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Why Meetings Kill Productivity (and What to Do About It)

Ray Williams
Ray Williams

Meetings take up a lot of time, and contribute to the expanding work day.

Have you ever sat through a meeting and said to yourself, “what a waster of time, I could be getting my work done.”

If your answer is yes, you are not alone. Meetings take up an ever-increasing amount of employees’ and executives’ time, which has been a contributor to the expanding work day.

While meetings can be a useful strategy and process for sharing work progress,and connecting with others, excessive and poorly run meetings can have a significant negative effect on productivity and employee motivation. Research has proved this over and over again.

Research findings

In a report by Harvard Business Review, more than 70 percent of the 182 senior managers surveyed agreed that said meetings are unproductive and inefficient. Respondents said meetings keep them from completing their own work (65 percent), come at the expense of deep thinking (64 percent), and miss opportunities to bring the team closer together (62 percent).

The firm Sharp Europe reported in their study that 63 percent of meetings didn’t have a planned agenda. A study by Microsoft showed that unclear objectives, lack of team communication and ineffective meetings are among the top time wasters that workers around the world say make them feel unproductive for as much as a third of their workweek on average.

Beyond reduced productivity, excessive meetins can even pose a health threat. According to Public Health England CEO, Duncan Selbie, sitting in meetings slows down metabolism and reduces the body’s capacity to regulate its sugar and thus blood pressure. These effects can lead to obesity, diabetes, cancer and even death.

How much time are meetings really taking up? Another Harvard Business Review piece from 2014 reported that three consultants analyzed the Outlook schedules of the employees of an unnamed "large company," and concluded that one weekly executive meeting ate up a dizzying 300,000 hours a year. This number doesn't only count the meeting hours of participants; it creates a ripple effect throughout the organization. In the study, cited meetings took up 7,000 person-hours for the executives involved, who also had to meet with unit heads to prepare for it, generating another 20,000 hours of meetings; those unit heads had to prepare for those meetings with team meetings (63,000 hours), and those team meetings generated numerous preparatory meetings (210,000 hours). And that total, the authors write, "doesn't include the work time spent preparing for [individual] meetings."

Making the Most of Your Meeting Time

It’s probably unrealistic to think about scrapping meetings altogether. However, significantly reducing both the frequency and amount of time spent in them could increase productivity and employee satisfaction. Here are nine tips from productivity experts that can help:

1. Try a walking meeting.

Consider having walking meetings rather than sitting down. Walking meetings can be a benefit for participants’ health and may also reduced the time needed.

2. Set strict time limits.

Limit the length of the meeting to one hour, or less, if you can. And end the meeting on time, even if the agenda is not completed.

3. Create and distribute a meeting agenda ahead of time.

Have a clear and concrete agenda distributed in advance that announces the purpose of the meeting and anticipated outcomes. Ensure the agenda has a limited number of action and discussion items.

4. Decide on clear, assigned action items for after the meeting.

Ensure there are specific and actionable follow-up to decisions made at the meeting, including who is responsible and accountable.

5. Don't hold "status update" meetings.

Do not use meetings for updates or information dissemination that can be handled by other methods, such as email.

6. Start on time.

Always start the meeting on time and don’t allow participants to take part after 15 minutes. Also do not use time to update late arrivals.

7. Put a cap on the meeting size.

Limit the number of people involved in the meeting to no more than nine.

8. Give people an out.

Allow employees the right to decline their attendance without penalty.

9. Keep the conversation moving.

If you are the facilitator/chair of the meeting, control discussion by not letting individuals dominate discussion, or repeat what has already been said. You can also examine other ways to share content in meetings, including alternatives to brainstorming, presentations and use of media and technology.


Image Credit: UfaBizPhoto/Shutterstock
Ray Williams
Ray Williams,
business.com Writer
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Ray Williams, Master Certified Coach, is widely regarded as one of Canada’s top executive coaches. He brings over 35 years experience to his clients as a CEO, and senior HR executive and professional speaker. Ray is the recipient of the Master Educator Award from the American Society of Education Executives, and is also past President of the International Coach Federation and Governor of the National Staff Development Council in the U.S. He has clients in Fortune 500 companies, Best Managed Companies in Canada and small to medium sized businesses and non-profit organizations throughout the world in the areas of leadership, workplace culture, team development and peak performance. He has been very active in such organizations as the Vancouver Board of Trade, having served as a Director and Vice-Chair. Ray has written for or been interviewed by The Washington Post, Forbes, USA Today, NBC News, The Huffington Post, Entrepreneur, MacLean’s, The Financial Post, Fast Company and Psychology Today, Salon, and dozens of other and other national and international publications having published more than 300 articles. He is author of a new best selling book, Eye of the Storm: How Mindful Leaders Navigate Chaotic Workplaces. He has also written a book on educational leadership, The Leadership Edge, a personal growth book, Breaking Bad Habits, and was contributing author to Systemic Change, and the Best Seller, Ready, Aim, Influence. He has also written a novel and screenplay entitled Dragon Tamer.