How to prevent unproductive meetings and facilitate deep, high-quality work

In the age of Zoom, Microsoft Teams, and other videoconferencing tools, we’re spending more time than ever in meetings. Whether we do so in person or via an app, the time spent can either be impactful, somewhat effective, or a complete waste of time. Further, when meetings aren’t purposeful, efficient, and productive, they also impact our ability to focus, be productive, and complete deep, quality work.  

How much time is spent in unproductive meetings?

There’s a vast array of research pointing to the ineffectiveness of meetings. Some of the notable statistics include:  

  • Leaders and senior managers spend approximately 50% of their time in meetings and managers spend 35% of their time. At a $100,000 to $150,000 salary, that’s a cost of $962 to $1,440 per week per person. For managers, at a $75,000 to $100,000 salary, the weekly cost is $504 to $675 per person.
  • In 2021, 83% of employees spent up to a third of their weeks in meetings.
  • In a survey conducted by Harvard Business School, 71% of senior managers said their meetings are unproductive and inefficient and 65% said meetings prevent them from completing their work.
  • Executives feel that 67% of meetings are a waste of time.
  • The average employee spends up to 4 hours per week preparing for status update meetings.
  • Among regular employees, 44% noted that ineffective staff meetings prevent them from getting their work done, 38% report losing focus on their projects, 43% are left unclear on next steps, and 26% noted diminished relationships as a result of meetings.
  • Since the year 2000, meeting time has increased by 10% each year.  

What impacts the effectiveness of meetings?

There are numerous things that can undermine how effective and beneficial meetings are. Some of the most commonly cited issues include:

  • Lack of an agenda, preparation, or clear focus for the meeting – and/or not sticking to an agenda
    (following an agenda can minimize meeting time by up to 80%)  
  • Following tangents as opposed to ‘parking’ or addressing non-agenda issues ‘offline’
  • Meetings that don’t start or end on time, which feels disrespectful of their time and other priorities
  • Meetings for the sake of meetings (e.g., every Tuesday at 9am whether needed or not)
  • Meetings that go over information that could easily have been addressed through other means
  • People who show up late, text and check emails, and/or are clearly distracted during meetings
  • People who interrupt and dominate the conversation
  • Inviting people who don’t need to be there
  • Unnecessarily long meetings

How can you facilitate efficient and impactful meetings?

Sharing of information aside, meetings can be highly beneficial as a means to collaborate, innovate, solve challenges, brainstorm, gather input, check in, and build relationships. That said, in order for those benefits to be realized, they mustn’t occur simply for the sake of themselves and be viewed as time wasters. So, what can you do to positively impact the effectiveness and efficiency of meetings?  

Start first with an honest and thorough meeting evaluation, in addition to your organization’s meeting culture. Putting what is/isn’t working aside for the moment, examine:

  • What the intended purpose of each of your regular meetings is (i.e., leadership, management, all-staff, department/team, etc.). Why do you have them, and what do you/others gain from them? What must be shared with attendees, and does it have to be via meetings? What do you need from them? What do they need from you?
  • How must they occur in order to achieve their purpose? Consider agendas, the role of chairs/leads, whether notes and/or action items are needed and at what level of detail. What’s done with notes after meetings/how are they used? Are round-tables necessary every time or just occasionally? Do you always follow the same format, or would it be beneficial to split update meetings from problem-solving meetings? What’s your protocol for videoconference and hybrid meetings and is it effective?
  • When do they occur? What’s the best date and time that allows for optimal use of time, but also prevents inefficient splits in schedules/heads-down work time? How much time is allotted between meetings? Do you start and end on time?

Engage your managers and employees at all levels in your evaluation, and as Harvard Business School suggests, get to the heart and emotion. Whether employees feel meetings are a good use of time will impact their productivity, engagement, and motivation to attend and participate in them. Ask them how they feel when they look at their calendar of meetings for the week. What words/phrases come to mind when they think about their regular team or all-staff meeting?

From there, do a deep dive into how much time you and your people spend in meetings (per day/week/month) compared to how much time is necessary to get their work done (be that heads-down work or client-facing interactions).

  • How much time do meetings leave employees to do their work?
  • Are you/they forced to get work done outside of business hours as a result?
  • How many meetings (or how much of a given meeting) do they think are essential and productive versus marginal or a complete waste of time?
  • What differentiates meetings that are a waste of time versus those that are very productive?
  • Do they feel there’s a more efficient way to share/gather the information?
  • Do they feel they need to be at all the meetings they’re invited to/expected to attend?
  • When was the last time they felt fully engaged/immersed in a project for more than an hour or two?

In line with the above approach, Harvard Business School conducted a study of an organization’s meeting evaluation and their subsequent revamped approach. They found a 42% increase in overall team collaboration, 32% increase in peoples’ comfort/feeling of safety to participate and express opinions, 28% increase in overall team performance, and between a 62% and 92% increase in work-life balance satisfaction.

How ‘deep’ is the work your employees do and why is it important?

As you consider the effectiveness of meetings, it’s equally important to think about whether employees can regularly get their heads down and work deeply without the distraction of meetings and other interruptions.

Deep work”, as coined by computer science professor and author, Cal Newport, is the ability to focus without distraction on a cognitively demanding task. When employees need to attend several meetings, are expected to respond to incoming instant messages, or have ongoing “drop-ins” to their desks (especially in an open concept office), their ability to focus and concentrate is significantly reduced. On average, it takes 23 minutes to recover from every interruption.

The ability to do deep work is crucial because it’s directly linked with quality. Consider how well you can complete a report or carry out complex financial analysis with several incoming distractions versus how well you can do so with blocks of uninterrupted time. As noted by Karbon HQ, “it’s extremely difficult to reach creativity or excellence in a series of five-minute bursts.” Deep work also leads to a deeper sense of meaning and satisfaction, and minimizes the anxiety associated with ongoing distractions. Ultimately, this impacts your bottom line as an organization. As Cal puts it, “deep work is like a superpower in our current economy: it enables you to quickly (and deliberately) learn complicated new skills and produce high-value output at a high rate.”

While it’s certainly true that individual style and capacity impacts one’s ability to do deep work, your organization’s culture and expectations can play a big part. Leaders and managers can promote and facilitate deep work by: 

  • Evaluating and, where necessary, rethinking meeting protocol and expectations.
  • Modeling and allowing employees to schedule DND/deep work blocks (of at least one or two hours) in their calendars at times when they’re cognitively at their best. In doing so, support them to turn off notifications, put the phone away, close the door, and make themselves unavailable.
  • Scheduling ‘shallow work’ that isn’t cognitively demanding (responding to email and other messages, updating documents, update meetings or calls, etc.) at times when they don’t have to be at their absolute best.
  • Keep in mind that if you’re always on/always available, you will also always be busy.

We acknowledge that unproductive meetings are far from the only culprit (think: social media and instant apps) preventing you/your people from working at their best. There’s a reason, however, that comedies and clips (e.g., Office Space and John Cleese’s “Meetings, Bloody Meetings”) have been poking fun at meetings for 50+ years!

Jouta’s HR Consultants can help you evaluate your organization’s meeting culture, getting you on track for deeper, higher quality work.