Do Good Meetings Exist?

Meetings are often unproductive because when together in-person, the instinct is to try to enjoy one another’s company rather than accomplish the goal of the meeting.

One of the great things about online meetings is they take place on your computer. That means no one can tell if you’re taking notes or doing other work. It isn’t hard to master the art of listening with one ear. Meetings typically are filled with so much wasted time that any given participant probably only needs to pay attention for about five minutes.

ZDNet recently published an article on “workplace blunders that threaten your productivity” by Owen Hughes. The article notes how irritating meetings can be, especially when they’re unproductive. He cites a study involving 255 Human Resources leaders at U.S. companies that revealed red flags that threaten employee productivity, engagement, and collaboration in the workplace. The report, The Evolving Workforce and HR’s Identity Crisis, notes that two-thirds (67 percent) of survey respondents strongly agreed that allowing employees to choose which meetings they attended would improve productivity, compared with 26 percent who moderately agreed and 7 percent who either moderately or strongly disagreed.

Thirty-eight percent of HR leaders said measuring meeting efficiency was very difficult, but a good place to start is looking at the frequency and length of meetings. Can an hour-long meeting be reduced to 30 minutes, for example? Likewise, can a daily meeting be cut to twice a week?

These concerns and dissatisfactions about meetings led me back to an old idea of mine—to basically get rid of meetings altogether. I have come to the conclusion that what meetings are best at is fostering relationships between colleagues. Instead of pretending in the age of e-mail and texting that you need to gather at the same time in-person, or face-to-face electronically, why not reserve in-person time for fun time together? Meetings are so often unproductive because when together in-person, the instinct is to try to enjoy one another’s company rather than accomplish the goal of the meeting. The meeting organizer is always fighting against the human tendency to socialize when face-to-face with other people.

The way I envision it working is for the manager to e-mail a call for ideas about how to meet a business goal. The manager then chooses their favorite three of the ideas e-mailed to them. Then they share those three favorites with the team, asking for everyone to send one pro and one con about each of the manager’s favorite ideas. The manager then looks at the collected pros and cons of their favorite ideas and makes a final choice about the approach/solution toward the business goal that a meeting would otherwise have been called to address.

With no need—or only an exceptionally rare need—for meetings, in-person gatherings can be reserved for time to enjoy one another’s company and to get to know one another better. For example, once a month the manager can commit to an in-person, entirely social team gathering at varying times to ensure everyone gets a chance to participate. One month it could be lunch at a spot near the office, another time it could be an activity such as bowling or darts directly after work, and yet another month maybe it could be something as simple and accessible as donuts and coffee/hot chocolate in a conference room at 9:30 a.m. Maybe once or twice a year, the manager could treat the team to dinner as a way to say, “Thank you.”

Companies with more extensive budgets could even encourage managers to take their team on day trips like skiing or hiking, or even a beach day, complete with an end-of-the-day barbecue.

The problem with meetings is they’re usually not necessary, and many of us know that, and consequently, zone out for every part of it that doesn’t directly relate to ourselves.

By asking for focused work from each team member to meet business challenges, the manager ensures each employee is contributing ideas, and that each idea is getting a fair hearing and comprehensive vetting. The in-person time then can be optimized to build greater ties between colleagues. It’s those greater ties, when combined with focused work, that make for a productive, winning work team.

In your organization, are meetings encouraged? Would you say you have what amounts to a meetings culture? How do you ensure face-to-face time is being used most effectively?