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You can avoid the tyranny of workplace meetings

Michael HargreavesMichael Hargreaves·

We’ve all been there. You down tools, somewhat reluctantly pull yourself away from your desk, and head on over to the conference room for that looming project progress meeting.

You take your seat at the table surrounded by your colleagues, and the meeting begins. First, the pleasantries. Followed by the ‘brief’ review of the project itself. Whoops – someone’s arrived late. Cue the reiteration of what’s already been said to bring the latecomer up-to-speed.

By this point, 10 minutes of the allotted one-hour timeslot has already passed – and not a smidgen of real progress has been made. And the likely outcome? You’re not getting out of that meeting any time soon.

Does this sound familiar? I’d bet a healthy sum that it’s something you’ve experienced regularly in the workplace.

After all, meetings are deeply engrained within organizational operation and culture. And sometimes, they can be genuinely useful – nurturing greater innovation, ideation and creativity.

The problem is that the majority of time we spend in meetings actually ends up tragically going to waste. We enter the progress reviews, the mind-dumping sessions, the project evaluations, with the best intentions that they’ll be an effective helping hand for our productivity.

But unfortunately, in most cases – exactly the opposite is true.

The problems with meetings

The fundamental problem with meetings is that although they’re only a small part of everything we have to deal with on a daily basis – when they overrun your schedule, they start to massively impede the time you have to focus on meaningful work.

Unfortunately, the data we have to hand paints a rather disheartening picture of just how counter-productive they can be.

Research by Atlassion shows that most employees have their genuine productivity time sapped away in an average of 62 meetings a month. If all those meetings were, let’s say, an hour long – that’s over a third of monthly working time spent chewing the cud with colleagues without doing anything particularly useful.

But it gets worse. Atlassion’s research goes even deeper to reveal that during their meetings:

  • 91% of employees spend their time day-dreaming.
  • 73% of employees focus on other work.

And – perhaps most astonishing of all – 39% admitted to taking a snooze.

In other revealing research, psychologist Kathleen Vohs suggests that meetings also demand a lot of our cognitive (executive) resources – draining our ability to make coherent decisions and process information.

But meetings aren’t the only culprit eating up our precious time. Add in other unhelpful distractions like endless emails, social media, and noisy colleagues, and it’s no wonder so many employees feel overwhelmed. In the midst of all this activity – only a mere three hours of the average employee’s working day is actually spent being genuinely productive.

As a result, rather than enjoying a stable work-life balance – many employees are forced to take all their unfinished work home with them in order to get through it meeting and distraction-free.

All this begs the question – if meetings really are so profusely ineffective, why do we partake in them at all?

The fact is, meetings will never stop being a necessity. Organizations are a collective venture, and if no-one came together to discuss projects, ideas, and progress, they’d grind to a halt.

We just need to redress the hugely lopsided balance of useful vs. wasted productivity – making meetings as effective as possible so our time, effort and focus can be properly invested where it’ll really yields results.

So how can we make meetings work, at work?

Stick to an agenda

To prevent your meetings from overrunning, create a concrete agenda and stick to it. Avoid digression and too much detail – keeping each discussion point short, sweet and as to-the-point as possible. If you’re heading up the meeting, guide its flow so debate remains on topic.

Banish unnecessary meetings

What’s the point in turning up to a meeting where you’ll at best only provide a marginally useful contribution? And if you’re organising a meeting, why invite every Tom, Dick and Harry in the office? If you don’t think a particular meeting will benefit you, stick to your desk; and likewise, if you think your own meeting will waste someone’s time, well – just don’t invite them. As the saying goes – too many cooks spoil the broth!

Try alternative means of communication

Avoid organizing a meeting if it’s not absolutely essential. If you’re looking for collective ideation, you may find a suggestion box or an online forum a much more time-efficient strategy. And if you’re just looking for a quick review or catch-up, perhaps email would be an effective alternative?

It might seem like we’re often shackled by the ceaseless tyranny of endless meetings, investing a lot of our precious, fleeting time for little actual value in return. We enter with our plates already full, and leave with them piled even higher.

But this perennial problem has a simple solution. We just need to proactively make meetings much more effective and efficient.

Ensuring that rather than reluctantly complying – employees genuinely appreciate the chance to get involved and share their insights.

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