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December 4, 2014

How to fight back against excessive meetings and email

Daily Briefing

    Email overload and poor meeting discipline cut into productive time, but new data-mining tools are giving organizations insights into how to take back the workday, the Wall Street Journal's Sue Shellenbarger reports.

    In a recent analysis of 17 companies, management consulting firm Bain & Co. found one executive who devoted eight hours per week to unnecessary meetings. The same executive also spent four hours each week responding to unnecessary emails. He had only a scant 11 hours weekly for core job tasks.

     "You improve what you measure," says Joan Motsinger, vice president of global operations strategy at Seagate Technology. That is why Seagate used data-mining tools from the software company VoloMetrix to better understand how employees were using their time.

    The software analyzes email headers, meeting invitations, and other company data to provide a snapshot of how individual teams—or the company as a whole—spend their day. The data are anonymized to protect employee privacy.

    The results were striking. For example, Seagate found some teams spent more than 20 hours in meetings a week.

    Unfortunately, that is typical, says Chantrelle Nielsen, head of customer solutions at VoloMetrix. In a study of 25 companies, VoloMetrix found executives who had the "equivalent of 10 people working full-time every week just to read one manager's email and attend his or her meetings,” says Nielsen.

    How to get your workday back

    Michael Mankins, a partner at Bain, has studied the issue using the same software from VoloMetrix. He says companies can use simple strategies to streamline communication and cut down on meeting bloat.

    For a quick win, get out of the habit of using "reply all" unless absolutely needed, he says. In fact, many emails could be replaced by a quick face-to-face conversation.

    Next, reconsider who attends meetings. Bain's research has found seven is the magic number for meeting attendees. Every person added to a meeting above that threshold reduces the chances of making effective decisions by 10%. If attendees are multitasking, that could be a sign that the meeting is not a valuable use of their time.

    Infographic: The science—and strategy—behind having a 'great meeting'

    Also, avoid inviting multiple levels of management to a single meeting, suggests Mankins. It is inefficient and can complicate decision making.

    Changing a culture

    The toughest obstacle to overcome can be an ingrained culture of doing too much, argues Nielsen. "There is a lot of pride among senior executives in how grueling their lives are," she says. Breaking down how much money—in productive time—their meeting habit is costing the company can be enough for executives to think more critically about how they communicate, she notes.

    Many employees also feel psychological pressure to respond to every email or CC excessively because they fear offending colleagues. Mankins says simply being intentional—and explaining to co-workers that by not responding you are saving them time—can be very effective in these cases (Shellenbarger, Wall Street Journal, 12/2).

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