5 Ways to Avoid Meeting Overload
Tech legend Steve Jobs reportedly had three unbreakable rules when it came to meetings - keep the invite list small, the agenda brief, and the duration to no more than 30 minutes.
Jobs understood that meetings can be a liability in a busy office. While getting together as a team fosters collaboration and communication, managers need to be wary of filling up their employees’ schedules. Host too many meetings and you risk stressing out your staff, wasting time, and hindering overall performance and productivity.
What is ‘meeting overload’?
Meeting overload occurs when there are simply too many meetings in an employee’s calendar, distracting them from their work rather than facilitating it.
Post-pandemic, meeting overload is a growing problem as more workplaces adopt remote or hybrid working. Employees who work remotely attend, on average, one more meeting per day than when they were in the office, according to Gartner.
Rather than empowering workers, too many meetings tend to have the opposite effect, leading to burnout, lack of engagement, and significant drops in productivity. Managers should also be aware of the mental health risks associated with ‘Zoom fatigue’ as remote employees struggle with connecting via video conferencing.
All those meetings aren’t just demotivating your employees, they’re also costing your company money. Companies spend around $37 million every year on meetings and could save millions by holding fewer gatherings, according to recent research.
Companies are starting to recognize the effects of too many meetings, with tech giant Shopify trying to eliminate them completely. That all-or-nothing approach may not be wise, but it does show how even large companies are at least aware of the negative effects of unnecessary meetings.
While removing all meetings from the office calendar is obviously not an option, managers can find the ideal balance by adopting a more mindful approach to time management.
6 steps to less meetings and more productivity
The following steps will help you determine if you are meeting for the sake of having a meeting or for actually getting something done. They’ll also ensure that the meetings you have are more meaningful and stay on track.
1. Think before you meet
Before you even get to the calendar, pause and ask yourself - is this meeting really necessary?
Managers often fall into the trap of calling a meeting because they feel like they need to keep tabs on employees - whether remote or in-office, or they want to appear to be doing something - confusing busyness with productivity.
Think about what you want to achieve from your meeting and whether that can be accomplished without getting everyone together. Items that typically would require a meeting include new project kickoffs or an introduction to a new team member. If you’re launching a minor project or delivering an interim project status report, you can probably skip the get-together and brief everyone individually.
And make it clear to your team that this rule applies to them too - they should also be asking whether they need to attend a scheduled meeting. Let them know that they can decline the invitation if it will disrupt their workflow.
2. Set clear boundaries
Calendar invites can pile up if you’re not careful. Make sure your employees protect their time by suggesting they block off 3-4 hours in their calendar each day. This will guarantee they have periods when they can focus on their work without interruption.
3. Be flexible
If staff really are feeling the strain, give them permission to say no to meeting invites.
Providing an exit route in this way will create a more supportive culture overall as employees will feel more empowered to share their needs. Let them know that it’s okay to block off full days if necessary, and provide practical help where you can - sharing meeting notes with them and/or sitting in on their behalf.
4. Stick to a schedule
Organization is key to building an effective meeting strategy. Make sure your team is working from a single, master calendar that shows availability for all users.
Once that’s in place, remind employees to diligently fill out their calendars at the start of each week so all appointments and meetings are up to date. When everyone knows each other's schedule, they can lock down specific times for meetings across departments or the organization as a whole and mitigate double and triple booking.
Sales may only be available between 10am and 2pm, accounting might meet in the 9am to noon slot - walling off pre-arranged blocks of time gives employees clarity about when they can do their deep work uninterrupted, and they’ll be able to manage their time better as a result.
5. Provide training and tools
There’s an art to running an effective meeting, and just like any other skill, it can be learned.
Consider taking training on how to maximize your meetings and make these resources available to any staff who regularly lead sessions. You should also have the right tech tools in place to support this training and make your meetings as productive as possible.
Meeting recording and transcription tools like Otter.ai are a must to keep track of what’s been discussed, providing a written record so anyone not in attendance can easily catch-up.
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6. Create agendas
Tools like Fellow allow you to create an agenda for each meeting that is easily accessible to everyone at the meeting. If you don’t want to introduce a new tool to the mix, have the host email a copy of the agenda prior to the meeting to all participants. If anyone spins off of the agenda items considerably, remind them that they are doing so and offer to reach out one-on-one to address their concerns. Agendas are the best line of defense against long-winded meetings.