How Do Meetings Kill Productivity?

Logan Vantrease

“Meetings don’t kill productivity, people kill productivity.”

There is a growing movement of workers who complain that meetings are the bane of their existence. While such claims might be dramatic and slightly exaggerated, they highlight two important issues – 1) Why are companies spending time on a bureaucracy that doesn’t aid productivity? 2) Why are they unproductive?

The most common purpose of a meeting is to offer updates on work. A frequent grievance is that meaningful deep work is interrupted by meetings. This creates a clear conflict. How can one offer updates on a project when their progress is continually disrupted?

If you search the phrase ‘Meetings’ on Amazon, over 50,000 results appear within the books category. There is no shortage of help, expertise, or advice on the subject matter – but much of it is nonsense. Amazon’s first result is aptly titled, ‘Meetings Suck’.

The second result is ‘The Surprising Science of Meetings’ by Steven Rogelberg. He offers several suggestions to improve the effectiveness of meetings. He introduces an idea called the ‘no-talking meeting’. The example states that talking is a foremost reason for the failure of meetings.

Rogelberg, an acclaimed writer in the field of organizational science, states that a normal meeting is less productive than a meeting where nobody says a single word. That’s scary. We don’t believe this silent example shines as a bastion of productivity improvement. Rather, it simply highlights the ugly and unproductive nature of everyday meetings.

Another publication states that meetings can be improved if each attendee is standing instead of sitting. Companies just seem desperate in their search for meeting efficiency. If you’re seriously considering standing meetings, you’re not exactly in the ballpark of 10x productivity, are you?

There are a variety of factors that contribute to unsuccessful meetings. We’ll highlight those that you can change.

Deep Work Disruption

Cal Newport writes in-depth about a subject called “deep work”. This practice is the ability to focus without distraction to produce better results. In a world filled with interruption, it has become increasingly important to focus directly on a single task for hours at a time. He even uses the example of a marketing professional who purchases a round-trip business class ticket to Japan for the sole reason of writing a book without distraction.

People confuse emails, texts, notifications, and meetings with productivity. Newport stresses the importance of differentiating between productivity and busyness. Productive deep work generates value for a company. Busyness does not. The spelling of ‘busyness’ is odd, but if you replace the Y with an I, it becomes ‘business’. I’m sure there’s a metaphor in there somewhere.

Meetings cut the workday into small blocks, but creators and makers do not work in half-hour time blocks. Let’s use a “10x engineer” as an example. The best code is written when one can dedicate half a day or a full day to enter a trance-like state. Half an hour is barely enough time to set up your workstation.

To a manager, a meeting might seem like a needed 30-minute break from writing code. However, as Paul Graham of Y Combinator states, “a single meeting can blow a whole afternoon by breaking it into two pieces each too small to do anything hard in”.

Not everyone is a 10x developer who can dedicate 10 hours to a single task. For some who haven’t mastered their own productivity yet, the inspiration for certain projects comes and goes. When it comes, the last place you want to be is in a meeting – waiting patiently for your turn to speak.

Thinking About Meetings

The cost of a 30-minute meeting isn’t 30 minutes. Normal employees think about meetings 1-2 hours before they take place. Afterward, how much time is wasted as colleagues commiserate with one another about the unproductive meeting that just took place?

The true cost of a meeting is exacerbated if you have an inspiring manager or CEO. If an employee wants to impress their boss, they will spend countless hours anxiously tailoring the verbiage of a message to increase their chances of being seen as valuable. Ironically, many never get a chance to vocalize the pre-packaged message. Those hours are wasted.

If one wants to become a candidate for a promotion or raise, some employees feel that the meeting room is a perfect place to bloviate or humble-brag. When else does one get a chance to interact with the boss of their boss? This prompts employees to spend more time than necessary in a meeting.

If a meeting is the only setting where an entry-level employee can interact with upper management, it offers an opportunity for their voice to be heard. However, many meetings don’t serve a specific purpose so no legitimate action is ever taken after the conversation. This clashes with the positive feelings employees associate with the meeting. If no action is taken, then they feel their voice wasn’t truly heard. Morale and long-term employee engagement can sink as a result.

The Multitasking Mistake

Not everyone feels the need to make a stellar impression during meetings. As a result, many meetings involve absurd levels of multitasking (especially when upper management is not involved).

During a meeting, co-workers are checking their personal email. They’re tracking the price fluctuations of their $1000 investment in Bitcoin. They’re reading the newest political happenings. They’re seeing how many people liked their latest Instagram picture. Half the audience is doing unrelated work while others speak (and that’s a conservative estimate).

Why does the majority of society multitask during meetings? Well… because meetings are boring.

Even multitasking with positive intentions decreases the effectiveness of meetings. Many well-intentioned employees take notes during the conversation. However, taking great notes matters for the events that transpire after the meeting. They’re not helpful during the meeting itself – especially if every person is taking them individually. One outside employee could easily volunteer to take notes and copy them for the participants.

Here’s a true, yet controversial statement – multitasking isn’t real. There’s no such thing. You’re not doing two things at once. You’re just switching back and forth between two different tasks, dedicating yourself fully to neither.

The Devil’s Advocate

The phrase originated in the Catholic Church as candidates were considered for sainthood. The official role of the devil’s advocate was to argue against the admission of individuals considered for sainthood. Their job was to take a skeptical view of these future saints and argue against evidence supporting their good deeds.

As a role, it’s origins were deliberately oppositional. That shouldn’t have a place in meetings. Dissenting opinions and opposite perspectives should be welcomed, but everyone knows the colleague who takes pleasure in challenging everything (they’re not usually the 10x developer).

Meetings should be engineered so that the time spent in the boardroom is short and sweet. Someone who frequently takes a contrarian position has no interest in reducing the duration of your group conversations. They sweep your discussion off course. The role can be helpful, but it is often used in a way that stifles brainstorming sessions and leaves meetings open-ended.

Meeting Frequency

The most valuable meetings occur when all the decision-makers in a company come together. Sometimes this is a quarterly meeting. In other instances, these conversations take place for immediate response to a serious problem. In either case, these important meetings transpire once in a blue moon.

These meetings are simultaneously more important while also significantly less likely to have a template. After all, how do you templatize such an infrequent event? The decision-makers at a company can’t afford to waste their time, yet these events are least likely to have a valuable structure. If this is the case at your company, it needs to change.

Meeting Problems

Here are some very common problems that occur in company meetings:
-They are scheduled too long
-They don’t start or end on time
-“That one guy” delivers a monologue
-Materials were not sent in advance (people are seeing them for the first time)
-People aren’t staying focused
-There are no clear expectations
-Key points and action items aren’t specific

In summation, group conversations fail if a team doesn’t pre-establish the necessary items to accomplish during the meeting. The entire group needs to be on the same page regarding the purpose of the meeting. Everyone needs to be mentally present (physically present isn’t enough) and one must have an outline to help the team reach its intended purpose.

Staring at the clock, at your email, at your neighbor’s computer, out the window – it’s as if we all belong to a business cult that believes the gods of meetings will only give us the promotions we want if we sacrifice our productivity. But they won’t, so wake up. Make a change.

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