Work Meetings Are Terrible. Here's How to Make Them Better.
It's the workplace tragedy of the commons.
When trying to understand why meetings suck so hard, it can help to use the analogy of our rapidly depleting fisheries. Fisherman don’t really have any incentive to stop fishing, and countries can’t quite agree on who should be responsible for which fish fall under their jurisdiction. And so, no one does very much to ameliorate the situation, in all likelihood robbing future generations of the chance to munch on the spicy tuna rolls and grilled swordfish that we enjoyed in such great abundance.
The culture surrounding workplace meetings suffers from a similar problem. While most meetings have a de-facto leader, someone running the show, it’s never that person’s job to ‘figure out how to run good meetings.’ People have also accepted the current state of things as inevitable: We know meetings suck, they’ve always sucked, so why waste time trying to make them better? As a result they’ve continued filling our schedules in a kind of workplace tragedy of the commons.
“It’s a taken for granted environment,” Joseph Allen, a professor of industrial and organizational psychology at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, tells Inverse. “We know we have to have them but we don’t put much energy behind them. And unless everyone in the meeting puts in effort to make it better, then it’s not going to change … and it’s odd when someone tries to make them better.”
As our ability to communicate with one another has improved over the years, in an ironic twist, the amount of time we spend stuck in meetings has actually swelled. Employees now spend an average of 23 hours per week in meetings, up from fewer than 10 in the 1960s. Seventy-one percent of the senior managers surveyed in a recent study cited by the Harvard Business Review said they found meetings inefficient and unproductive. Nearly as many said meetings also kept them from getting their work done. Allen, who along with some colleagues at Clemson University recently completed a comprehensive review of nearly 200 research papers about meetings, says that’s too many hours. Their findings were recently published in the journal Current Directions in Psychological Science.
The fact that meetings are often annoying or unnecessary doesn’t mean that they’re inessential.
“We have to get people with different information about the problem to come together and find a hopefully innovative and creative solution,” Allen tells Inverse. “Meetings allow us to collaborate, help us get the resources we need for a project, make decisions. They’re really, really important. But we need to be really careful about over-use.”
Another problem with meetings is that, despite how frustrating and essential they really are, they’re actually not all that well-studied. For his review on the topic, Allen and his team examined every paper that they could find that’s been written since 2006, a little less than 200. That may seem like a lot, but when you consider that more than 1,000 papers have been published on the topic of leadership since last year alone, and you start to realize that, actually, we don’t really know as much about how to run a good meeting as we probably should.
Fortunately, the 200 or so studies that Allen and his team examined did offer some guidance about how we can make meetings a little better.
Embrace the Courtesy Invite
Allen says studies suggest we should make more use of a courtesy invite. One of the biggest problems with meetings is actually borne from good intentions; we tend to invite too many people who don’t need to be there. Inattentive, bored participants are meeting poison, but at the same time, you also don’t want to exclude someone who might have a more nuanced or surprising reason for wanting to be in the room. To solve this problem, Allen suggests embracing the courtesy invite: an invite where you very explicitly acknowledge that you’re only inviting them as a courtesy and that they can probably skip it. People like to skip meetings.
Kill the Status Report
There’s an entire genre of meetings that’s incredibly common and doesn’t serve a purpose, Allen says: The “round robin,” “here’s what everybody is up to” status report where people go around in a circle and explain what they’re up to or share progress on a given project. This kind of information should be shared electronically, and convening everyone to verbalize it is a waste of time. As Allen put it succinctly: “Unless it’s tied to a project, we don’t need that meeting.”
Quash Complaints but not Jokes
Once a meeting is underway, Allen’s findings suggest that it’s actually pretty important to create space for humor. Laughter helps draw people into the conversation, which promotes participation (which, after all, is the whole point of having a meeting in the first place.) On the flip side, Allen says there’s a pretty big danger to complaining, which can seem pretty innocuous (“Did you see the traffic on 95 today?”) but can promote feelings of detachment and hopelessness.
Don’t Be Late
While meetings where no one talks, or where one person dominates the conversation are obviously problematic, Allen says the research indicates that by far the most insidious problem with meetings is lateness. While “being on time” seems like pretty obvious protocol, the extent to which one person being just six minutes late to a meeting can derail the whole thing is actually pretty shocking. One of the studies Allen and his team looked at, for example, tried to find differences in the cultural attitudes surrounding lateness across China, Chile, Italy, the US, Germany, and the Netherlands. These are all pretty different workplace cultures, with different values around work, and so Allen’s team expected to find cultural differences in terms of how important punctuality was. They didn’t, at all.
“There’s some dramatic consistency in the frustration of showing up late to meetings,” Allen says. “You would think that the country culture, their home life, who they are as a person would affect their evaluation of the meeting experience, but what we found is that along with the globalization of the economy, there’s been a globalization of this kind of office space environment.”
In these divisive, polarized times, one of the few things we all have in common is that we want people to respect our time. And when you’re late, people don’t just sit there and stew about where they’d rather be; they also cultivate bad feelings about not just this meeting but all the meetings that are coming up in the future. In other words, when you’re late for a meeting, you’re not just ruining that meeting for the people there, but you’re helping to ruin their very conception of meetings in the first place. Which reminds me, I should probably jet.
This has been an adapted version of our Strategy newsletter, a weekly rundown of the most pertinent financial, career, and lifestyle advice you’ll need to live your best life. I’m James Dennin, innovation editor at Inverse. If you’ve got money or career questions you’d like to see answered here, email me at email@example.com — and pass on Strategy with this link!