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Meeting overload

Meeting overload

How many hours did you spend in meetings last week? And how much of that was time well spent?

Lots of our clients are reporting being in back-to-back meetings, leaving little to no time for other work.

Meeting overload is a phenomenon that’s been building for some time. Back in 2007, an article in MIT Sloan’s Management Review estimated that senior executives spent nearly 23 hours a week in meetings. Fifteen years later, 23 hours might sound like light relief for some of today’s leaders.

Back-to-back meetings can inhibit fresh and innovative thinking – and switching from one topic to another prevents us from doing ‘deep work’ and being really present. Not to mention the lack of time for follow-up action which then stretches working hours further. Meeting overload has accelerated with the increased reliance on Teams and Zoom during the Covid-19 pandemic: working remotely we can switch between meetings at the click of a button with no need to move rooms, buildings – or mindsets.

Of course, not all meetings are bad. They can keep us connected and in touch with colleagues. They provide a forum for decision-making. They can provide a space for dialogue and collaborative work. They can be a mechanism for information-sharing and monitoring progress.

But if meetings are not well run or used sparingly, they can become a constraint on the achievement of quality work and business outcomes. Professor Steven Rogelberg estimates that as much as 50% of all meeting time is wasted. Most of us will have experienced some or all of the following: meetings that could have been emails, badly run meetings, meetings that are just talking-shops, and meetings which aren’t inclusive.

Throw in pre-meets, debriefs and writing up actions and minutes, and it’s no wonder that at times the meetings appear to become “the work” itself – rather than a vehicle for doing (some of) the work. With the move to remote and hybrid working, we’ve added in more meeting-related frustrations (tech issues, “you’re on mute”, talking over each other), so it’s even more important to make sure we’re using them well.

Here are our top tips for making meetings work for you, and your organisation:


1) Increase the benefit from your meetings:

  • Take a look at your diary for the last few weeks and identify how much time you spent in meetings. Think about the most valuable meetings (whether regular/recurring or ad-hoc): what is it about them that made them useful to you? And conversely, what was it about other meetings that meant they were less helpful?
  • There are plenty of online guides for designing and running good meetings. We all know it’s important to have a clear purpose and agenda, a nominated leader (not necessarily the most senior person) to facilitate the discussion, and a summary of any decisions and actions.
  • Assuming basic meeting etiquette is already in place, the real step-change in value comes from how the group is engaged and how the discussion is facilitated. If you’re leading the meeting, notice the energy and attention levels of participants, and how people are interacting with each other and the intended meeting outcomes. At least once during the meeting, check-in with the group to see how you‘re collectively doing towards achieving the meeting’s purpose. Ask for feedback after the meeting; if every meeting was made just 1% more valuable each time, the benefits would soon compound.


2) Reduce meeting overload (particularly regular meetings):

  • This might seem tricky, particularly if your organisation has a heavy meeting culture. You might fantasise about striking out half the commitments in your calendar… but worry it’d be seen as shirking your responsibilities or being non-collegiate. Or perhaps you’re caught up in the ‘cult of being busy’, and are equating a packed-out diary with the importance of your work to the organisation.
  • But the truth is, we have to take personal responsibility for our time at work – and if back-to-back meetings are not helping you achieve your objectives, then something ought to change. Indeed, if you’re experiencing meeting overload then your colleagues most likely are too – so it might be possible to join forces and work collaboratively to find different ways to get the work done.
  • Before you accept a new meeting request, consider whether you definitely need to be there. Are you being invited in order to contribute to ideas, for decision-making or for information? Is this a priority for you and your team – or are you responding to someone else’s priorities? Is there another way the work can be progressed? Can it be delegated to a team-member, to support their development?
  • For recurring meetings, check whether they’re still necessary, and it’s not just become habitual. Can you reduce the duration or frequency at all? For update or information-sharing meetings, consider alternating meetings with sharing updates asynchronously by IM, Slack or email. When the pandemic first hit, meetings moved online – now many organisations have adopted hybrid-working, consider how the format and design of regular meetings might need to change to stay most effective.


3) Re-gain ownership of your calendar

  • Time is a zero-sum game: once it’s gone, it’s gone. Use your calendar to schedule in the time you need to work on your core priorities and any other regular tasks. Book it in pre-emptively, and on a recurring basis. You can set your own rules about what’s fixed and what’s movable and make that clear in your calendar. Vague labels such as “hold” might get ignored – instead, label it with the actual business priority you’re planning to work on.
  • As part of this, consider how and when you best focus on independent work: are hour-long blocks sufficient, or do you need a longer session to make progress on something?
  • And when those times roll around, why not turn off IM, email and phone notifications to make sure you aren’t distracted.

Meeting overload is real, but there are steps you can take to minimise it. We’d love to know what works for you or what resonates about these tips, so do get in touch.

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