Don’t hold a meeting unless the issue is very important and there is no other way to put the message across.
This is a general guide to post-pandemic business management.
Zoom and online meetings are here now. Meetings used to be a lot in the office. Now, with the office limitation removed, meetings are going to be way more than what you previously thought was a lot.
The number one complaint in many organizations is that the company has too many meetings. The allegation is obviously true.
Meetings are for meeting people. Reserve them for meeting someone for the first time. You cannot be meeting the same person every time. Holding a meeting should be for something special, not for something routine.
Three Problems with Meetings
- Productivity Killer
- Group Dynamics
There are many things that kill productivity in an organization. Excessive meetings are the mother of all productivity killers. The number of hours lost by organizations in meetings is staggering. If a meeting, attended by five people takes an hour, the company loses 5 man-hours. If it takes two hours the company loses 10 man-hours. A company that is infected with the curse of meetings can easily lose 20–30% of its total available man-hours to meetings. The time eaten by meetings is usually lost time.
The average employee has a 40-hour workweek. If this employee has an average of five meetings a week that totals 5 hours, the employee consumes 12.5% of the weekly working hours in meetings. Those in middle management and upper management typically have more than 5 meetings in a week, thus they lose more than 12% of their time. The bad thing for the business is that salaried employees are actually being paid for this wasted time.
If you think the time lost in a meeting is too much, wait till you investigate the time taken by employees in preparing for a meeting. The time consumed in a meeting is typically less than the time taken to prepare for a meeting for organizations that have a toxic finger-pointing culture.
Most of these organizations heretically misconstrue the principles of accountability. They end up developing a toxic blame culture that suffocates employees. Meetings in such organizations serve as a hot chamber for “holding-each-other-accountable” even though 90% of the participants in those meetings see them as torture chambers.
People spend hours thinking of what to report on, especially formulating the best excuses on why they have not done what they were assigned to do in the previous meeting. People spend hours preparing for a meeting. People spend time formatting the reports and ‘nicing-up’ presentations. All of this is wasted time. This is time that people could have spent doing what they are supposed to do (i.e., their jobs).
At times, people are forced to change work priorities because of meetings. Work gets determined by the need to have something to report on in a meeting. In the worst cases, people end up neglecting their primary job responsibility just to be shining stars in meetings. All of this eats into productivity.
I once worked in an entity where business development (BD) was at the core of the organization. The company had a Business Development Department with hard-working BD Warriors. It also had a Marketing and Sales department. But the whole concept of business development was turned into an integral part of the business that dominated every meeting. In the end, every employee ended up exerting a lot of effort into becoming a BD warrior. Accountants, security guards, cashiers, receptionists, risk managers, and buyers all spent a lot of time trying to be salespersons. This is as unproductive an organization can ever get. A risk manager acting as a salesperson is the mother of all conflicts of interest. A buyer spending time trying to make sales is very unproductive because the buyer is not good at selling and he is leaving less time for performing his real job (i.e., buying). This is an extreme example of business management gone wrong. However, the root of this problem was excessive meetings where the only praiseworthy metric was the one that is easily communicable, sales.
The above example happened at the level of the entire company losing focus because of meetings. The same happens at department levels, as well as individual levels. An individual focuses on whatever was discussed in the Monday morning meeting because it will be followed up on the Friday meeting. He ignores everything else, no matter how urgent and how important it is. This is an unproductive use of time.
In most organizations, the typical complaint is that the company has too many meetings which take up a lot of time, leaving employees with very little time to actually do their work. The prevalence of this complaint across industries kind of validates the case.
Meetings break up the working day into short periods where a person cannot really focus on getting things done. If you start work at 8 am and have two meetings in the morning and one in the afternoon, your workday is broken into periods punctuated by the meetings. Oftentimes, these meetings are not scheduled in a continuous sequence timewise. You start work at 8, there is a meeting between 9 and 10, and another one between 11 and 12, and a final one between 3 and 4. The periods that you can focus on your work are broken into phases (8 to 9, 10 to 11, 12 to 1, 2 to 3, and 4 to 5).
It would help if the three hours of meetings was one block of time, say 8 to 11 am, leaving the rest of the day as one continuous block. Meetings are not planned to optimize for one individual, thus by default you are bound to have discontinuous phases. This is a productivity killer.
You action two email items within an hour. Halfway through actioning the third item, ding-dong, it's time for another meeting. When you are back from that meeting, you start actioning whatever was said to be urgent in the meeting. By the time you go back to actioning the item you left halfway before the meeting, you have forgotten some of the key details and you have to read the email again before you proceed with actioning it. Before you finalize the action, ding dong, the notification for another meeting comes, so you have to drop whatever you are doing so that you prepare for the next meeting, read the agenda again and make sure you have gathered all that will be required.
Because your day is broken into disparate pieces, your productivity is affected. You are less productive than you ought to be. On hectic days, you cannot fully complete a single task.
Most internal meetings are not a real product or work, they are just abstract distractions. Holding a meeting is not delivering a service. It is not manufacturing a product. It does not contribute to any specific KPI. There are people who misidentify holding meetings as doing work. The aspects of meetings that are mistakenly deemed as work are usually higher managerial functions. These include holding the team accountable, motivating team members, planning, leading, giving direction, and reviewing. Most of these functions can actually be performed without having meetings.
Instead of being a productivity booster, meetings kill productivity by swallowing a noticeable chunk of time that was supposed to be dedicated to working. In general, a meeting is a misallocation of a very important resource that the organization has, time. This is general. There are exceptions to the general rule.
The problem of group dynamics makes meetings very ineffective at whatever they try to accomplish. Group dynamics is a system of behaviors and psychological processes occurring within a group. A meeting with three or more people is a group.
What’s the number two complaint regarding meetings? Meetings are boring. Meetings are boring because one person or a few persons dominate. In a business setup, the dominant person is typically the most senior person in that meeting. He talks the most, he asks questions, he comments, and he tells people what to do, et cetera. Whilst this might be characterized as business leadership, it is actually not leadership at all. It’s simply bossing around. Characterizing it as business leadership is a misdiagnosis.
Group dynamics are present even in social groups where a hierarchy evolves naturally without the appointment of positions. In business setups where positions and authority are vested in persons, negative group dynamics multiply.
Negative group dynamic effects are the dominant feature in corporate meetings. Typically, 20% of participants talk 80% of the time. If it is planning, it means only 20% of the people will be planning, the rest are observers. If it's follow-ups, 80% typically give generic answers of a template type. It doesn't matter which company meeting you enter; you can easily identify those that belong to the 80% section by the answers they give to the follow-ups. Some of the template types of answers include “I will follow up on it”. These follow-ups are better done on email, Slack, or even WhatsApp. These platforms can yield better results than a meeting.
Group dynamics render meetings useless because of the default dominance of a few individuals. There are numerous meetings where a person attends and never gets to speak. You wonder if such a person was ever supposed to be part of the meeting. If the person was supposed to hear something in that meeting, maybe that specific thing should have been sent in a short email or a short video message from whoever was dominating the conversation. Done this way, the recipients can get to consume the information at times that are appropriate to each of them. Employees can have continuous work periods where they can focus and get things done.
Whatever it is that you try to accomplish by having a meeting is constantly under threat from negative group dynamics. An example detailed below is motivation which is easily converted into demotivation by negative group dynamics.
There are many things that demotivate employees in an organization. Meetings are one of them. Of course, it is not the biggest of them, the biggest ones are remuneration level and management style.
Due to negative group dynamics effects and the inherent ability of meetings to kill productivity, most employees do not like meetings. As such, meetings tend to demotivate employees. This also applies to meetings that are scheduled solely for the purpose of motivating employees.
It is very hard to conduct the perfect meeting that does not demotivate participants. There are many things that have to be right. For example, the convener has to moderate and allow everyone to participate. This is a skill most conveners don’t have, especially when the convener holds a powerful position. The meeting has to have an agenda. Yes, we have heard about that, but most meetings are convened with “made-up” agendas that are not real agendas. These meetings end up demotivating employees because they are unstructured, conversations are all over the place, and boredom easily creeps in.
Boredom during meetings also happens to be the leading factor in demotivating employees. It is very hard to structure meetings in a way that makes them interesting.
Showboating, bullying, dominating others, silly-talk, endless talk, condescending tones, verbal demands, pressurized environment, et cetera, can bother a lot of participants and demotivate them. These things could not be practiced to the same level of violence outside the meeting room. Showboating and bullying can be handled better by employees via emails than in meetings. When done inside a meeting, the resulting demotivation is way higher than via email.
Even though the intention of many meetings is to deliberate things together, clarify positions, review progress together, and motivate each other. The opposite. It is visibly evident when the meeting ends. People feel relieved that the meeting is over. At the same time, they feel demotivated afterward. Most business leaders are not motivational speakers, so meetings are generally not motivational even though they want to motivate employees to drive them to higher levels of performance.
There are way too many problems with meetings. The three discussed above are merely examples that put the matter into perspective. The post-pandemic business manager must be wary of paying people so that they can listen to him talk. The management style of “Management-By-Holding-Meetings” is going to mislead a lot of business managers, driving them to realms of unproductivity.