A model of my calendar for the week of Oct. 6. Client details have been removed, and meetings classified by function.

This post is part of the Workplace Anthropology series.

These days my calendar is a source of stress. My morning routine of reviewing my appointments for the day during my commute often leaves me dreading the coming workday—and frantically looking for 15 minute blocks that I can hold to catch-up on email or return phone calls if needed. It's not uncommon to find myself double and triple booked. It raises a big question for me: how can a person do a good job when her attention is being divided between so many competing requests?

The simplest answer is rooted in efficiency, or lack thereof. I know I'm not alone in this experience. A quick Internet search on "meetings" will return an extensive list of meeting management tips, anti-meeting culture suggestions, and general complaints about meetings. They're all ultimately the same; they identify the same pain points (too many meetings, lack of organization, off topic discussions, etc.) and their solutions are generally the same (assign pre-meeting reading, appoint a meeting leader, schedule shorter meetings, etc.) but rarely do they look at why meetings have become a key feature of the business world.

We're busy. The phrase pretty much sums up the lives of almost everyone I know. It's an explanation and an excuse all in one for why you haven't called or why you missed an event. You were working late. You had a report to finish. You had one more email to write. And no, it couldn't wait. Our always-on, plugged-in lifestyle means that there's no room for lag in response time. So, we're busy. We believe that our "busy-ness" means that we're being productive, but that, as you can imagine, is not entirely true.

What we're defining as "busy-ness" is actually participation, which satisfies a basic human need to belong. Within our larger social communities, we have roles that we occupy. Between the things you do during your 9-5 and the duties you have to fulfill in your personal life, each role has its own responsibilities and rights. The meeting of these roles and responsibilities define us within society. This is the basis of personhood: these positions work together to create an identity and in fulfilling the responsibilities that are associated with these roles, we claim a place in society. That fulfillment requires visibility. People have to recognize our contribution for it to count. So we're taught from an early age to participate. Do you remember being told in school that participation counted toward your grade or did you receive Unsatisfactory remarks about low participation? Participating or being invited to participate reaffirms our place in the group. It solidifies our role and communicates our value to other group members. One of the reasons shyness has long been viewed as a negative personality trait is because it prevents the individual from participating, and participation is a type of social currency: the more people see our participation, the more important we become.

Meetings don't just happen in the boardroom. In our non-professional lives, we meet for dinner, we meet around the campfire, and we meet for coffee. All of these instances can be moments where we seek advice or counsel, catch-up and socialize, or organize for some shared event. In business, however, meetings have become something resembling the mythological hydra. As senior team members vie for visibility to preserve their place within the organization, this creates circular discussions where decisions are delayed and time is wasted as people take the floor to posture. A multi-headed beast emerges where each head has its own objectives and goals, and is resistant to consolidating resources or information because it detracts from any singular individual's position. Meetings don't move us forward; they lack closure.

It happens everywhere. And it's probably happening somewhere right now as you're reading this. Earlier this year for an informal organizational assessment, I asked my colleagues to share their work calendars with me for three different work weeks throughout the year. I received responses from 25 people, approximately 30% of the staff, spanning all departments at our small agency. This sample size is relatively small, but varied enough to cover everyone from the project and account managers, who understandably spend more time in meetings, and art directors to QA testers, who typically do not. The 30% of respondents were a fair sample of the organization in this case. The tasks respondents tracked on their calendars were qualitatively assessed and grouped into one of five categories: department management (e.g, staff one-to-ones, internal department status meetings), project-related (e.g., a meeting related to a project briefing, project deliverable, or project review), time reserved for deliverables (e.g., time held to produce a report), off-site meetings (e.g., client meetings off-site, including travel), and personal obligations (e.g., doctor's appointments, vacations). Overall, the results were a little numbing. These 25 people, despite their different job functions within the company, were averaging approximately half of their work week in meetings. Between these 25 people, over 400 hours were being spent in project-related meetings.

You might be thinking: well, they're in project-related meetings, so what's the harm in that? At least we know they're working, right? Not necessarily. While these meetings tended to be oriented toward a project, attendance didn't necessarily mean that the individual was contributing to the overall productivity of the project. Today's workplace stresses collaboration, but under the guise of collaboration meetings quickly become a spectator sport. Spectators are people who attend to be in the loop on the off chance that some minuscule piece of information may be shared that might influence some work that they wind up doing for the client or company down the road. They attend to assert their position on the team, to represent a subject matter expertise, or to be visible to senior partners on high-valued accounts/projects. They are different from participants who are people linked by the goal of the meeting and who are charged with producing a deliverable. The burden of spectators is serious. Active team members are rendered ineffective by spectators who assert themselves to become faux-participants. Since spectators aren't grounded in the project or invested in the outcome, they often derail the meeting.

So what can be done? Meetings aren't bad and the truth is that in a no-meeting culture, people will still find ways to meet: They'll stop by each other's cubicles, they'll huddle in the kitchen, or they'll gather around the water cooler. What needs to change is the value we place on participation. Currently, the quality of our input matters less than the quantity. This standard has been aided by the rise of social media where participation often means sharing as much as you can about anything and everything and waiting expectantly for people to like or comment on that content. That behavior has infiltrated our meeting rooms: everyone attends, everyone shares, and everyone expects their ideas to be given equal weight and consideration. This cannot be accepted if we are going to place a higher value on efficiencies, which means maximizing the people available as well as the time they have available.

How do we do this? A first step requires people to be accountable for their work. It seems like a no brainer, right? But in a culture of collaboration, people may feel they cannot move forward without a review or input from others, so this work, which should happen offline between supervisors and reports, happens in meetings, where the entire team then sits and reviews basic information on deliverables. It also means that people show up to meetings without reading briefings or reviewing information contained within the invite because they know they can expect a synopsis during the meeting.

We also need to ensure that the meeting leader is empowered to make decisions in the meeting. With the rise of subject matter experts, the people who know the client or project best are often silenced by shouts of "best-practices." We shouldn't overlook that information nor should devalue the expertise in the room, but the ultimate direction for the project should come from the folks who know the project/client best and are ultimately accountable for the product released—as well as the budget and the timeline. If it's not someone from these groups, then it should be plainly stated previously who the decision-maker is so that the subject-matter experts and any spectators who may have snuck into the room don't force the team into a spiral of blackness in an effort to guide the project in a specific direction.

Once we've established these guidelines, then some other basic recommendations can be put into place:

  • Ensure that all meeting invites include basic information, such as a meeting objective, dial-in information in case someone unexpectedly needs to call in, a list of deliverables for the meeting, a link to previous meeting notes, and any briefing information. By providing this information, you ensure that people have the tools they need to come prepared. If people are not prepared, ask them to leave or cancel the meeting.
  • Invite participants, not spectators. And don't be afraid to ask people to leave if they weren't invited.
  • Create spaces that are conducive to meetings, this includes stand-up tables and clocks for meeting rooms. Not every meeting requires a giant table: giving smaller groups the flexibility to huddle can help move projects along.
  • Schedule shorter meetings. If a status can occur in 15 minutes, you really don't need 30 minutes just so folks can chat about The Walking Dead. Socialization will not die as a result of this sort of enforcement, but meetings should start with a focus on deliverables and not last Sundays crazy plot twist. Lateness is a pet-peeve for many meeting attendees, but folks also need time to go to the bathroom or refill their water bottles. It's hard to do that when you're scheduled back to back; people are bound to be late in these instances. Look to schedule 15-, 25- and 50- minute blocks where possible.
  • Call an audible when the meeting is over. Despite what we believe, we are terrible multi-taskers. When the meeting has completed its objectives, it's over. Send participants away. Do not try to "maximize" time by talking about something else. People didn't come prepared for that, and it detracts from their present focus. This rule should also be applied if people show up to the meeting unprepared. That is, if the meeting cannot meet its objectives, send people away to work on those deliverables—with the understanding that they are responsible for keeping deliverables on track to ultimately keep the project on track.

We might complain about being invited to meetings, but on some level we actually love it. Being invited means that you're valued; it means that your participation counts, even if you aren't being productive. But this hurts us as individuals—professional objectives aside, being over-scheduled takes a toll on a personal level. On an organizational level, we can take steps to reduce the spectators in meetings and enable the participants to complete the deliverables they're tasked with by making sure they have clear paths to decision-making. Meetings are not going away, but they don't have to be painful.

What does meeting culture look like at your company? Has your company tried to enact change? What's worked and what hasn't?

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