Meetings are hands-down the most ironic aspect of workplace culture today. Why? Because no self-respecting business wants to advertise that it's inefficient, unfocused, lacks a clear direction or purpose or that they regularly waste tens of thousands of dollars for no tangible reason. And yet, that's exactly what happens every day as businesses around the globe force their workers to spend time in meetings without seeing a return on that investment of time and energy.
"At its core, this is a cultural problem for businesses. Meetings rarely result in actionable work. Workers spend on average six to seven hours per week in meetings and are then forced to do the real work they were hired to do on the margins of their day. This leads to burnout, which leads to retention and attrition issues. You're not getting the best work out of your talent," says Carson Tate, the founder and principal of Working Simply, a management consultancy, and the author of "Work Simply".
When your workforce spends the majority of its time in meetings, they're not producing anything -- except more meetings, Tate says, and that becomes the entire culture of your business.
Making a Culture Shift
The first step to making any sort of significant change is to first be aware that a problem exists and understand the breadth and depth of the problem, according to Tate. Start documenting how much time is spent in meetings versus how much time is spent on other work, and then determine how much that's costing your business both in real dollars (try this handy meeting cost calculator) and in terms of where employees' time would be better spent.
"You need real awareness of the impact and the cost of your meeting-centric culture. Look at your team members. Are there constant emails coming in time-stamped 2 a.m.? Are there regular meetings that involve numerous executives whose skills and time could be better used elsewhere? What did the time, energy and money put into these meetings really produce? You can't change what you can't see," Tate says.
Next, you have to accept that your culture, such as it is, is broken. Then, take a deep breath, and move on to the third stage, which is committing to changing that culture for the better. The fourth step is the most difficult: actually developing and implementing the steps to change. Whether organizations decide to go it alone, or hire a consultancy like Tate's, this will be the most difficult step for organizations to stick to. Finally, organizations must implement new meeting strategies and tactics to replace the old, says Tate.
"The way meetings are run is a microcosm of your company culture as a whole. Approaching the problem by scheduling another series of meetings is just ludicrous. You must start at the very core of your business and shift every assumption, from how you interact with technology, to how many people should be involved in business decisions, to where meetings are held, the length, everything. Otherwise, you're just putting a bandage on an injury that really requires a trip to the ER," Tate says.
Be the Change You Want to See
The good news is that each individual employee can help their organization shift away from a meeting-centric culture and contribute to a larger cultural change just by taking a few simple actions.
"First and foremost, question the value of every meeting you're asked to attend. Before you hit 'accept,' ask yourself, "What the return on investment will be? What will you get for your time, your energy? What will you forgo working on to go to this meeting? Ask yourself if your presence will contribute or add value? Will this be a rehash of the last five meetings?," Tate says.
Another crucial question to ask is, "Who will be disappointed if I don't attend?" says Tate.
"You need to be clear about who you are 'letting down' by not attending. And you need to be able to articulate that confidently. What is the best use of your time that will add maximum value to the work that you do? Or will I be disappointing the right person? Am I disappointing my manager? Direct report? Child? Yourself? So many times, meetings are just about politics -- who's there, who's not. That's not valuable for businesses. You can decline graciously by saying, 'I don't see where I can add any meaningful value to the conversation. Instead, I'm going to be working on X, Y, Z, and this is why it is more valuable than the actual meeting," Tate says.
Doing so not only empowers the individual, it empowers their coworkers, their managers and their direct reports to start declining meetings, and forces the organization to be much more efficient and streamlined when meetings are mandatory, Tate says.
When Meetings Are a Must
That's not to say that meetings can't be useful or produce value; in fact, meetings can be one of the most powerful tools businesses have to get things done and drive success, says Paul Axtell, a management consultant and personal effectiveness trainer, and author of "Meetings Matter: 8 Powerful Strategies for Remarkable Conversations," they just have to be done right.