We’ve all experienced the feeling of overwhelm that comes from opening up the calendar only to realize your entire day, or week, is packed with back-to-back meetings. This is just a work reality today. As a co-founder, much of my job was actually attending meetings. And there was little time to actually work on something aside from meetings and the subsequent action items from those meetings. I felt the insanity of my calendar as a constant pressure weighing down on me. And I know my staff experienced the same. When I needed to schedule a meeting and pulled up their calendars, I could see that they were also packed in back-to-back meetings.
This is what happens when you aren’t deliberate about your company’s meeting culture and don’t monitor it diligently. And this is why I am passionate about founders being very deliberate about their meeting culture. This isn’t an operational aspect you can ignore if you want a productive, engaged workforce.
Companies need to be purposeful about how meetings are scheduled and conducted. Err on the side of too many meetings, or meetings that are too long, and you are wasting the time and energy of your staff. Err on the side of too few, or too short, and you risk a lack of communication, information silos, and disjointed teams.
As a modern working culture, it seems we’ve gone meeting crazy.
Having attempted to change the meeting culture several times when I felt things had really gone off the rails with the number, duration, and frequency of meetings, I know these norms get deeply rooted. It’s really hard to untangle established patterns in a company to radically de-emphasize meetings.
But you can make significant improvements if you are vigilant. It requires fortitude and sometimes putting your foot down to stop the insanity.
Here are a few things I’ve found to be successful when I see companies sliding deep into the meeting abyss.
Institute a company-wide meeting free day, every week.
I did this many years ago and then I vigorously defended it every time I saw meetings slipping into this day. You can function as a company without meetings for one day a week, even if you or your managers don’t think so. When I instituted this I got some surprising pushback from some of my leaders. But I got a lot of appreciation from the staff, who needed the break from constant meetings. Over time, even my biggest meeting advocates came around to see the value in a day dedicated to catching up, deep work and reflection.
There is great value in opening the calendar to see a day without scheduled commitments. I’ve seen some companies even enforce only having meetings one day of the week, and I love this even more. It’s tough but possible.
Ruthlessly ferret out unnecessary meetings.
Some would say this is too in the weeds for a company leader, but I disagree. If you think your company is holding too many meetings, take a cold hard look at what meetings are regularly scheduled. Then ask your VPs, directors, and managers to do the same. Don’t be afraid to ask them to justify why certain meetings are needed, or how they could replace them with something less time consuming and more agile. I’ve personally gone calendar stalking and then acted like a bull-in-a-china-shop by identifying the meetings that I want to be canceled, collapsed or shortened. I’m not afraid to admit it and I don’t think this is tyrannical. It’s for the health of your company and your staff. Sometimes people need to be forced out of their meeting rut.
Timebox the meeting agenda.
There’s nothing worse than attending a meeting and not getting through all the topics, only to have to schedule a follow-up meeting. It takes discipline to keep meetings focused and moving. I love to time box meeting agenda items, to ensure we stay on task. I know that not everyone loves this because it can limit the spontaneity of collaboration. But, you can always leave time at the end for unstructured conversation if needed.
Give people the opportunity to opt out.
Trust your team to know what meetings they have to attend, and which ones they don’t. Give everyone the opportunity to just say no, especially for status meetings where they have little to contribute. If you schedule a meeting and need everyone to attend, just give them a head’s up that it’s not a discretionary meeting.
Set a good example.
If you want to cut back on meetings, you have to walk the walk. Simple as that. It starts with you, and you can reshape your company’s meeting culture if you are thoughtful about the meetings you schedule.
Be diligent about limiting meetings! It’s worth it.
I personally love meetings. The interaction, the learning, the brainstorming, the team building, the updates, the information. All of it. But I know that too many meetings are strangling most organizations. We have to create new habits, and new ways to communicate that limit the need for meetings. I feel strongly that we all need to carefully craft the meeting culture within our organizations.