Fight Meeting Fatigue: Think About Why,
How Often You’re Gathering
Meetings: They can be a way to brainstorm, reach consensus or communicate with others in a group setting. But when they’re poorly run and lack clear, specific goals, they can turn into time wasters.
In fact, inefficient meetings are the No. 1 obstacle to productivity, according to Microsoft’s 2023 Work Trend Index survey. The survey was conducted Feb. 1-March 14 and involved 31,000 full-time or self-employed workers in 31 markets, including the U.S.
Employers are aware that meetings can be counterproductive. In January, Canadian e-commerce company Shopify canceled recurring meetings involving three or more people as a way to boost productivity and efficiency. Wednesdays were to be meeting-free, and meetings with more than 50 attendees were to be limited to Thursdays.
“Let’s give people back their maker time,” Kaz Nejatian, Shopify’s chief operating officer and vice president of product, tweeted in January. Clorox and Facebook parent Meta also are among organizations with no-meeting policies.
However, eliminating meetings altogether is a “false goal,” Steven Rogelberg said several years ago in a YouTube video. Rogelberg is the author of The Surprising Science of Meetings: How You Can Lead Your Team to Peak Performance (Oxford University Press, 2019), as well as Chancellor’s professor at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. He teaches organizational science, management, and psychology and is the founding director of organizational science at the university. “We need meetings. Meetings are essential for communication, cooperation, consensus decision-making,” Rogelberg said in the video. “What we want to do is eliminate bad meetings.” Zoom, which stopped holding internal meetings on Wednesdays during the early stages of the pandemic, announced in August that it was ending that policy. “We move fast, and this [no-meeting] effort has become more of a barrier to collaboration than it was intended. And as an increasingly global company, no Internal Meeting Wednesday creates a lack of clarity for Zoomies working across multiple time zones,” Zoom CEO Eric Yuan said, according to Fortune. One of Rogelberg’s takeaways from his years of research is that the amount of time people are spending in meetings is growing.
“Although the statistics vary,” he wrote in The Surprising Science of Meetings, “it’s important to realize that meetings take up an increasingly large amount of time in employees’ days.”
In another survey whose findings were released Sept. 19, nearly half of workers (46 percent) whose jobs require them to work with or around others—virtually or in person—said they prefer no more than one meeting a day. The survey of 9,129 workers in seven countries was conducted in August for Fiverr, an online marketplace for freelance services based in Tel Aviv, Israel. Respondents were full-time, part-time or freelance employees, and most preferred in-person meetings, either in an office or at a location such as a coffee shop. However, nearly 30 percent of entry-level respondents said they’d prefer to skip meetings altogether and communicate with colleagues through messaging platforms instead.
Rethinking Your Meetings
Some business experts recommend shortening meetings, such as by having standing or walking meetings. But whatever shape meetings take, meeting fatigue is real, according to a 2023 report from Virtira, a management consultancy based in Halifax, Nova Scotia.
“Today’s endless slog of meetings is ranked as the No. 1 cause of fatigue by 64 percent of employees,” according to Virtira’s report From Zoom Fatigue to Meeting Fatigue. Purposeless meetings are the single biggest contributor to meeting fatigue, according to nearly half (48 percent) of the 1,489 full-time managers and employees Virtira surveyed across 15 countries. Respondents worked onsite, hybrid or fully remote schedules.
To make meetings worth everyone’s time and effort, know the purpose of your meeting, said productivity expert Viktor Grekov, CEO and co-founder of Oboard, a Ukraine-based plug-in for Jira. Establish clear and focused objectives and key results (OKRs) that are specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and time-bound. When you have a well-defined goal, team members will understand your expectations and priorities without the need for frequent check-ins, he noted, and time saved by eliminating unnecessary meetings “can be better spent on proactive workshops focused on developing and achieving specific OKRs.”
Grekov and Virtira also recommended that employers:
- Use other forms of communication, such as a dedicated collaboration platform, to communicate with team members and reduce the number of meetings.
- Encourage employees to communicate and collaborate on their own time and at their own pace through collaborative communication tools.
- Implement a tracking system that allows team members to bring up challenges they’re dealing with and provide status updates on their work. By doing this, “your team will have more time to focus on addressing roadblocks, adjusting strategies and achieving progress,” Grekov pointed out.
- Set aside time for troubleshooting.
- Train staff how to plan and run a meeting, including setting a clear agenda, limiting tangential discussions and being thoughtful in creating the attendee list.
- Regularly audit how frequently meetings are held and how many occur back-to-back, and question if a meeting is truly needed. “Some meetings are absolutely necessary, like a monthly project review, a regular one-on-one call or an all-hands company gathering,” Virtira said in its report. “But many meetings have barely the flimsiest reason for being scheduled, and many meetings have far too long of an invite list.”
- Allow remote attendees to be off camera if they choose. Camera fatigue was a frequent complaint of respondents in the Virtira survey. “In a conference room setting, people are generally looking down at their notepads or printed material,” not staring at each other, the company noted in its report. Create the same environment online. Attendees can keep their webcams on for a few minutes at the start of the meeting to aid social interaction, then allow their cameras to shut off as the meeting host or presenter takes over the screen. “Unless it’s a team-building exercise,” according to the report, “there is no reason for everyone’s head to be visible the whole time [on camera].”
Kathy Gurchiek, SHRM