What If Meetings Aren’t the Problem? What If We Are?

Meetings and email—they’re the two biggest hindrances to workplace productivity. That’s what we’ve been told, and it’s what many continue to believe. It makes sense. It jives with our sense of what it feels like to be in an office environment, or even an academic workplace. What’s interesting about both email and meetings is that an individual is not 100 percent responsible for it. Does this sound like you:

The problem with email is not entirely my fault, after all. It’s a product of how colleagues, co-workers, and clients communicate with everyone. Similarly with meetings, they hurt my ability to be productive because other people invite me to meetings that are a waste of my time. They’re poorly run, and I shouldn’t even be in most of them.

Too Much Time in Meetings

Knowledge workers do spend a lot of time in meetings. In a 9.4-hour workday, one research study showed, 34 percent of the time is spent either in meetings or having face-to-face conversations (Barley et al., 2011). So the sheer amount of time we spend in meetings can get out of control. But research by Luong and Rogelberg (2005) suggests there may be something else in play.

Luong and Rogelberg went looking for evidence that meetings negatively affect employees’ well-being. They spend a lot of time making the case that meetings are interruptions to work. Like other interruptions, meetings sour the employee’s mood and, essentially, prevent them from getting work done. They decide to focus on how meetings contribute to “fatigue, perceptions of workload, and feelings of productivity.”

The language they chose is not accidental. “Perceptions of workload” and “feelings of productivity” are not “workload” or “productivity.” Those words describe how meetings make people feel, rather than describing their actual output.

Luong and Rogelberg say meetings are like interruptions because interruptions also make employees feel like they have more work and are less productive. But we also know that interruptions can improve productivity rather than slow it down (to a point; it’s an inverted U-shaped curve). Interruptions in moderation, it turns out, are beneficial. We might feel like interruptions slow us down, but they don’t!

Meetings are Not Interruptions

Meetings aren’t interruptions, though. Interruptions are unplanned, whereas meetings are generally scheduled. Meetings usually appear on one’s calendar hours or days or weeks in advance. Unless it’s an impromptu meeting, workers generally know well ahead of time when a meeting will occur. Meetings aren’t anything like interruptions at all. So why do people respond to them similarly?

One possible reason is that workers don’t manage their time well, so even when a meeting is planned in advanced, employees might be unprepared for them.

In interviewing Jason Shah, a software developer who makes software designed to improve meetings (Duffy, 2016), I learned that people often schedule meetings because they know they’re needed, but then no one prepares adequately, including the person who is supposed to be driving the meeting.

What Can You Do?

As I researched this topic, I wondered, “What would Tim Ferriss say?” I imagine that Ferriss, author of The 4-Hour Work Week, would say, “Don’t go to meetings. Turn down whatever meetings you can. Stop attending, and see what happens.” While the imaginary words I’m putting into Ferriss’ mouth might sounds extreme, part of me wants to back them.

It seems like part of the problem with meetings is that we allow ourselves to blame others for the time the meetings take up. If we want that time back, or we want more control over our time period, then we need to reject requests for meetings.

Or, if meetings are important, we need to prepare better for them and make them productive. A meeting is only as productive as the people who are in it. Shah recommends very simple techniques, such as:

  • creating an agenda before a meeting,
  • circulating the agenda,
  • scheduling meetings for only as long as they need to be rather than defaulting to one hour,
  • taking notes during a meeting, and
  • following up afterward as appropriate.

His software, Do.com, encourages all these behaviors.

References

Barley, S., Myerson, D., & Grodel, S. (2011) E-mail as a source and symbol of stress. Organization Science 22 (4): 887–906. Retrieved Jan. 22, 2016 from http://people.bu.edu/grodal/Email.pdf

Duffy, J. (2016). Jason Shah, Founder of Do.com On Making Meetings More Productive. PCMag.com. January 19, 2016. Retrieved June 5, 2016 from http://www.pcmag.com/article2/0,2817,2498025,00.asp

Luong, A., & Rogelberg, S. G. (2005). Meetings and More Meetings: The Relationship Between Meeting Load and the Daily Well-Being of Employees. Group Dynamics: Theory, Research, and Practice, 9(1), 58.

Image by Dukas Ju, CC.

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