Holding meetings to share ideas, develop relationships and achieve any number of goals is second nature to organisations.

But in an increasingly complex working world, is it possible that meetings are creating more problems than they solve? And that instead of fuelling innovation and productivity, too many meetings are doing the opposite?

Why unnecessary meetings can be bad for business

Why unnecessary meetings can be bad for business

According to the Harvard Business Review, there were 60% more remote meetings per employee in 2022, compared with 2020. That means, on average, employees attend eight remote meetings a week.

But many business leaders are now finding that there are downsides to a packed meeting schedule.

The first is that there are just too many people in meetings. This may be because too many people are invited in the first place, or because people accept invitations for the wrong reasons – such as office politics or habit. The result is unproductive meetings with people sitting back and coasting, or missing out on opportunities to contribute.

Poorly structured or managed meetings are another time-waster. Hours can be spent discussing agenda points, letting a few people dominate the discussion or trying to cover too much ground in a single meeting. Meetings that are badly managed, too big, too long or too general can also give way to a feeling of pressure to conform.

Employees may also hold back on decisions and tasks until after a meeting, losing a sense of individual responsibility for the work. Plus, employees with a busy schedule of compulsory meetings can feel a loss of control over their own work or position in the team.

Perhaps most significantly, meetings cost money. Calculating the pay per hour of each attendee and multiplying it by the length and number of meetings that person attends can be a wake-up call to the true cost of 'too many meetings'.

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Are there more meetings post-pandemic?

Are there more meetings post-pandemic?

Perhaps in an effort to connect remote and in-person teams, organisations are having more meetings. As well as the findings of the Harvard Business Review report, work management software company Asana reports that time spent in meetings is up by an hour a week since the pandemic.

Whether virtual or in person, employees are feeling the pressure of too many meetings. According to Korn Ferry research, 67% feel too many meetings limit their impact, and 34% believe up to five hours a week are wasted on unnecessary meetings.

And it's not just the time spent in the meeting itself. There's also 'meeting recovery syndrome', as people regroup to discuss their experiences of the meeting, potentially distracting them from the issues discussed during it.

Is having less meetings a good idea?

Is having less meetings a good idea?

Several high-profile companies are currently experimenting with banning meetings altogether. Top retail site Shopify has set strict limits, scrapping recurring meetings between more than 2 people, a no-meetings day on Wednesdays, and setting a strict 6-hour window on a Thursday for meetings with over 50 attendees.

Meanwhile, digital media company The Soul Publishing has eliminated all meetings and internal emails in favour of working collaboratively through central communications platforms.

But there's much to be said for retaining at least some business meetings. The HBR research shows a link between meeting attendance and engagement, with employees who were in the process of leaving, or left within six months of the survey attending fewer meetings.

And there are other reasons why meetings will stay a core part of business culture.

  • Stronger relationships. Effective meetings bring people together. They help establish valuable relationships between teams, across tasks and socially, improving employee experience.

  • The ability to establish and build on aligned thinking. Meetings can help people make decisions quickly and effectively, as well as communicating messages and decisions instantly. This is especially useful where the meeting covers complex issues.

  • Feedback is instant, concerns and issues can be raised at the time and issues identified, including the level of engagement and support for decisions among attendees.

  • Promoting inclusion. By inviting the right employees to the right meetings, managers can make sure that they have diverse experience and input into discussions and decisions.

  • Boosting commitment. Where decisions are made during a meeting, tasks, responsibilities and actions can be assigned immediately, and specific employee responsibilities made clear to everyone.

Rather than scrapping meetings altogether, and risking losing the advantages of human interaction, the majority of organisations will need to come to terms with a changed workplace, and maximise the possibilities of a much wider variety of options for collective working.

However, to avoid the pitfalls of too many costly meetings, there are a number of ways in which meetings – virtual and in-person – can be made more effective and less wasteful.

How to reduce unnecessary meetings at work

How to reduce unnecessary meetings at work

  • Audit and clear unnecessary meetings

    This is especially useful where meetings are automatically recurring and attendees are struggling to engage or find things to contribute.

  • Allow and encourage respectful declining

    Let employees know that turning down a meeting invitation is OK, especially where they have other demands on their time and don't feel they can contribute in a valuable way.

  • Introduce meeting-free times

    This can be meeting-free days, or hours in which meetings should not be scheduled. Meeting-free times will help people concentrate on other work, as well as consider what they can usefully contribute to any scheduled meetings.

  • Prepare thoroughly

    Work through each agenda item. You might even find that some goals can be achieved without having the meeting.

  • Replace regular update sessions

    You can put regular updates on group chats or news feeds so people can access news and progress when it suits them.

  • Publish the meeting duration ahead of time

    If employees know how long the meeting will take, they can plan their contribution and their time more effectively.

  • Have a clear agenda

    Make sure that you have clear discussion points and goals for the meeting. If there aren't any, or if the background work or information you need isn't available, cancel the meeting.

  • Delegate

    Use members of your team to attend instead of you, if appropriate. You don't all need to be there.

  • Work asynchronously

    Meetings may not need to be at a specific time for everyone. You can use communications platforms to keep meetings 'open' for longer periods, with attendees contributing as the meeting progresses.

How to make the meetings you do have better

How to make the meetings you do have better

If you're scheduling a meeting, or a series of meetings, there are a few ways to make them more productive more cost-effective:

  • Cut down on admin

    Use AI to take the work out of scheduling and managing agendas, sending invitations and reminders and recording, transcribing and sharing meeting reports.

  • Reduce numbers

    Make sure that everyone you invite really needs to be in the meeting. And let people know they can turn down an invitation if they have nothing to contribute.

  • Keep it short

    The consensus is that the ideal length of a meeting is something between 15 and 45 minutes – any longer than that and people will get bored and distracted. According to findings from zippia.com, employees are highly likely to multi-task during virtual meetings, with 55% checking email, 51% texting, 45% snacking and 39% scrolling social media.

  • Stand up

    In-person meetings where everyone stays standing cut out time used to get settled around a table. They also show respect for attendees' time and minimise distractions.

  • Shorter speaking windows

    Giving contributors a time limit to make their point will cut down the overall length of the meeting and help make sure that no one dominates.

  • Try tech enhancements

    Virtual meetings can suffer from attendees being distracted and suffering from screen fatigue. That's why companies are enhancing their meetings by using virtual reality (VR) to give people working remotely a feeling of real in-the-room presence in meetings.

  • Stick to the agenda

    Don't go off on tangents or use the meeting as an excuse to micro-manage attendees

  • Gather and use feedback

    Ask people how relevant, important or valuable the meeting has been. And find out if they have any suggestions for change that will make meetings more engaging and productive.

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