Author: Lote Steina
I have long touted the merits of remote working, because, if done correctly, it can have immense positive effects on any level – individual, local, national, or global. Sure, there are some downsides, but overall I don’t see any reason why anywhere from 10% to 30% of the workforce could not continue working remotely post-pandemic.
Alas, a recently published research paper authored by a team of scholars from University of Chicago and University of Essex seems to counter my rosy view. The study shows how productivity – measured as output per working hour – actually decreased by 20% for professionals working remotely.
This premise is quite worrying and will surely serve to bolster the arguments of the anti-remote working crowd. However, explore the study in a bit more detail and the real culprit becomes painfully obvious – meetings.
In the study researchers divided employees’ workdays between “collaboration hours” (various types of meetings) and “focus hours” (uninterrupted time to concentrate on their tasks). They concluded that the total hours worked (collaboration + focus hours) increased by around 30% (including 18% outside regular work hours) while focus hours shrank considerably.
Regardless of the reasons why the time spent on meetings increased, there is no denying that it came at the expense of the time that could have been devoted to far more productive and profitable activities. As the Economist columnist so eloquently put it: “80% of the time of 80% of the people in meetings is wasted.”
This begs the question – how can meetings be made better for everyone involved? How can companies, managers, and employees benefit the most from their meetings without causing a disproportionate drop in overall productivity? This is what we’ll explore in this blog post.
No one denies that meetings are a really handy tool for information exchange, brainstorming, and coordination. However, all too often you hear about how long, poorly structured, and vague they end up being.
I myself have been in a handful of meetings that were planned as hour long events, but ended up pushing twice or even three times that. Needless to say neither I nor those involved were too happy about that. What makes matters worse is that whenever meetings turn into these amorphous blobs almost nothing ends being achieved apart from all those involved being at best tired and at worst frustrated.
To make your meetings as no-nonsense as possible follow these steps:
To wrap up – a perfect meeting would be no longer than 30 minutes in length, with a clear topic, and informative materials distributed beforehand. By the end of it all of the involved parties would have a clear understanding of what and when has to be achieved.
This is a major component of better meeting organization. All too often we see real life or virtual meeting rooms with dozens of yawning attendees scrolling on their phones, or in the case of a virtual room simply snoozing away with their cameras off. I think it’s needless to say that this is awfully inefficient.
Robert Sutton, a professor of organizational behavior at Stanford University, has determined that the most productive meetings contain only five to eight people. To achieve that, I’d suggest keeping in mind and doing two things:
First, invite only the most relevant people to a meeting. There are millions of meetings happening around the world every day and the majority of people attending them would be better off doing something else.
We’ve all been in a meeting that should have had 3 participants, but it ended up having 10 or more. This happens either because of bad organization or a manager’s inflated sense of self-importance. However, regardless of the reason, what ends up happening is that 7 extra people have wasted a good chunk of their time that could have been devoted to creating value.
So if you are calling a meeting, think long and hard if all of the people listed will really benefit from the discussion and be able to contribute to it. If they are only there for FYI purposes, you are better off just sending them the discussion material and the next steps agreed upon in the meeting afterwards.
Conversely, if you personally see that a meeting concerns you only in passing, do not hesitate to let your manager know that your time and energy might be better used on a different task. If he insists on you attending without an adequate reason, that’s what I call a red flag (i.e. not a particularly well run team or company).
Second, don’t forget about the individual touch! The more people you invite to meetings, the more productivity drops. The obvious solution – have more face-to-face meetings with individual team members.
This helps with a number of things:
Plan for meeting-free, productive time
Predictability and certainty are two things businesses absolutely love. The same goes for most individuals. Imagine going into work and having a bunch of unexpected meeting invitations thrust upon you. It would throw you off balance and interfere with your schedule and to-do list.
To avoid this, I’d suggest doing the following two things.
First, managers should establish that certain days of the week are meeting-free i.e. no meetings should be planned for those days. That will allow their workers to plan their time and resources without worrying about unexpected interruptions.
For example, have Mondays, Tuesdays, and Fridays be meeting-free days with the remaining two days open for meetings – be they group or one on one meetings.
That being said, this doesn’t mean that managers should barrage their employees with countless, impromptu meetings on those two days. Instead, each meeting should be scheduled at least a couple of days beforehand and take into consideration the principles outlined in this blog post.
Second, employees themselves should take an active role in protecting their time by blocking time on their calendar for their primary tasks. This would make it easier both for themselves and the manager to plan time accordingly.
If you implement these few steps in the meetings you plan, there is a good chance that you will improve your and your colleagues’ productivity while also making all your professional lives a bit less tedious. Go ahead – give it a shot!