The corporate world has always loved meetings just a little too much. But the pandemic accelerated the problem, as managers desperately attempted to supervise their direct reports after the shift to remote work, and team members strove to coordinate with each other and maintain some semblance of social connection.
A 15,000-person study by Reclaim.ai showed that professionals now spend more than half the standard workweek—a full 21½ hours—in meetings, an increase of 7.3 hours a week just since the pandemic began. Even as many companies have returned to the office or adopted hybrid arrangements, it seems the bias toward more meetings may have stuck. The overall number of meetings remains up nearly 70% versus February 2020, the study reports.
And of course, more of our meetings are held virtually—an additional challenge because they can be particularly exhausting compared with in-person meetings, Stanford research has showngiven the intensity of close eye contact and the mentally stressful temptation to monitor one’s own reflection.
So what do we have to show for this surfeit of meetings? Apparently not much. One 2017 study of senior executives by Harvard Business School professor Leslie Perlow and her colleagues showed that only 17% believed meetings were a good use of either group or individual time. Indeed, the time we spend in meetings is time that we’re not accomplishing the “deep work” we actually get evaluated on, whether that’s closing sales, completing analyses, completing reports or developing new strategies.
As most of us know all too well, much of our current work ends up getting shunted to nights and weekends.
So if you’re feeling the burden of endless meetings, here are four strategies you can employ to fight back—even if you’re part of a meeting-happy culture.
Address the problem upstream
Let’s face it: If everyone around you seems to love meetings, it’s hard to be the voice arguing against them, in favor of greater productivity. Instead, try to tackle the problem upstream. If you’re the boss, you can implement a “meeting-free Friday” (or Monday, etc.) experiment, in which at least one day a week is held sacred, companywide, for more focused work. companies like
parent Meta Platforms Inc. and
have adopted the practice, and researchers are bullish. One recent study by Prof. Benjamin Laker, of the University of Reading’s Henley Business School, and his colleagues declared: “When one no-meeting day per week was introduced, autonomy, communication, engagement, and satisfaction all improved, resulting in decreased micromanagement and stress, which caused productivity to rise .” Cite the experts and make your case.
Appeal to shared sentiment
Even when people are dissatisfied with a situation (ie, too many meetings), they’ll likely revert to their old habits unless they’re “disrupted” from that behavior. You—kindly and gently—can be the disrupter by reminding them of what they’re already feeling. “I don’t know about you,” you could say, “but it seems like we’re all pretty exhausted from so many meetings these days. Instead of meeting as a team to brainstorm about our retreat, maybe we could just delegate it to one person to come up with initial ideas and then at our next official team meeting, we could review them. What do you think? You’re not shirking responsibility for dodging an ill-conceived meeting: Your suggestion is making it easier for everyone to skip a meeting no one really wanted or needed.
Question the invitation
If it’s the default in your company to suggest a meeting, the bar for a meeting-worthy occasion is likely low. So you can’t simply assume that because you’ve been invited that it will be a good use of your time. Instead, make it standard practice to “interrogate the invitation” by asking the meeting host what the meeting topic will be and what, specifically, they’d like you to contribute.
If they give a vague answer (“It’d be nice to have you there and get your perspective”), that’s a sign that either the agenda is ill-formed or you won’t have a meaningful role to play. In that case—unless the meeting in question is politically sensitive or you’ve been directly asked to attend by your boss—you can likely beg off with a friendly note. “Thanks so much for inviting me,” you could say. “I’m slammed working on another project right now, but if you can send me the meeting minutes, I’d be glad to weigh in afterward.”
It may feel risky to be honest about your meeting aversion—but odds are, many of your colleagues share it. If a noncritical invitation comes your way, you may actually gain the respect of your peers for speaking up. “I have to be honest with you,” you could say. “I kind of hate meetings. I want to be helpful to you, so if my presence is important, I’ll be there. But if there are other ways I could pitch in—whether that’s hopping on a quick call with you beforehand to strategize, or emailing you some ideas I’ve brainstormed—I think I can probably be most useful that way. What do you think and how can I help? At a minimum, your peers will know where you stand, and will probably hesitate before they want only inviting you to future nonessential gatherings. But in many cases, you may be able to craft a win-win solution with this strategy—helping in a deeper and more targeted fashion, while avoiding the dragged-out performativity that so many meetings return into.
SHARE YOUR THOUGHTS
What are your strategies for avoiding meetings you feel might waste your time? Join the conversation below.
Meetings generally aren’t anyone’s idea of a good time. But too often, we accept them as a necessary “tax” on our productivity—the inevitable cost of being part of an organization. But that doesn’t have to be true. By using these strategies, you can avoid the most painful and least productive meetings, leaving room for more important work.
Dorie Clark is a marketing strategy consultant and keynote speaker who teaches executive education at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business and Columbia Business School. Her newest book of her is “The Long Game: How to Be a Long-Term Thinker in a Short-Term World.”
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