During the pandemic, many workers have been overwhelmed by a growing number of meetings, disrupting their work and leading to longer working hours. To combat this "meeting inflation," business experts offer five steps to ensure meetings are productive and beneficial for both individuals and organizations.
Why meeting overload is getting worse
In 2017, executives spent almost 23 hours a week on average in meetings—up from less than 10 hours in the 1960s. And since the start of the pandemic, the number of meetings employees attend has only increased, particularly as people transitioned to remote work.
According to The Atlantic, the number of online work meetings doubled by the end of 2020 and has continued growing since then, hitting an all-time high this year.
"People have 250 percent more meetings every day than they did before the pandemic," said Mary Czerwinski, the research manager of the Human Understanding and Empathy group at Microsoft. "That means everything else—like coding and email and writing—is being pushed later."
Because of this "meeting inflation," employees lose time for their own individual work, leading people to work longer hours, The Atlantic reports. According to research from Microsoft, the average workday has increased by 13%, or around an hour, since March 2020, and average length of after-hours work has increased by twice as much.
Organizations are also negatively affected by meeting overload and poorly run meetings. For example, a study of 20 organizations across different industries found that ineffective meeting behaviors, such as complaining, criticizing, and going off-topic, were associated with lower levels of employment stability, innovation, and market share.
How to change your meetings for the better
In a 2017 survey of almost 200 senior executives from a variety of industries, 54% said their meetings were often poorly run, badly timed, and too frequent, resulting in both individual and collective working time wasted.
Writing for the Harvard Business Review, Leslie Perlow, Constance Noonan Hadley, and Eunice Eun offer five steps to identify problems with meetings and make changes to ensure they are productive for all parties:
1. Find out how people currently feel about meetings
According to the authors, it is important to understand how meetings are affecting your employees. The authors recommend conducting surveys or interviews to gather data and gauge how each person feels about meetings and how they are impacting productivity.
"You'll learn how much resentment is bubbling up under the surface and how much work isn't getting done during the day," the authors write.
2. Discuss the findings as a team
The next step is to discuss how meetings impact everyone as a team, taking into account people's feedback and analyzing what is and isn't working. According to the authors, this discussion should be "open [and] nonjudgmental" to allow for "contributions and analysis from all team members."
3. Pick a collective—but personally relevant—goal for all team members
"[P]ersonally benefiting from [a] group's initiative is a great motivator," the authors write. Some goals that employees could work toward include specific times set aside for independent work or "meeting free" periods during the work week.
Allowing time for independent work can give employees flexibility and freedom in their schedules, as well as incentivize them to make sure the arrangement works.
In addition, meeting free periods will push teams to reevaluate meetings that were initially scheduled during those times and consider who really needs to attend, which can lead to fewer meetings overall. Overall, "[t]he additional 'white space' in everyone's calendar increases individual productivity and reduces the spillover into personal time," the authors write.
4. Set goals and track progress
"As with any change effort, it is important that concrete and measurable progress be assessed and discussed along the way," the authors write. "Small, tangible wins provide something for people to celebrate, and small losses provide opportunities for learning and correction."
For example, a global e-commerce company made a goal to remove outside technology from meetings to prevent distractions. At first, several team members were resistant to the idea, but over time, removing outside technology helped increase productivity and engagement during meetings. This initial goal also led to further changes, such as preparing materials ahead of time and keeping meetings as brief as possible, that helped make meetings more organized and efficient.
5. Have regular check-ins to gauge feelings
Finally, the authors recommend routinely checking in with teams to see how they feel about the meetings they attend, as well as their general work process. During the first few months, brief weekly check-ins can help ensure that new norms, processes, and attitudes are settling in without problems. After that, a check-in every other week can help keep track of any changes and problems that arise.
In addition, the authors write that "people should have regular, structured forums in which to express their frustrations and surface problems as well as to improve how the team works together."
Ultimately, "[m]eetings do not have to be a trap; they can be a conduit for change," the authors write. "A process like this one can improve productivity, communication, and integration of the team’s work, not to mention job satisfaction and work/life balance. In the end, better meetings—and better work lives—result." (Thompson, The Atlantic, 4/4; Perlow et al., Harvard Business Review, July-August 2017)