In July, the Canadian e-commerce giant Shopify unveiled an internal tool that struck a chord with people online. The way it worked was simple enough: Using a few metrics, like compensation, the number of people involved, and length of time, the tool was able to calculate and display the estimated cost of a proposed meeting by any of its employees.
The point of the tool, called the Shopify Meeting Cost Calculator, was not so much to point out an exact dollar value as to make employees think twice before they asked their co-workers to take a break from their work to come together at the exact same time and talk.
The tool, which was developed during a company hackathon, was part of a broader effort at the company to reduce the amount of time employees spent in meetings. At the start of the year, the company had deleted thousands of meetings (lots of which were recurring) and banned meetings on Wednesdays to help employees reclaim their time and focus on actual work. Shopify had determined that its employees’ “most precious resource” was “uninterrupted time,” said Kaz Nejatian, the company’s chief operating officer. And large numbers of meetings were increasingly getting in the way.
More and more, it seems that company leaders like Nejatian are starting to recognize what lower-level employees have understood for some time: The number of useless meetings employees are required to attend in corporate America (and beyond) has gotten out of hand. Counter to the stereotype of the lean capitalist efficiency machine, tens of millions of people are filling their calendars (not to mention the calendars of others) with ideation sessions, half-hour check-ins, and virtual happy hours. Lazy and unproductive employees are hiding behind this wall of calendar invites, and those who wish to opt out risk awkward explanations and offense.
The problem, exacerbated by the pandemic, has shown no signs of slowing down, but a growing number of companies are recognizing the issue as a significant one and trying to figure out how to turn their cultures around. NPR has reportedly made a concerted effort to shorten or otherwise reduce meetings. The scheduling company Calendly only allows meetings between 12 p.m. and 5 p.m. Meeting researchers told Motherboard that inbound requests for help befuddled leaders have recently increased.
“Companies are taking a much greater interest in this topic than they ever have before,” said Steven Rogelberg, a professor at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte who studies meeting culture and said companies now reach out weekly asking for help. Everyone knows there is a corporate meeting problem, but very few know what to do about it.
There is a paradox at the heart of the world’s meeting problem. On the one hand, it seems like everyone hates meetings. Elon Musk has described them as a “blight” at large organizations. Mark Cuban has said that he won’t even agree to a meeting unless the other person is cutting him a check. Jeff Bezos famously banned PowerPoint presentations at Amazon and requires employees to sit and silently read a memo together so the conversation is useful. One survey of almost 200 senior executives found that only 17 percent of them considered meetings good uses of time, while most of them could agree that meetings get in the way of their own work and are otherwise inefficient. A separate survey found over 90 percent of workers consider the meetings they attend “costly and unproductive.” Meetings are so commonly understood to be regularly scheduled time sucks that the phrase this meeting could have been an email has become a corporate colloquialism.
And yet, meeting bloat only seems to be getting worse. While the exact figures vary, when viewed altogether the numbers make clear something is amiss. Microsoft has estimated that people are spending three times more of their week in meetings since February 2020, right before the pandemic sent the working world home. Various other surveys have found that so-called “knowledge workers” now spend as much as 85 percent of the time in meetings and the typical full-time white-collar U.S. worker spends more than 21 hours a week in them. After surveying 632 employees in 20 different industries, Rogelberg, the University of North Carolina at Charlotte professor, deduced that people spent about 18 hours a week in meetings, even though they only considered 11 hours worth of them to be critical.
The problem is not so much meetings in general as bad meetings in particular, experts say. “Organizations that have excellent meetings are actually more profitable than those that don’t. So meetings can be a competitive advantage,” said Rogelberg. But studies of organizations in various industries have found evidence that “dysfunctional” meetings may lead to less innovation and a competitive disadvantage, and cause significant and negative psychological stress for the workers themselves.
Worse still, bad meetings have a compounding effect, according to Joe Allen, who studies meetings at the University of Utah and directs the Center for Meeting Effectiveness. “One bad meeting causes three more meetings,” said Allen, because follow-up meetings become necessary to decipher what was said. More meetings lead to more stress, then more burnout, then even worse meetings, and the issues become larger and self-perpetuating, according to Allen. Such was the case with one company almost a decade ago that was analyzed by consultants from Bain. A single weekly executive meeting at an unnamed “large company” led to additional meetings with unit heads in order to prepare, which led to additional meetings with their underlings, which led to even more preparation meetings, and so on. In all, the Bain partners found that the company was accidentally committing 300,000 hours a year to preparing for that one weekly executive meeting—and that’s before considering prep time not officially marked on a calendar.
All of these meetings leave little time for workers to perform actual work. Research has found it takes the typical worker almost half an hour to refocus after a distraction. Colette Stallbaumer, who leads Microsoft’s future of work initiative, described “inefficient meetings” as the “number one productivity disrupter” today, according to her team’s research. But saying no to a meeting request takes a little courage, no matter how useless it seems, especially when a superior sends the invite.
As Stallbaumer put it to me: Nowadays, “it takes work to do work.”
It wasn’t always like this. In the 1960s, executives spent less than 10 hours a week in meetings. But over the next five decades, that number steadily rose to 23 hours. Everyone else started to get invited to more meetings too. According to Rogelberg, the development was at least partially benevolent. Since the industrial revolution, organizations had taken a strict top-down approach to management. Lower-level workers were to follow orders, not make suggestions. As workers moved from factories to offices—a shift to a more knowledge-based economy—the decision to hold meetings was a recognition that employees’ opinions were valuable and that their perspective on corporate decisions could be beneficial to all parties. “So the increase of meetings really stemmed from a positive place, almost a counter to the old command-and-control systems in the industrial revolution, where everyone just followed a manager blindly,” said Rogelberg.
This, and a good-natured desire to be inclusive, led to unintended negative consequences. Out of fear of making others feel excluded, meeting organizers started to invite people who didn’t actually need to be there, according to Allen, creating larger meetings in which ideas flowed less freely and concrete decisions became harder to make. Over time, the way organizations of all sorts used meetings became less productive. One 2018 analysis of faculty meetings at the University of Missouri by a business professor there, for example, found that decades ago, such meetings were used to discuss (and then, critically, formally vote on) various specific academic matters like penalties for misconduct and student absences. However, the professor noticed a significant shift after 1993 in how meetings were used. Instead of attempting to achieve resolution on tangible matters, the meetings became a place for people to bloviate and expound, much to the exasperation of the members themselves.
“I’m frustrated by the presentations at our general faculty meetings. I really want to focus on problems. What are the concrete problems that we are confronting?” one philosophy professor was quoted as saying. “The presentations [of] these big, general ideas may be liked by lots of people and they may find them useful. I don’t!” His comments were reportedly met with loud applause.
Another part of the issue likely has to do with an issue separate from but correlated to the increasing uselessness of meetings over time: the rise of the middle manager in corporate America. Managers spend roughly 20 percent more time in meetings than others, which may seem like no big thing, except that the U.S. now reportedly boasts a manager (or administrator) for every 4.7 other workers. An even bigger part of the equation is new managers, who on average arrange 29 percent more meetings than their more experienced peers. Ed Zitron, a writer who also runs a media relations firm, has argued that meetings are often little more than a “a corporate security blanket” that disguises managerial incompetence, laziness, and uselessness. “Meetings are a great way to seem busy, and they are an agreed-upon method of doing stuff at work without having to show you’re doing any work of any kind,” he has written. This is particularly true of managers, he argues. “Without these meetings, it’s very hard to point to what these people do all day.”
Recognizing the issue, Jeff Bezos famously took action at Amazon in 2004, when he “outlawed” PowerPoints and bullet-point lists and instituted a system in which meetings started with participants sitting and silently reading a six-page memo together. The idea was to make sure everyone was actually up to speed before discussion started, so that executives couldn’t “bluff their way through the meeting.” The amount of work involved in creating the memo also dissuaded half-hearted attempts at getting together. He later said the overhaul was “probably the smartest thing we ever did.”
The plan was heralded as proof of the Amazon founder’s acumen. But that external celebration of Bezos’ meeting plan in and of itself also proof that other people were recognizing that a sizable problem had formed too.
Like a lot of people, the scope of global meeting bloat didn’t become quite clear to Benjamin Laker until the pandemic hit. In the early months of lockdown, Laker, a business professor in the U.K. who studies workplace culture, was inundated with requests to join meetings. He couldn’t help but feel annoyed, not simply by the sheer volume of meetings or the fact that he was suddenly spending so much time on Zoom, but because so many of the invitations served “absolutely no purpose whatsoever,” he said.
At first, he figured that he was alone in his irritation with what he saw as an increasingly “indulgent meeting culture.” But as he started speaking to people about how much of his life had become taken over by meetings, he came to realize that was not true. “It seems that many other people felt the same thing,” he said. The pandemic had taken the corporate world’s meeting-related issues and pushed them beyond the pale.
Part of the reason was technological. Stuck at home, people started to schedule online video conferences at a rate never before seen. The number of daily users of the video conference software Zoom reportedly rose to more than 300 million in 2020, up from just 10 million in 2019. The growing comfort with these online meetings was a problem on its own. But it also made it easier than ever to “take over people’s calendars,” Rogelberg said. No longer did people have to vie for a conference room, nor did they have to travel across the country to sit down with someone. With a few clicks, a virtual meeting could be arranged between anyone with an internet connection, and it felt rude to decline such a request. What else were people doing?
But psychological factors played a role as well. For some, digital work led to an absence of connection, loneliness, and anxiety, and some started to compensate for the loss of spontaneous chats and accidental office run-ins with awkward online meetings and, worse still, virtual happy hours that were often longer, less fun and—due to continued desires to be inclusive—filled with people who had been invited (and joined themselves) out of a sense of obligation.
The largest culprit were managers, who, unable to peer over their workers’ shoulders, became obsessed with wondering if the people underneath them were working enough. Microsoft’s Stallbaumer described this insecurity as managerial “productivity paranoia,” and it manifested itself in a longer work day. According to Microsoft research that has yet to be published publicly, the typical workday has increased by 42 minutes since 2020, and a lot of that rise can be attributed to what has traditionally been considered after hours work, when people can more easily work uninterrupted. Even still, only 12 percent of leaders are confident their teams are working productively, according to a Microsoft report from last year.
Altogether, the pandemic factors took a problem and turned it into a crisis. Microsoft saw the number of meetings made through Microsoft Teams double by the end of 2020, and things only got worse from there.
At some point, the number of total meetings became so overwhelming that the workforce started to hit a “paradoxical tipping point,” according to Allen, who runs the Center for Meeting Effectiveness. Allen’s research had previously found that while meetings contributed to feelings of burnout, stress, and anxiety, they also had some benefits, like a rise in employee engagement, commitment, and even job satisfaction.
But after the pandemic, something shifted. As the amount of time people spent in meetings crept ever higher, Allen noticed that the benefits started to drop off while the negatives only worsened. The meeting crisis had crossed some new chasm, and the numbers were not coming down.
Allen had started researching meetings at the end of the 2000s as a graduate student at University of North Carolina at Charlotte. Studying factors like voice behavior, he had tried to better understand what differentiated more satisfying and effective meetings from ones where people check out. What he found was that meeting load, the term for the amount of time people were spending in meetings, “was affecting everything” else, he said.
For a long time, very few people expressed much interest in Allen’s chosen field of research. “Nobody really cared what I did,” he said. “It was kind of frustrating that I would do all the science and all this research, and nobody was really contacting me.”
Since the pandemic, that has changed. The field of meeting science has become a hot topic as companies attempt to reverse the trend. Companies are more often asking meeting organizers to justify taking away people’s time by explaining why an email or a few Slack messages wouldn’t suffice. Some are adding meeting etiquette to their performance reviews, according to Allen. Microsoft has found evidence that people are more often opting for more 15- or 25-minute meetings. One Michigan-based startup helps companies set-up “one-way” job interviews, in which an applicant records an “asynchronous recorded video” that employees can review on their own time. (“You’ll never have to schedule a ‘time to talk’ again,” the company says.)
Curriculum Associates, a Massachusetts education company, last year went so far as to offer Apple watches to employees who reduced the amount of time they spend in meetings the most.
Like a growing number of people, CEO Sam Liang believes that the issues with meetings can be solved through technological innovation. His AI transcription company, Otter.ai, began as a way to help people transcribe and search audio files in hopes of improving people’s recall. But he came to see meetings as one of the more significant arenas where our memories fail us. How often do people walk out of an hour-long meeting, only to forget the specifics of what they had just heard or discussed?
Liang started to focus more of his company’s efforts around making meetings work better, developing features that can summarize the meeting for people who don’t attend, break it down into topics for people to easily refer back to relevant portions, and find out in live time if your name is mentioned. The company has even created a chat feature that allows you to ask specific questions about what occurred during the meeting. (Other companies, including Microsoft, have developed similar features. Microsoft has invested billions in the AI company OpenAI in recent years.)
The tweaks have made it possible, Liang claims, for him to bounce between two meetings by reading two live transcripts at the same time without attending all of either one of them. If his name is mentioned in one, he can jump in quickly, and then back out again. Or he can simply opt out altogether and read a summary afterward.
While it might seem rude—and, to this reporter, a little maddening—Liang believes his willingness to skip meetings or leave early (and then come back) is part of a cultural reset at the company. His message to employees is not to feel bad if you want to leave a meeting before the organizer says it’s done. The transcription and summary will always be there later.
TheSoul Publishing, a digital media company based in Cyprus, has gone even further by instituting a near-ban on meetings. The company had considered a ban only on certain days, but deduced that that would only shift “the burden of meetings to other days, effectively compressing the same amount of disruption into a narrower time frame,” said Aleksandra Sulimko, the company’s head of human resources. The steps required at TheSoul to move forward with a meeting in spite of these restrictions can feel onerous. Employees must follow a two-page manual and “extremely strict protocol” that includes attempting to first “resolve the issue” through Slack or other asynchronous means, then craft “a plan and agenda for the conversation.” Requests to attend must come at least 24 hours in advance, and most meetings are limited to two people talking for 30 minutes.
Inspired by his own annoyance, Laker had himself started to research the rise of meetings after the pandemic, hoping to discover what, if anything, could be done to improve the situation. He ended up taking a particular interest in the effects of meeting-free days at companies like TheSoul Publishing.
His team surveyed 1,000 people across 76 companies that had instituted at least one meeting-free day a week. What they found was that employees responded positively across all metrics if they didn’t allow meetings for three days a week. They were more engaged, cooperated better, felt more productive and satisfied. When meetings were banned entirely, stress levels went down and, ironically, communication got better, employees said.
However, some of the advantages started to wane if too many meeting-free days were instituted. Employee satisfaction started to dip if only one meeting day was allowed, and cooperation, productivity, and engagement all dropped off if meetings were banned every day of the week. In 2022, Laker’s team summarized their findings in an article in the MIT Sloan Management Review. It became the site’s second most read article that year, after research into factor s that were precipitating the Great Resignation.
To many of the experts I spoke with, the point is not that all meetings are bad, just bad meetings. No one wants a performance review over Slack. Getting together to solve a tangible problem can be beneficial. Rogelberg went so far as to call a top-down ban on meetings “nonsensical” and unproductive, comparing it to attempting a crash diet in order to lose weight.
“We know that that doesn’t work,” he said.
Rather, experts like Rogelberg hope to promote healthy meeting habits. “That requires work and effort,” said Rogelberg. Step one, said Rogelberg, is for leadership to recognize the problem and empower someone to own a cultural reset. Step two is to ask yourself why the meeting is happening. Does it have a purpose? Does it require in-person collaboration, or could it be an email? How much time do you really need? Who actually needs to be there?
Step three is to remain diligent. Dave DuBois, who led the meeting changes at Curriculum Associates, has come to see meetings as something akin to gardening. He tries to constantly prune his schedule, searching for meetings that can be plucked off each week.
“Without that constant attention and focus, it’s easy to slip back into having a day jammed with meetings again,” he said.
But none of that matters if companies can’t regain something that appears to be in increasingly short supply these days: trust. The answer to the corporate meeting crisis might not lie in AI, jumping between two meetings, all-out bans, prizes, or a shaving a few minutes here and there, so much as in figuring out how people—and specifically managers—can learn to trust everyone using their time well without sending a calendar invite.
Laker, for one, felt relieved when he discovered that it wasn’t just him that had become so irritated by an increasingly indulgent meeting. But during his research, he has come to believe that meetings’ bad reputation has gone too far. “I think people can love meetings again,” he said. “It’s about understanding the purpose.”
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