Organizations, large and small, are all coming out to expose the synchronous meeting madness that’s hurting the team’s productivity and eating into the employees’ work and personal time. Thought leaders believe this is a common problem in the modern workplace and are proposing some actionable steps to identify and fix the meeting menace.
From a leadership perspective, most meetings fall in any or all of the categories below:
Updates – Used to brief every member of the team about the project/topic’s progress.
Reviews – Certain processes, products, case studies, or situations need a collective effort to review and generate appropriate and timely feedback.
Planning – Employees come together to share their thoughts and give suggestions on what needs to be in the schedule/plan of an upcoming event, product, service, etc.
But even with a predefined agenda and structure, redundancies and unnecessary side conversations can compromise a formal meeting’s good intentions.
The Current State of Meetings
According to an HBR report, synchronous meeting has increased in frequency and length over the last 50 years. That is from nearly 10 hours a week in the 1960s to an alarming 23 hours a week in 2020. Considering that things have rapidly changed over the five decades, a spike in meetings by that magnitude is worrying.
This isn’t to say that meetings are unnecessary. In fact, meetings are crucial for enabling creativity, collaboration, and innovation. But this is only true if the meetings add value to both the teams and the individuals. The current situation with frequent meetings is that they no longer foster relationships or proper information exchange.
What’s even worse is when executives are aware of the adverse effects of excessive and unproductive meetings but are reluctant to embrace change. This is what the HBR report defined as leaders being conformists and leading by the prevailing conditions instead of challenging the status quo and taking risks for the greater good.
“…why would anyone argue in defense of excessive meetings, especially when no one likes them much? Because executives want to play good soldiers. When they sacrifice their own time and well-being for meetings, they assume they’re doing what’s best for the business—and they don’t see the costs to the organization. They overlook the collective toll on productivity, focus, and engagement.” HBR Report
How Meetings Became a Nuisance
A survey conducted by HBR involving 182 senior executives in a range of industries highlighted the following results:
- 65% of respondents said meetings prevent them from completing their personal work.
- 71% of respondents said meetings are inefficient and unproductive
- 64% of respondents said meetings come at the expense of deep-thinking, and
- 62% of respondents said meetings miss critical opportunities to bring the teams closer together.
Further studies indicate that companies pay costly prices for poorly-run meetings. A study involving 20 top-tier companies found that inappropriate synchronous meeting behaviors such as complaining, criticizing, and wandering off-topic, were associated with lower levels of innovation, market share, and employment stability.
Meetings run without regard to their impact on the group, and solo time often leads to conflicting interests. From the HBR research highlighted above, only 17% of surveyed respondents reported that their meetings are productive and don’t waste the group or individual time.
Below are the two types of meetings causing all the noise:
Poorly run meetings
Some meetings aren’t necessarily frequent but poorly run. These kinds of meetings have the following characteristics:
- People attend because it’s a routine – most people just show up and contribute nothing at the end of the day.
- There’s no agenda – While some meetings do have a plan, the agenda could be very shallow or a repetition of what was discussed in the previous sessions.
- People don’t focus during the meetings – some employees feel they are wasting time, hence choosing to either do their own work or do other stuff on their devices (laptops, smartphones, etc.)
Poorly run meetings are often very inefficient. Group productivity is compromised, and collaboration is significantly weakened.
Some meetings are well-run and very beneficial for the group and the organization; however, they are too frequent hence eating into individual productivity.
For example, frequent Zoom meetings force employees to make trade-offs concerning when and how they will accomplish their tasks. What happens is employees create extra time from their personal time – starting work too early and going to bed late. Such habits affect employees’ productivity and job satisfaction and lead to burnout and high turnover rates.
Solutions to Frequent and ineffective Meetings
While most organization heads admit that their synchronous meeting structure needs to change, not many will take the steps necessary to make a real impact. The majority will go for quick and discrete fixes, such as eliminating some non-urgent meetings, making the meetings shorter, or even pushing all meetings towards the weekend, say once a week. Here is why these discrete fixes don’t work.
- Eliminating meetings leads to a disconnect among the employees, severely affecting team productivity and engagement.
- Making the meetings shorter will not solve the root causes of ineffective or frequent meetings. In fact, there are chances you are going to go past the scheduled time, which could then make your meetings feel rushed, unrealistic, and unproductive.
- Also, new issues raised during the meetings will be left unclear. What follows is the need to schedule another meeting, and with no time, you’re having a series of short, unproductive meetings. With such trends, the agenda becomes vague and redundant, so meetings feel more like a rubber-stamping of some decisions or conversations discussed elsewhere.
Many companies have tried these strategies before, and more often they backfire, simply because the root cause of the problem has not been identified. Here, the efforts are focused on temporary relief and getting over the issues instead of getting through them.
Since meetings can affect both individuals and teams, it’s critical to take a structured and collective approach such that everyone is part of the solution. Working on these problems alone won’t yield any results since a collective effort is necessary to effect change.
And as a team manager, below are some steps you can take to identify the team’s meeting issues and ultimately work on fixing them as a group.
1. Get feedback from everyone
Every member should be allowed to speak up their mind about meetings. The idea is to gather relevant information and suggestions that could help make the meetings better. If this is done correctly, you’ll be shocked to learn how your team members resent the regular and ineffective meetings that are deeply rooted within the organization’s culture.
For example, remote work could have people working from a different time zone, giving in to the pressure to keep up with the poorly scheduled off-hours meetings. Questionnaires or surveys could be used to gather information from the team members. This process should be free, transparent, and nonjudgmental.
2. Analyze the Data Together and come up with individual and Group Goals
Once you have gathered all the relevant information from your team members, it’s time to analyze the data and face the “elephant in the room.”
Conversations should be streamlined such that all the major and minor concerns are discussed in detail. The process should not be rushed, rather discussed keenly to see what works and what doesn’t.
At this stage, meetings’ best and worst practices should be identified from the group setting. This will give a clear reflection of what needs to be solved. Individual frustrations, expectations, pain points, and suggestions will help define group and personal goals.
If the communication channel is one of the problems, you could suggest a better way of fostering collaboration without hurting personal and group productivity. For example, synchronous meeting has been associated with higher burnout rates due to the long hours of eye strain, forced concentration, and information overload.
An appropriate solution would be to shift to asynchronous communication for meetings that don’t require instant feedback. This will be a critical step to reducing burnout for distributed remote teams due to frequent, poorly-scheduled, and unnecessary zoom meetings.
3. Debrief as a Group
Debriefing is a team-building practice common in all the major industries, from healthcare, education, corporate to the retail sectors. Its benefits are well documented, and nowadays, management consultants, executives, and even remote managers are leveraging debriefing sessions to impact their teams.
Humans are creatures of habits, and it’s normal to fall back to the old ways of doing things. With group debrief sessions, the team is keeping everyone accountable against the set goals. Discussions on what is working and what is not working can help the team focus on improving the critical processes.
Meetings are great, but when scheduled and done incorrectly, they can be a nuisance – keeping employees from maximizing their potential and preventing teams from reaching their goals. The above 3 steps will help team managers identify the synchronous meeting challenges unique to their teams and make the necessary changes to develop a sustainable and effective solution.