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‘Could this meeting have been an email?’ Why we need to do meetings better

Cost of Living9:07Why meetings are often mind-numbing time sucks

Anyone who has worked an office job has felt it. You’re an hour into a meeting and you can’t help but think, “why am I here?” Or, “could this meeting have been an email?”

But organizational psychologist Steven Rogelberg says increasing productivity is more about doing meetings better, rather than eliminating them entirely. 

“The fundamental problem with meetings is bad meetings, wasted time in meetings — but meetings in and of themselves, they’re not inherently the problem,” Rogelberg, a professor at the University of North Carolina, told Cost Of Living

“Meetings are an evolution in terms of viewing people as being important agents in decision making and … including people in work decisions and problem solving.”

Rogelberg could be considered a meetings expert. He’s the author of Glad We Met: The Art and Science of 1:1 Meetings, and has studied meetings for two decades. He’s worked with companies such as Amazon and IBM to improve their meetings. 

“Humans have been meeting since the beginning of time. The cave people would meet. We have meetings that have been documented as part of democracy in Greece,”  said Rogelberg. “Humans meet. We gather. It’s a fundamental essence of being a human.”

WATCH | Companies look for ways to reduce ‘meeting madness’: 

could this meeting have been an email why we need to do meetings better

Companies reducing meetings to increase productivity

6 months ago

Duration 2:01

Complaints of meeting overload got louder during the pandemic, now some companies have found ways to cut back on meetings to increase worker productivity and satisfaction.

Shopify’s changes

Canadian tech giant Shopify has been working to reduce its meetings over the past year. Bloomberg reported that the company has started using a calculator that tells its employees how much each meeting is costing the company.

In January, they temporarily cancelled all meetings with more than two people, with the goal of giving employees more time to do their jobs. 

“No one joined Shopify to sit in meetings,” a spokesperson for the company told CBC in an email. 

“We are a company of builders and crafters, and uninterrupted time is truly the most important resource of a craftsperson,” the email said. “We have seen positive impacts from removing meetings from calendars at the start of the year, and asking people to be really intentional about what they added back.” 

But a former Shopify employee, who CBC has agreed not to name as he searches for a job in the tech industry, says it wasn’t that productive at all.

A sign with the Shopify logo.
Shopify has made a couple recent attempts to reduce how much time its employees spend in meetings. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

According to the employee, there were “disastrous” and “tangible” impacts of no longer having those meetings.

“The effect that they’re trying to have is to reduce inefficiencies in the organization,” he said. “Those inefficiencies still exist, like people didn’t learn how to have better meetings. Instead, we just would learned how to be sneaky.”

Rogelberg says he appreciates what Shopify was trying to do, but he says the solution to a lack of productivity isn’t just cancelling meetings. 

“I also believe that there should be some retraction in the sheer number of meetings, but ultimately their solution doesn’t actually solve the fundamental problem with meetings.”

How to do meetings better

Rogelberg says getting better at meetings isn’t just a quick fix. He says it takes multiple changes and a shift in focus. 

He notes that there are simple ways for companies to improve meetings and use employees’ time more efficiently.

He suggests taking a look at who’s invited to each meeting. In many cases, he says, there are too many people present. 

A woman looks frustrated in front of a computer.
Rogelberg says one simple solution to improving meetings is reducing how many people are invited. (Josep Suria/Shutterstock)

This often comes out of a desire to be more inclusive, Rogelberg says, but it can also just be laziness, as technology makes it easy to invite more people. He says managers also use meetings to keep track of their employees and get updates on how much work they’re getting done. 

So sometimes it can be helpful to cut down the number of people invited to a meeting, or let some people leave the meeting early.

Rogelberg also suggests having a focused agenda that sets out to answer questions, instead of just a list of things to talk about. 

“If you just can’t think of any questions, it likely means you don’t need a meeting.”

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