction that would have been shocking five years ago. Look at the slew of companies announcing a no-meeting day where employees are asked not to conduct meetings within 24 hours. (For its part, Asana, which publishes The Workback, has practiced “no-meeting Wednesdays” for more than a decade. This internal doc shared by Asana co-founder Dustin Moskotivz in January 2013 on the public forum Quora explores the idea in greater detail.)

In early January, Shopify, the Canadian multinational e-commerce company, informed employees it was taking a significant step. Shopify, an Asana customer, would clear calendars of all recurring meetings of three-plus people and continue its commitment to meeting-free Wednesdays.

Kaz Nejatian

Kaz Nejatian, VP of Product & Chief Operating Officer, emailed all employees who now work remotely on January 3 to explain the rationale behind the decision.

“No one joined Shopify to sit in meetings. Not one person has ever thought, ‘You know what will make a big impact on entrepreneurship? Day after day of back-to-back meetings.’”

Stephanie Ross, Communications Lead at Shopify, tells The Workback that when that email hit inboxes, soon after, the company cleared around 12,000 series and events, many of which are recurring and all of which had multiple attendees. If netted out across the year, that totals about 322,000 hours. 

Nejatian noted in his memo that “uninterrupted time is the most precious resource of a craftsperson. We are giving our people a ‘no judgment zone’ to subtract, reject meetings, and focus on what is most valuable.”

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Companies pay an average of $80,000 per professional employee to attend meetings annually, and $25,000 (31%) is allotted to attend meetings deemed unnecessary. study

Nonessential meetings are saddled with a significant financial toll for employers, Rogelberg found in a study he conducted with the automated transcription service Companies pay an average of $80,000 per professional employee to attend meetings annually, and $25,000 (31%) is allotted to attend meetings deemed unnecessary, the 2022 report reveals. 

Even if managers scale back on holding meetings, there’s the question of how to lead the ones they plan effectively. In Rogerlberg’s experience as a consultant, he’s noticed how few leaders are trained to lead meetings expertly. “There’s no accountability in place for running meetings,” he says. “With no feedback protocols, such as employee engagement surveys, how can anyone know if they are bad at leading meetings?”

As tempting as it may be for employees to voice their concerns about pointless meetings and even click “No” on calendar invitations, many don’t make that move. In the survey, almost half of the employees (47%) said they hesitate to decline an invitation because they don’t want to “upset or offend” the organizer.

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Benjamin Laker

Benjamin Laker, the Director of Impact and Global Engagement at Henley Business School at the University of Reading, has also studied how meetings impact employees. Laker has noticed an intriguing nuance: People are unhappy with a meeting’s structure or planning.

“Meetings can lack direction, struggle to stay on track, and be a waste of time due to the number of distractions that can arise from having multiple people in one room at once,” Laker tells The Workback.

More often than not, he adds, managers can find themselves clogging meetings with superfluous attendees. 

“A manager may invite all their employees to a meeting instead of only those who will be most affected by the topic at hand,” Laker says. “This can lead to wasted time and energy from people who don’t need to be in the meeting and who could be focusing on other tasks.”

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Laker says that when managers include people in a meeting with no authority over any decisions or outcomes, the meeting could result in poor business results and friction within the collaborative process.

Employees may need more motivation during meetings, even if they can attend them in sweatpants via video conferencing technology, Laker notes:

“It can still be challenging for people to stay engaged during virtual meetings because of their lack of physical interaction,” Laker says. “It’s important for companies to continue looking for ways to make their online meetings as effective and productive as possible.”

Vijay Pereira

What managers now have at their fingertips should inspire them to rethink how to meet with their employees, says Vijay Pereira, Head of Department (People & Organisations) at NEOMA Business School in France. “Consider using a chat messaging service to run your regular check-ins.”

In his research on meeting culture, Pereira often concludes with messaging intended for managers to recalibrate their perspective on meetings. 

“We believe employees and managers should have between one to five no-meeting days [per week] to be more efficient, productive and match work-life balance,” Pereira tells The Workback.

Laker is also a proponent of no-meeting days: “They provide an opportunity to encourage better meeting practices and ensure that only the most necessary meetings occur.”

Laker’s 2022 on the topic, “The surprising impact of meeting-free days,” yielded impressive results, especially for collaboration-driven businesses. Among the findings: “When one no-meeting day per week was introduced, autonomy, communication, engagement, and satisfaction all improved, resulting in decreased micromanagement and stress, which caused productivity to rise.”

The idea of a meeting is a mechanism that invites each employee to share their varied knowledge, skill set, and perspective in a collaborative, real-time environment. Rogelberg puts it this way: “Think of those positives and then consider how companies want to eliminate those positives when really we should be working at getting better at them.”

This article includes Asana customers, partners, or employees. The Workback’s policy is to be fully transparent about the business relationships between our sources and Asana, Inc. We have identified those instances within the article as well.