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Workplace Dynamics

The Psychology of Pointless Meetings: Productivity's Killer

End boring, useless meetings once and for all.

Nir And Far
Nir And Far

We’ve all been in a dumb meeting — one that makes you think, “This doesn’t even apply to me,” “I’m learning nothing from this,” or, worst of all, “This meeting could have been an email.”

I’m sure you’ve commiserated with colleagues over what a time suck dumb meetings can be.

Still, you might have resigned yourself to dumb meetings, accepting them as an inevitable facet of the workplace.

But dumb meetings are not inevitable; they’re totally avoidable.

Dumb meetings are a sign of a dysfunctional workplace. And it doesn’t have to be that way!

Organizations can implement a simple process to filter out all unnecessary meetings, leaving only those that provide value for employees, teams, and the business at large.

Use this guide to kickstart a discussion about meetings at your organization.

Pointless Meetings Are Bad for Business

Unnecessary meetings are expensive. Not only do superfluous meetings drain morale, but also they cost a bundle in lost productivity.

A one-hour meeting of five people with an average salary of $100,000 costs $350. Multiplied by the hundreds (if not thousands) of hours wasted in dumb meetings, the cost adds up.

Even that figure is underestimated as attendees typically stop working on tasks 15 to 20 minutes before the meeting — virtual ones included — and lose time refocusing on tasks after the meeting, a common effect of task switching. Employees who attend several meetings daily task-switch repeatedly and never have an uninterrupted swathe of time for focused work. Many people also find themselves driven to distraction during these liminal moments, or transitions from one thing to another throughout the day.

It’s no wonder that Harvard Business Review said, “time is an organization’s scarcest — and most often squandered — resource.” Dumb meetings are a drain on productivity.

To stop frivolously spending a resource as precious as time, organizations have to limit their idea of what constitutes a meeting.

What Are Meetings For, Anyway?

The sole purpose of a meeting is to gain consensus. That is it!

To understand what necessitates a meeting or not, separate information dissemination into two categories: synchronous and asynchronous.

Synchronous communication, or the exchange of information in real-time, like meetings, should be reserved exclusively for making a decision. Meetings aren’t the beginning of a decision-making process; they’re the end. During meetings, the team ensures all relevant facts have been considered and commits to a course of action. Everything before the meeting should happen asynchronously.

Asynchronous communication includes a lag between when someone sends a message and when the receiver reads and reacts to it, such as emails and Slack messages. Information dissemination should happen through asynchronous communication, where people can absorb and digest the facts in their own time.

To clarify, meetings are not:

  • Social engagements
  • Company announcements
  • Brainstorming sessions

Fostering a positive company culture is essential, but socializing should be its own thing; it’s not a business meeting. Company announcements can easily be sent over email. No one needs to hear a colleague say things out loud that could have been read in an email in their own time. And brainstorming sessions are one of the biggest culprits for dumb meetings.

If brainstorming sessions are conducted in person, they should be in groups of two (or fewer) people. Why not a big group? First, when you gather several people for brainstorming, the loudest, highest-paid, and most dominant person, usually male, tends to dominate the conversation. Everyone else gets drowned out. And what’s the point of hiring employees only to overlook their professional opinions?

Second, big brainstorming groups are significantly less productive than individuals left to brainstorm alone. That’s why a better approach for brainstorming is to email people the problem and ask them to reply with their thoughts and suggestions by a specific deadline.

If you’re unsure whether your problem necessitates a meeting, follow this protocol. Better yet, suggest to your manager that this protocol be implemented company-wide.

How to Determine If a Meeting Is Necessary

Organizations should have a very high bar for synchronous communication. Meetings should be rare, as they should only be called to gain consensus. And the party calling the meeting should complete three steps before the meeting can happen.

  • First, meeting organizers must disseminate relevant information and ask for feedback through asynchronous channels before scheduling a meeting.
  • Second, organizers must circulate an agenda for the meeting, structuring how attendees will address the problem. No agenda, no meeting.
  • Third, they have to give their best shot at a solution in the form of a brief, written digest. The digest need not be more than a page or two discussing the problem, their reasoning, and their recommendation.

These steps require more effort upfront, but that’s precisely the point. Calling meetings today is too easy, and that’s why we have too many of them. Getting everyone up to speed, asking for their input, circulating an agenda, and preparing a briefing document not only saves everyone time by getting to the point faster but also ensures only the most essential meetings happen.

Establishing a procedure for calling meetings is a considerable step organizations can take to make meetings more worthwhile, demonstrate respect for employees’ time, and increase productivity.

Cutting down on “this meeting could have been an email” gripes is just one of many steps that managers can take to fix distractions in the workplace.

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