“This meeting could have been an email” is the all too common complaint whispered between friendly colleagues during the week’s umpteenth group meeting. It’s been deemed necessary for brainstorming, planning, and team building.
…And somehow also feels like a waste of time.
Daily and weekly recurring meetings being part of company culture are nothing new. Post-pandemic, company-wide and team meetings have seen a sharp increase.
But if recent headlines are anything to go by, they might be on the way out. At least, that’s what major companies like Shopify are pushing for.
Too Many Meetings
“Good communication negates the need for frequent real-time discussion.” – Baz Hand, Head of Marketing at Mibo
According to data from Microsoft Teams, since February 2020, remote workers have had a 252% increase in time spent in meetings. And from 2020 to 2021, meetings, in general, increased by nearly 70%. Wild stat: upwards of 40% of one-on-ones are rescheduled weekly.
With a big chunk of the increase coming from remote-first workers, it’s possible that meetings have been replacing organic employee conversation and relationships. Though important, these virtual water cooler chats are not always conducive to productivity.
A pre-pandemic survey by Korn Ferry found that 67% of workers felt too many meetings had a negative impact on their work, and 34% said pointless meetings consumed up to 5 hours of their day. Understandable, given that workers spend an average of 18 hours per week (and up to 21 hours according to other research) in meetings.
So why not just say “no”? Evidently, it’s not that easy. A survey in 2022 showed that employees would like to decline 31% of the meetings but, in reality, only decline 14%.
Who’s Banning Meetings – and Why
Imagine the freedom to say “no” to things that do not add value to your workday.
Recently, Shopify CEO Tobi Lutke announced that employees are encouraged to decline meetings that may hinder their productivity. The “calendar purge” removed recurring meetings of 2+ people and put a strict ban on meetings being held on Wednesdays, freeing up larger blocks of time for async work to boost mid-week productivity.
“If you say yes to a thing, you actually say no to every other thing you could have done with that period of time. As people add things, the set of things that can be done becomes smaller. Then, you end up with more and more people just maintaining the status quo.” – Shopify CEO, Tobi Lutke
Charles Gorintin, the co-founder of French company, Alan, agrees that meetings can be a waste of time. Gorintin’s radical methods include letting people decline team meetings: “Six people doing an hour-long meeting is the equivalent of six hours of work. The ratio, time versus productivity, is usually not good.” To avoid foreseen continuity issues, Gorintin had a simple solution: hire one constant organization manager per rotating team.
Google made a similar statement in 2020 when they banned meetings for a week. The result was a positive shift toward completely autonomous work, free of reliance on a particular time zone.
Research suggests excessive meetings can lead to increased employee stress. Cyprus-based digital company TheSoul Publishing noted reducing stress-causing “meeting-overload” as a factor in their meeting ban decision. The company justifications include the time constraint that meetings put on employees, limiting time for “heads-down” work.
The result? Happier and fulfilled employees who feel their time is valued and respected and are in control of how their time is spent.
Gumroad, a digital retail platform, is fully remote but doesn’t stop there. Founder Sahil Lavingia stated they do not have deadlines or meetings, relying on fully asynchronous work and communication platforms like Slack and Notion. The policy reduces collaboration friction from standups and “expensive feedback loops”.
The benefits, according to Lavingia, include 85% year-over-year revenue growth, more thoughtful communication, better work-life balance, accountability and receipts, reduced stress, and more.
Asana instituted a company-wide ban on meetings that is in effect on Wednesdays, creating a solid block of async time for employees to exercise a balance of freedom and structure. COO Anne Raimondi says that a mid-week meeting ban creates better flow within the company: “Everyone knows there’s time to go in-depth on something related to strategy or planning.”
“…People do their best work when they’ve got dedicated extended blocks of time to really get into a focused state and to experience flow,” – Dave King, Asana CMO
Zapier, a fully-remote integration company, hasn’t yet gone all-in with a meeting ban but has been experimenting with blocking off large chunks of no-meeting time. Following a week of no meetings in 2022, Zapier surveyed participating employees; 80% said they’d achieved their goals, and 89% said communication remained effective sans meetings.
Regular Group Meetings: Useful or Wasteful?
Before the big shift to remote-first work, it was found that over 20% of “productive capacity” was being lost to time-losing processes such as meetings and other company structures, causing what author Michael C. Mankins calls “organizational drag”.
Additionally, meetings are not free. Assuming an average salary of $160,000 for tech workers (devs are expensive!), an hour-long 6-person meeting can cost a company nearly $500. One survey suggests that $37 billion in salaries is the cost of unnecessary meetings for U.S. businesses alone.
So, in today’s remote-first and hybrid teams, are regular large meetings still useful? Whether or not a meeting is useful largely depends on the type and goal of the meeting.
Check-Ins & Standups
Regularly checking in with your team on a weekly basis has been a staple of many agile teams. It’s a great opportunity to see who needs help and with what.
They are always important. Doing the groundwork beforehand, however, makes them more efficient. It’s also important to have a clear purpose, an agenda, and a thoughtful list of attendees to make the best use of time.
When the main focus of a meeting is a presentation, teams should consider whether or not it’s the best use of everyone’s time.
Could the presentation be reviewed independently at an individual’s time of convenience? Is synchronicity key? How important is a Q&A? Is there a complexity that will necessitate discussion and clarification?
Presentations (and many other meeting types) do present valuable opportunities to align thinking and fastrack decision-making. It’s critical to differentiate between valuable presentations and wasteful ones.
Having a post-presentation checklist, such as sharing notes and feedback, ideally with context, is important to maximizing collaborative learnings.
A bulk of brainstorming and ideation can (and should) be done independently, but coming together to go over ideas can be a practical use of time. Brainstorming can be effective when the right number of people are involved – which can vary from 2 to 7 people, depending on the project or issue at hand.
To keep the work away from meetings, focus on async tools like Google Docs. Coda brainstorming templates and Miro for virtual whiteboarding can be helpful alternatives.
In situations where an issue or problem requires immediate resolution or solutions, a one-on-one meeting between the people directly involved and impacted is a common scenario. While the companies listed above encourage the decline of large group meetings, smaller team meetings remain a necessary problem-solving tool.
People not directly involved in the issue at hand can be left out of the meeting, being sent a recording of the meeting or key takeaways instead.
If the main purpose of managers enforcing team meetings is a claim to “morale-boosting”, they may be way off. In fact, meetings that are mismanaged or deemed unnecessary can lead to contempt and quitting.
On the flip side, company or team wides (that are well organized), on occasion, have the potential to boost morale and keep the company aligned.
Async Work in a Post-Meetings Age
The concept of remote-first can mean teams encompassing members from various cities, countries, and time zones. The benefits of a diverse team go without saying. But reliance on a typical 9-5 day and one time zone for regular large group meetings is a drawback for some. Generally, moving to async can be more efficient.
In 2023, more and more roles are becoming autonomous, with performance being based on output rather than clocked time. Companies are concerned about employee productivity, not time at their desk.
Fewer meetings can free up time for async work, leading to more productivity overall.
As many remote-first companies are proving, async work can be extremely profitable when leaders prioritize productivity above hours spent and remote-first workers are given the freedom to work how they are most efficient.
For example, Mibo, a video chat app, runs a fully async internal process. Head of Marketing, Baz Hand, said the method relies on trust (among co-workers and between managers and employees). The benefits, according to Hand, come down to better focus. Since everyone is most productive at different times during the day, expecting that always align isn’t practical. Async work, he says, allows him to “get into deep work without a looming calendar appointment.”
Whether you’re pro group meetings or are ready to move on, the reality is that it might just be time to adapt to new ways of working.
To Meet or Not to Meet
To determine if a meeting is useful or time-wasting, consider the invitees, topics of discussion, and what needs to be resolved. Who is essential to that process? Can it be resolved via an async virtual tool?
Rather than regular meetings, many teams are limiting when meetings can be booked, filling in the gaps with collaboration tools. Apps like Slack allow for quick and short responses to urgent questions. Online proofing software like ReviewStudio eliminates the need for feedback-related meetings, as review and approval is tracked and synced for all project stakeholders.
When it comes to whether or not meetings are necessary, perhaps “to sync or to async”, that is the question.