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Always racing to meetings? It’s slowing you down

THE start of a new year is a good time to examine assumptions and habits. That seems to be behind the “calendar purge” with which Shopify, Inc. greeted 2023.

The company has declared that it is banning meetings on Wednesdays, limiting 50-person-plus meetings to Thursdays, and — for two weeks — killing any meeting with three or more people. The meeting-free fortnight is designed to be a kind of reboot, after which executives are expected to encourage employees to be choosier about which meetings they schedule and attend. And in an acknowledgment that calendar clutter isn’t the only way to waste time, they are also pushing workers to be more strategic in how they use Slack.

These changes are good. But if Shopify and other companies truly want to tackle the corporate scourge that is meeting overload, they will need to go further.

If you have never experienced the misery of meeting overload, this might sound a little strange. Are meetings really that bad?

While having a few meetings is fine, too often employees spend their entire day bouncing from one to another. When meetings run back-to-back, employees have little time to prepare or to follow up; the value of getting together is wasted. One estimate suggests that useless meetings cost large companies $100 million a year. I’m surprised the figure is so low.

Meeting-clogged schedules make organizations sclerotic and slow. Need to grab your boss for an urgent chat or find a colleague for a quick question? Good luck swinging by their desk. You’ll have to schedule a meeting. Unfortunately, you probably don’t have any mutually free time-slots for at least two weeks.

Recurring meetings are especially difficult to cancel. Sometimes, threats to get rid of a meeting will give it new life — improved attendance or agendas. But the new energy is generally short-lived. The gravitational pull of the old meeting rhythm is too strong to resist. And so the zombie meeting staggers forward, brainless but unkillable.

The problem is that although most people hate this way of working, no one wants to admit that the meetings they run contribute to the problem. Nor do attendees want to miss out: We may dread sitting in useless meetings, but if we decline them, we fear we’re being left out of the loop — or that we’ll look rude or lazy.

To cut back on meeting overload, senior leaders must do more than encourage employees to be more selective about the meetings they schedule or attend.

When organizations seek to limit the number, size or frequency of meetings, they are often treating the symptoms of an underlying disease. But addressing the root causes of meeting overload requires deeper work. Are employees spread across too many projects? Is the culture overly consensus-driven? Are meetings the only way people know to force colleagues to meet for deadlines or to compel managers to make decisions? Is the company over-rewarding visibility at the expense of recognizing lower-profile work?

When meeting excess is a symptom of other problems, simply asking people to meet less often is unlikely to work. I’ve experienced this firsthand. At a former employer, we tried to keep Fridays meeting-free so that staff could focus on their heads-down work, but inevitably, the logjam of meetings Monday to Thursday meant that the pristine calendar space of Fridays was too alluring to ignore. As conference rooms filled up on Fridays, the boss would send periodic e-mails pleading with people to stop. He probably needed to go further — make it impossible for our calendar software to function on Fridays, perhaps, or physically shoo people back to their desks. Even then, I’m sure meeting-addicted employees would have found ways to continue to confabulate.

Leaders can also experiment with different formats. Managers could build prep and follow-up time into the meeting itself; perhaps the first 10 minutes are spent preparing, and the last 10 are spent firing off follow-up e-mails. Or limit the length of meetings to 45 minutes rather than an hour (or 20 minutes rather than 30) to make sure people have a few moments before the next one starts. Or model better meeting etiquette by using a focused agenda to guide every meeting.

In Shopify’s case, a two-week reboot doesn’t sound like enough time to create new habits. Most research into habit formation suggests that it takes 40 days, not 14, to set a new norm. Shopify should consider extending its meeting hiatus to at least a month so that the organization learns how to get work done without them.

As for limiting 50-plus-person meetings to one day, why convene them at all? Does any meeting really need to be that large? Perhaps such super-size gatherings are justified on a quarterly or annual basis, but one has to wonder what gets done at such mega-meetings. Probably a handful of senior execs speak and everyone else listens. Isn’t one-way communication what e-mail is for?

At the very least, managers seeking to cut the number of wasteful meetings should give clear targets, which work better for changing behavior than vague “less of this” and “more of that” pronouncements. Perhaps give people a “meeting budget,” a certain number of meeting-hours they can use each month. (A five-person, one-hour meeting is five meeting-hours.)

It makes sense that Shopify, which is trying to rebound from a difficult quarter, would seek to claw back employee time for the work that matters most. Their meeting memo is a good start — but like most new year’s resolutions, it’s only the beginning. As anyone who has ever tried to set boundaries knows, the real work happens not in declaring them, but in maintaining them.

BLOOMBERG OPINION

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