Death by Meeting

Web Meeting on laptop

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My kids like to tell me that I am old. I’ll say something like “before we had cell phones”, and they just stare at me because they really can’t imagine that. Yes, teenage me rode my bicycle across two states WITHOUT a cell phone, Google maps, or any TikTok videos to prove I was there. Bizarre. I also started my career in that strange low-tech world. Computers mostly sat on desks, which were in offices, which were in big, bland, dedicated office buildings. And we all wore suits. In Houston. In August. Was it the good old days? Not really. I don’t miss the office buildings or the suits, but not all change is uniformly good, even if it seems inevitable or necessary. One of the changes I’ve witnessed is the ever-increasing number of workplace meetings, enabled by collaboration technology.

My oldest daughter works as a Product Owner for a consulting company, so we have a lot in common. She calls me after work, while she’s making tacos, to talk about her day.

“Today was just crazy. I was in meetings for SEVEN hours. When am I supposed to fix the backlog?”

Her experience isn’t unique. There are many surveys and articles repeating the same complaint. IT workers, from software developers to senior managers, are experiencing meeting overload. It can significantly reduce not only productivity and effectiveness, but also engagement and job satisfaction.

The Over-Scheduled Blues

The problem isn’t new or unique to any particular role or type of organization. According to an HBR article from 2017:

“We surveyed 182 senior managers in a range of industries: 65% said meetings keep them from completing their own work. 71% said meetings are unproductive and inefficient. 64% said meetings come at the expense of deep thinking. 62% said meetings miss opportunities to bring the team closer together.” 

There are lots of helpful articles offering advice on how to reduce the number of meetings, but most of them miss one important factor – most employees don’t have the autonomy and control over their schedule to just cancel, skip, or decline meetings that aren’t valuable to them. Any company that is really concerned about wasteful meetings and their negative impact on morale and productivity has to actively take steps to change the structure and culture of their workplace.

How Did It Get This Way?

Collaboration, teamwork, mentoring, and project management are useful things to have, but they’ve become formalized (and I’d argue also enervated) into meetings.  As more organizations switch to Agile, it would seem that meetings and management formalities would be reduced, but in my experience the opposite can occur. 

The average amount of time employees spend in meetings has been increasing steadily since 2000, so this isn’t just a phenomenon of the pandemic-remote-online experience of the past two years. Even though people from management to software testers voice the same complaint, the number of meetings and meeting-hours just keeps ticking upwards.

Cleaning Up The Calendar

When I look back on my weekly schedules, I see a checkerboard of recurring, regular meetings and ad-hoc meetings. The ad-hoc meetings are generally smaller, more productive, and more focused. The recurring meetings are the biggest time-wasters. Below, I’ll look at some typical recurring meetings that really don’t add much if any value to my day. Consider if these could be eliminated, shortened, or reduced in frequency in your organization. 

Daily Team Meetings

Many teams start every day with a morning standup. In many Agile organizations, the stand-up is as sacred as the user story. However, is it a “roll call to see if you’re out of your pajamas yet” or is it really a helpful way to start the day? If team members are working in close collaboration on inter-dependent tasks, a daily synch-up could be very valuable. But if the team members are working fairly independently but just happen to have the same manager, the daily meeting is mostly just an interruption that happens exactly when people are starting to get into their daily groove. Honestly, with the ubiquity of Slack, Zoom, and other team communication tools, team members can collaborate if and when they need without a formal daily event.

Project Status Meetings

Project status meetings are another typical time-waster. The bigger the project, the larger, longer, and more wasteful the status meeting. It’s not just the time spent in the meeting which needs to be considered, but also the prep time, which can take 1-4 hours if slides, graphs, or other formal materials need to be prepared. Instead, take the time to create a project dashboard, set it up to show real-time metrics, and go look at it whenever you need an update. Understand what your leading indicators are and follow up if those reveal a problem or a concerning trend.

All-Hands Meetings

All-hands meetings are almost always really expensive and pointless. In larger companies, these have even devolved into some kind of monthly pep-rally complete with fancy lighting and sound effects. Do these really benefit employees, or are your executives just living out their teenage rock-star fantasies? Unless something really major is happening, like a merger/acquisition or a corporate relocation, chances are you don’t need that expensive, time-wasting event.

Workshops

Workshops are almost always way too big and too long. I’ve attended many project or design workshops over the years and observed the best and worst workshop facilitation. I could write chapters about this subject, but to keep it short and sweet (like a workshop should be), the techniques to avoid wasting time and money are to only invite key, decision-making stakeholders, have a clear agenda, prepare materials beforehand, agree upfront how to handle issues and action items, and assign a really good facilitator to lead the session. Most workshops include many attendees who don’t really need to be there. And many workshops suffer from disorganization and endless sidetracking. If your organization has rigorous business and system architecture and portfolio management, most projects shouldn’t require big workshops to “figure it all out.”

One-on-One Meetings

One-on-one meetings with your manager are often weekly events. I pity the manager with 5 or more direct reports who tries to maintain this schedule. I understand the desire to foster open, frequent communication, but these are often cancelled at the last minute because they aren’t really high priority, or they’re just a “it’s going fine, thanks” conversation with low value. In a matrixed organization, where an employee might have a department supervisor and one or more project managers that they work with, who they should meet with, how often, and what they should communicate to each can be unclear, and they can end up with multiple one-on-ones on their weekly calendar. If expectations are understood and there’s a clear path for raising and resolving issues, most of these formal management interactions are unnecessary.

In evaluating whether any meeting should stay on employee calendars, honestly consider whether all attendees are truly getting value from the time spent. If the senior attendee is satisfied but everyone else feels it’s a waste of time, that’s a red flag. From an organization/management perspective, there’s a disconnect that you need to address. 

If you could cut the above recurring meetings from YOUR schedule, what would that look like? Would you have significantly more time and energy to work through problems, create meaningful solutions, and engage in deep collaborative discussions? Would you spend Sunday evening mentally preparing for Monday’s onslaught of meetings, or would you be enjoying your time off with your family? Would you feel more control and contentment in your professional life?

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