There’s a lot to be said about how to do meetings better — fewer PowerPoints, fewer people, zero distractions. However, none of those tactics will move the needle enough on its own.
The bold move most organizations must take, but rarely do, is to cap the total time employees spend meeting internally.
Organizations depend on meetings, but having too many meetings is wasteful. By one estimate, poorly organized meetings will cost US firms $399 billion in 2019. That’s a significant headwind — unless your product is corporate satire, that is.
Two-thirds of managers said wasteful meetings come at the expense of deep thinking, keep them from completing their work, and miss opportunities to bring teams closer together, according to a study published in the MIT Sloan Management Review. That study cited research showing that executives spend an average of 23 hours per week in meetings.
The data only tells part of the story. Meeting fatigue is a real problem from a qualitative (and quality of life) point of view as well. Think back to the last time you laughed at an anti-meeting meme or checked social media while on a conference call. Funny ‘cuz it’s true, right? And when you see a meeting invite on your calendar, do you celebrate? That’s what I thought.
To start, we have to ask how we can get more value out of our meetings. If we can improve meeting ROI, we can boost efficiency. Then we can free ourselves to think deeper, improve alignment across teams, and increase velocity throughout the company.
How? Let’s take a page from the classic laws of supply and demand. When the supply of meeting time goes down, the value of the minutes that remain necessarily becomes more precious.
When You Limit Meeting Time, You Place a Value on Time
Think of the opposite of capping meeting time: allowing an unlimited number of meetings. To do so effectively values internal time at zero. If there’s no cost to adding another meeting, meetings are as cheap as they get.
Except that when you factor in time, meetings, on the whole, are actually one of most companies’ more significant expenses.
At our company, our people’s time is our biggest asset, so we cap internal meetings at 10 percent. Yes, that’s only four measly hours per 40-hour workweek. For you, it might be different. Whether you can achieve 10 percent will undoubtedly vary across organizations and industries. An excellent place to start is to count the number of hours currently spent on internal meetings, then set an aggressive goal for reducing that number in the next quarter.
Create an Agenda That Everyone Owns and Pre-Work That Agenda
Once you have a target for the total number of meetings you want to allow each week, you can hit this target by making the meetings that remain as useful as possible.
Setting an agenda is the gold standard for a better meeting. However, if only one person owns the agenda, that’s a problem. After all, a meeting isn’t just your time or my time — it’s our time. To value our time, we need to agree on how best to use it, right?
Everyone who attends the meeting must have a stake in the meeting’s content. By pre-working the agenda in a collaborative environment, your team can align around meeting topics faster, recognize when a session isn’t necessary (a huge win!), and determine who needs to be in the meeting and who needs to be looped in after the fact.
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Share Meeting Notes With Those Not in Attendance
What are your criteria for inviting someone to a meeting? Chances are you don’t have any, or you send out invites if the topic seems vaguely relevant to a person. People do this because it’s better to send an invite than explain why you left someone on the sidelines. It’s a safer move, but it is a total waste.
We found that after we limited meeting hours, we needed better logic to drive the invitation process. As it turns out, that logic is hard to articulate as a general rule. So, as much as possible, we let the agenda process drive invites organically. People opt in or opt out, choosing how to spend their allocated meeting hours just as they might spend other aspects of their budget. Sometimes just reading the agenda, or adding to it, is enough to allow someone to skip the meeting.
Fewer of us (and fewer of you) need to be active participants in meetings than you might think. Many of us only really need a summary of the meeting content. By publishing meeting notes afterward on our company Slack channel, we’ve found it’s easy enough to leave someone out of the meeting. They still get looped into the substance of what happened, what decisions we made, and what the next steps are.
Embrace Asynchronous Communication
When we tell people about our company’s internal meeting rule, they look at us with astonishment and ask, “How do you communicate?”
What’s interesting about this question is that it assumes meetings are the only high-bandwidth way to share and discuss. We all know that’s not true — there’s literally a meme about surviving another meeting that should’ve been an email — but perhaps we need to be reminded that meetings and emails aren’t the only options.
Think about what forms of communication are the most effective. At the very top of the list, we have meetings (face to face and conference calls). We place meetings at the top for the same reason we limit the amount of time we spend in meetings: While they’re the highest value, they’re also the most costly use of our time because they require us to sync up. Finding that shared time can be especially challenging in today’s workplace, especially for companies where people work remotely or in separate time zones.
Just below meetings, though, are a range of asynchronous communication tools like Slack, email, and video messages that are almost as good but which require a lot less investment.
Choosing which channel to use is often a matter of what you have to communicate. While Slack and email are mainstays for most offices, we have something of a love affair with video messages. For one thing, videos are easy to create, thanks to free software like Loom. Unlike email or Slack, videos have the benefit of carrying the messenger’s tone. A quick explanation of how a process works or a brief to-do list comes across with the personal touch of a face-to-face chat. That’s huge for coworkers who rarely see each other IRL.
Speaking of a meeting that should have been an email, videos are also much faster to record than typing out a careful email on a complex topic. That email should have been a video.
Regardless of which asynchronous communication tool you use, you’re empowering yourself to value your own time without sacrificing the information sharing that comes from meetings. As an organization, we’ve discovered that the more we communicate in an asynchronous way, the less we disrupt our work. It helps us move faster overall.
Just as important, we’ve also found the 10 percent of the time we do use for meetings is something we all value and appreciate. In other words, we like our meetings, and because our calendars aren’t overwhelmed with invites, we look forward to the opportunity to talk things over.
Josh Lowy is CEO and cofounder of Hugo.