It is easy to hate meetings. Employees spend about 18 hours a week on average in meetings, according to a 2022 Bloomberg survey, and they only decline 14% of invites even though they’d prefer to back out of 31% of them.
In response, companies from Meta to Shopify have announced that they are enacting various no-meeting policies. Everything from the weekly check-in to large gatherings and even group chats are targeted as a drain on employees’ time. The hypothesis behind these policies is that fewer low value interactions will result in more focus and increased productivity.
But blanket cancelation of meetings or instituting meeting-free workdays is not necessarily the solution. Today’s global organizations are networked, digital, and agile: collaboration is the new common currency. When properly designed, meetings are the lifeblood of organization information flow and strengthen trust amongst colleagues.
Unproductive meetings are a symptom. Get to the root cause and sharpen organizational rigor through clearer internal collaboration processes. The fundamental questions are: what is the purpose of the meeting, what roles (power) and perspectives (information) need to be represented, and what is the decision process in this forum?
Here are a few ways to tighten internal collaboration processes:
- Focus first on the contributions of the top team
The top team is uniquely charged with making a small set of big decisions, acting as the organization’s strategic leadership layer to set broad direction. Essential top team conversations include setting organization vision and direction, managing the business portfolio, and defining organization priorities and culture. These decisions often require the top team to slow down in order to make sense of internal and external signals. They often need to spend more time together, and make fewer, bigger decisions. Energy put into designing these strategic conversations pays off in empowerment for managers at other levels – they have the clarity to make good, fast decisions closer to the customer.
- Clear organization accountabilities reduce the need for meetings
Meetings often become the forum for sorting out unclear accountabilities. To remedy this, clarify core roles and decision processes where cross-boundary collaboration is required. Then meetings can focus on content – solving high value issues rather than continually working through who is leading, who decides, and who needs to be consulted. For decisions that do not require collaboration across the organization, empower the accountable team to lead the execution of the decision, updating others as appropriate. Clarity and trust are the foundation of reducing low impact meetings.
- Build rigor and discipline into shared ways of working
When meetings are seen as an investment of precious time and attention – a costly resource like all others – then it is more likely that people will attend to agendas, pre-work, individual preparation, and thoughtful structure and cadence. While there is no one right way to run a meeting, consider Amazon’s example, where meeting practices are clear and consistent. Allow for time to make decisions in meetings or determine when decisions will follow. Relegate rote procedure or updates to individual review. Use pre-reads or dashboards to standardize access to information. Common collaboration processes will make coordination clearer and more efficient and allow teams to focus on making decisions when together.
- Periodically refresh collaboration forums and processes
Collaboration processes are often established to solve a particular organization need, and when that need changes the forum and process should also be examined. Maybe the forum is no longer needed. Or it requires different participation and a new remit. The outdated forum that no longer has clear authority or purpose – think of a few meetings that you are regularly invited to – is a major source of frustration, wasted time, and lost organizational energy.
Many companies blame declining worker productivity on an overabundance of meetings. But excessive meeting cadences are more often a symptom of insufficient organization rigor. Clearly designing the contributions of the top team, getting clear on organization accountabilities and decision making, aligning on shared ways of working, and then refreshing these forums periodically will reduce unproductive meeting time. Intentional and rigorous collaboration processes will get time back and increase productivity.
Jacob Spangler, Senior Manager, Accenture Operating Model & Organization Design