I’ve written about how important it is to be deliberate about your company’s meeting culture, and how debilitating it can be to your staff when you aren’t.
One of the ways I like to “reset” a company’s meeting culture is to institute a company-wide meeting-free week every six months or so.
It’s like a vacation to actually get work done
A meeting-free week is like a vacation. Not from work, but from the relentless pressure of the calendar, the pull from one meeting to the next, the back to back face-time and statuses and brainstorming. A meeting-free week provides actual space to think, reflect, analyze, get caught up, and to do deep work. These things simply don’t happen when your staff is booked all day in meetings, which is sadly, a common way of life for many people.
How to do it
It’s so easy. Just rip the bandaid off and schedule it. Block the entire company’s calendar by sending out an invitation to everyone for your upcoming “meeting-free week”. Schedule it at least one month in advance so that no one has a fire drill of cancelling important meetings that were already on the calendar.
Ask everyone who runs a recurring meeting to cancel those meetings for the week and pull them off the calendar. If you have a team addicted to meetings, this will seem senseless to them. They won’t understand it. They may resent it and see it as getting in the way of their work. Do it anyway. It’s for the good of your company, your culture, your staff’s well being, and their work product.
It’s important the calendar be wide open, other than your “meeting-free week” invitation. For the meeting-free week to be effective, everyone needs to feel the mental relief of opening up their calendar and seeing it entirely clear.
Note: If you have customer-facing employees who have scheduled meetings with customers, ask them to just side-step scheduling anything that week. A customer-facing employee may struggle with this initially, because it always feels as though you have to meet with a customer whenever they ask to. But customers accommodate changes to schedules, vacations and the like all the time. If a customer suggests a time during the meeting-free week, simply state, “I’m not available then” and offer alternatives. No need to make a big deal about it, or to explain what your company is doing. If pressed, you can simply say, “We have a company-wide event scheduled during that week.” Your customers won’t make a big deal about it if you don’t. And this only applies to scheduled meetings, in a meeting-free week there is nothing prevent an ad-hoc, on-the-fly call with a customer, as needed.
The meeting-free week ground rules
The key to a successful meeting-free week is for it to be inclusive of all scheduled meetings, so everything has to get pulled off the calendar that week. EVERYTHING.
Mandate (if you must) that there be no scheduled meetings that week.
Encourage spontaneous collaboration. It’s not that getting together with colleagues or customers is forbidden in a meeting-free week, it’s that they aren’t pre-scheduled. If people need to get together to discuss something, encourage that, but insist it happen organically and not at a pre-arranged time.
Lead by example. It is pointless to implement this and then to make exceptions for yourself, because you have something pressing you need to schedule. If you expect your staff to abide by the meeting-free week, you need to expect yourself to as well.
Make reasonable exceptions when you must. Your biggest customer calls an account manager and says, “I need to meet with you the day after tomorrow or I am cancelling”? By all means, send the account manager to the customer (but also ask yourself what’s wrong with this situation, because that is all sorts of messed up).
What to expect
It will feel weird. If you have a meeting addiction, a meeting-free week feels weird at first—like something is missing. It also feels hard. Power through the discomfort, and support your staff while they are experiencing it. You are flexing new, less reactive muscles and it may take time for everyone to adjust.
There will be unproductive lulls. Staring down a meeting-free week, you or your staff may have moments of, “what the heck am I supposed to do today?”. They may even have moments of “why I am I here, and what is my purpose at this company?”. That’s OK. It will pass, and you will find yourself actually getting meaningful work done before you know it, or catching up on old, nagging to do items you have been putting off.
It might be a bit distracting. There may be moments you feel like people are just goofing off, or socializing too much. This will also pass. I guarantee no one is spending an entire 8-hour day just gabbing and surfing. It may seem like that, because at the start of the week people may do that as a reaction to their discomfort with their meeting-free work (remember that whole, “why I am I here, and what is my purpose at this company?”). The distraction will pass.
There may be some new, fresh, big ideas. Given the space to dig into a meaty project, clear up old to-do items or power through a list of tasks, everyone will have some mental clarity which can lead to spontaneous “ah-ha” moments. They may see an old problem in new way, or even just come up simple new ideas and new ways of approaching work.
People will feel energized and renewed. Without the constant pressure of a full calendar, people will end the week feeling more refreshed and energized than they started the week. They may see things in a different light, they may have renewed vigor for some of their responsibilities, they may just feel calmer and more in control of their day. All for this is good, and it’s why you implemented the meeting-free week in the first place.
Fewer meetings moving forward. Coming off of a meeting-free week, everyone will have reaped the benefits of fewer meetings and less calendar pressure. People will naturally be more thoughtful, and considered, about scheduling meetings (at least until the meeting-free high wears off!).
Just go for it!
If you are reading this article, it’s probably because you suspect your company is worn out from too many meetings and you are trying to figure out how to have a healthier meeting culture. So, just try a meeting-free week on for size. It’s not forever, it’s just a week. If you aren’t happy with your first attempt at a meeting-free week, give it another chance. Old habits are hard to break. It may take a few tries before it feels like a natural, productive, valuable part of your culture. I recommend doing this every six months, or even once a quarter if you find it to be really high impact. The more you do it, the easier and more productive it will become.