People love to hate meetings. A new survey by a design company called Moo has found that British workers spend 4.1 hours a week in them, and about a third of this is wasted – most often waiting for someone to arrive. “Too many meetings” was also the most commonly cited waste of time in a survey by salary.com last year. This may be true, but it doesn’t mean all meetings should be cancelled. Other studies have found many good reasons to keep them. Such as:
They work – if they’re small
When a meeting starts to feel like an audience, it frightens some people – and gets too enjoyable for others. Researchers debate the details, but it seems that the most satisfying and productive meetings involve between five and nine people. The consulting firm Bain & Company found that each extra person above seven reduces the effectiveness of a decision-making group by about 10%. So if it seems pointless for you to go to a meeting, say so. You may well be right.
They reduce your emails
If 4.1 hours a week sounds like a drain on your time, consider that 13 hours is a commonly quoted estimate for how long people spend on emails. While it may be true that the worst meetings “could have been an email”, the best ones would have to be replaced by a much longer email chain or Slack chat. Is that really something you would prefer?
They make it difficult to lie
The beauty of email is that it gives you time to think carefully about what to say and how to say it. The beauty of meetings is that they don’t. In the flesh, you can often tell when someone is only reluctantly agreeing to a plan and won’t actually follow through, or when two colleagues just do not like each other. This may not be pleasant to sit through, but if you care about getting something done, or avoiding bigger problems later on, it can be very valuable information.
They can be different
Some research suggests that taking away the chairs keeps meetings short and snappy, and lifts everyone’s enthusiasm. Banning laptops and phones may improve attentiveness, as was practised by the Obama White House. You can set a time limit – policed with an actual timer – to focus everybody’s mind and keep things quick. There can be periods of silence to give everyone the chance to think or read together. The point is: meetings do not have to be what meetings always have been.
People don’t really hate them
An intriguing study in the MIT Sloan Management Review found that most employees had complained to colleagues about meetings. However, most of these complainants also admitted in private that they did not hate meetings as much as they said publicly. In fact, overall, 69% of employees rated the productivity of their most recent meeting between “good” and “excellent”, and only 16% said it was poor or worse. Maybe one hidden benefit of meetings is that they give us something to complain about together.