Working harder isn't necessarily smarter.
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May 1, 2022 7:30 AM EDT

If we want to truly transform work for the better, meetings are a very good place to start. They’re often run poorly, and crowd our days, leading us to spend nights and weekends working to compensate.

And it’s gotten worse by most measures over the past two years. Microsoft found that workers it tracks now spend 252% more time in meetings each week on average than they did in February 2020. The meetings are often low quality, with people doing other work during them some 30% of the time or more. And meeting sprawl is costly for organizations, making it harder for people to do what they were actually hired to do.

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It is in our power to fix this mess. Here’s how:

Hold fewer meetings.

Researchers found that when meetings were reduced by 40%, employee productivity was 71% higher. Lots of meetings are unnecessary—think hard about which meetings could really have just been emails. And meetings are less conducive than asynchronous back and forth—eg via Slack or Teams—to the flexible and remote work many organizations are endorsing.

Do a calendar audit.

Look back at your last month to count up how you’re actually spending your time. If it’s out of whack—eg you’re spending less time on thinking through strategy, checking in with direct reports, or improving your skills—then start protecting your time for those things and cut back on meetings that don’t relate to your top priorities.

Institute meeting-free days.

Researchers found that for knowledge workers, it’s optimal to confine all meetings to just two days per week. That reduces stress and actually increases cooperation, as people instead connect one-on-one or use communication tools like Slack. But even just declaring one day per week free of meetings boosts productivity, cooperation, and engagement while reducing stress and micromanagement.

Make meetings shorter.

Meetings under 15 minutes now make up a majority of meetings tracked by Microsoft. There’s no shame in ending a meeting early. And, if nothing else, schedule meetings for 25 or 50 minutes (rather than 30 or 60), so participants have time to move around before the next meeting starts. (Google and Microsoft have settings you can turn on that shorten your meetings by default.) Also, start meetings on time, to avoid cascading scheduling problems and even greater inefficiency.

Invite fewer people.

Dysfunction increases with size. Research suggests inviting eight or fewer people to your meeting if the goal is decision making. If you’re wary of cutting people out, start by making them optional in the invite. And good follow-up notes minimize the impact of colleagues not attending.

Schedule meetings when people can focus on them.

Researchers have found that people are most focused on their work around 11am and 2-3pm. Microsoft found that meetings now start later on Mondays and end earlier on Fridays, and are happening less frequently at lunchtime. From 9am to 11am is the most common meeting time, but 2pm to 3pm is rising in frequency.

Require an agenda.

That makes clear the reason for meeting and reduces the odds the meeting runs long or requires a follow up. Distribute the agenda in advance so people, especially those who are more introverted, get a chance to prepare. And distribute any pre-reading ahead of time so you can spend the full time discussing it and making decisions.

Brainstorm in silence.

Research shows that when groups write or type down their ideas in silence, people generate twice as many ideas and they’re generally more innovative.

Write down meeting guidelines and norms.

This helps hold everyone—including leaders—accountable for good meeting practices, such as having an agenda. GitLab’s guide to remote meetings for its staff—which includes the memorable catchphrase, “No agenda, no attenda”—is worth checking out.

Admittedly, there are some meetings you should always make time for. Research shows that weekly one-on-one check-ins between managers and their direct reports, for example, are critical to employee engagement, retention, and productivity.

And new research conducted by the Vitality Research Institute in the UK suggests that having more meetings might be beneficial for junior employees. They tend to have fewer meetings to begin with, and interacting with colleagues in meetings helps drive engagement.

Despite that, it’s clear that most of us would be less burned out by work if we had less meeting sprawl. We’ve asked companies that have shifted to a four-day work week what adjustments they need to make in order to get the same work done in less time. The main thing they have to sacrifice, they find, is long meetings.

That’s a sacrifice we should all consider making.

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