• Clare Burlingham

Meetings for meetings sake

I’m willing to bet my hat that anyone who’s worked in the corporate world has at some time despaired at the number of meetings that fill their diary.

Studies from the last couple of years have shown that if you’re in middle management, you’ll typically spend around 35% of your time in meetings. And senior management – it’s more like 50%. The average manager can spend upwards of 12 hours a week preparing for or attending meetings.

Of course, the real problem is that time in meetings is often unproductive and that takes its toll on both the individual and the business. To an already stressed-out workforce, adding the pressure of less time in the day to actually do work often leads to increased anxiety. And no business would support the amount of wasted time if it was actually converted into hard cash.

This was true before the pandemic, but it’s even more true now that all our more casual interactions with each other also take place in meeting form. At worst it forces us into “frantic” mode for almost all of the working day, meaning our actual work has to be done outside of these hours. A report just out in early Feb ‘21 has found that the working day is typically two hours longer compared with January 2020. This will be for a variety of reasons but increased time on video conference meetings is likely to be one.

Over-meeting is often a symptom of a problem with company culture. When a company and its employees are under pressure, the more meetings we tend to have. This then leads to a vicious circle where because the meetings don’t usually accomplish much, we feel more stressed about how we’re going to complete tasks and so resort to further status meetings, update meetings, meetings about other meetings, and so it goes on.

And it can be difficult to break the cycle because if you’re in a company with too many meetings, refusing to attend can feel like the equivalent to wearing a big sign that reads: “I’m not a team player!”.

But it doesn’t have to be this way.

Organisations can take proactive action to aim for a culture that is not one that encourages meetings for meetings sake. Firstly, take a look at how your employees are incentivised. That pressure to “look busy” comes from somewhere and can proliferate in competitive environments where employees feel constantly compared to one another.

Some companies have introduced schemes such as “no meeting mornings” where meetings can only be scheduled for the afternoons, leaving employees free to focus on their to-do lists in the morning when we are generally at our most productive. This can lead to a behavioural shift, where people seek out other ways to communicate, such as more one-to-one conversations, or use of emails. The email inbox can become less of a burden when you have time to actually read what’s in it!

And as individuals, we can also work to try to create change from within. When you are the instigator of a meeting, ask yourself: is this the best way to achieve my goal? Be honest with yourself about why you are calling the meeting and if it is the best use of everyone’s time.

That said, meetings with clear agendas, clear outcomes and clear actions can be highly productive and useful. And applying a few general rules to our meetings such as, no more than 8 attendees, no longer than 20 mins and always have an agenda, can help to keep things efficient.

It was interesting recently when there were reports in the press that Boris Johnson took “power naps” during the day. As a Number 10 spokesman robustly denied this, they were quoted as saying “His day is literally full of meetings”. Surely even a Prime Minister needs some time in the day to his or herself?

Together, we can break the mould.