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Meetings - A necessary evil


In this post, I will be focusing on “meetings” in particular.


“If you’re a middle manager, it’s likely about 35% of your time, and if you’re in upper management, it can be a whopping 50%. What’s worse is how unproductive these meetings usually are.” - The muse.


Most research suggests that working individuals spend a “scary” amount of time conducting and attending meetings that are a complete waste of time. It is valuable time spent on meetings that could have been put into much better use. It’s a traditional business structure that has handcuffed employees into sitting for 3-5 hours every week that could be spent doing actual productive work.


I recently interned at a local Berlin business, currently housing 12 full time employees, 2 freelancers, and 4 interns. Every Monday morning, I would walk into the office, coffee at the ready. Pick up my notepad and pencil, and sneak in my phone as I head over to the conference table. I found a seat, and sat beside another intern. The meeting began at 9:14am and went on till 11:00am. Almost 2 hours of my 8 hour work period was spent sitting in one position, while a meeting was conducted in German. I am not a native German speaker, nor do I have working proficiency in said language, however I was still expected to sit through sometimes 3 hours of a meeting that was held in German. The meeting consisted of going through every project that each individual employee was working on, as well as plans for the future with minimal discussion of the past. I know this because the titles of each project were in English. We weren’t allowed laptops, or any other devices.


Week after week we would have the same meetings, that seemed to never end. I didn’t assume them to be a priority knowing how much work we had left to do for the upcoming events. With further research I found out that “meetings” were a globally discussed issue. My company is part of the service sector, we are not creating anything knew, just merely accelerating the growth of other startups through hosting events. There is a very minimal need of these overall meetings that go through every tiny detail of what the person is working on instead of an overview on where we stand in terms of progress.


My mentor was the first to display a sense of displeasure when it came to attending these weekly meetings. So, I decided to look it up. The Harvard Business Review mentions that people view these meetings as a “necessary evil” and sometimes with great passion. The reasoning behind the need to carry meetings is to foster relationships and ensure proper information exchange. Executives usually sacrifice their valuable time and mental well-being for meetings they assume are best for the business. However, every minute spent in that meeting room is a minute lost towards actual productivity and efficiency. Is there no other way to conduct a form of understandable information exchange that requires less than 3 hours?


A study shows that due to this waste of time spent in attending meetings, people tend to come to work early, stay late or use weekends for quiet time to concentrate and get their work done. If we were to remove meetings from these equations, people would be naturally healthier in terms of mental health and also be able to well-balance their productivity and workload.


Although meetings have the least amount of productivity, and they are mostly referred to as soul-sucking experiences, they are a significant aspect of what we constitute as ‘work’. Imagine a work space without meetings, it’s a bit awkward. They are almost hardwired into our work-lives and our brains. We are prepared to lose 3 hours of productivity on a daily basis, or lose sleep. However, removing meetings from the equation might be more beneficial than harmful, even though it might be a little bit awkward at first.


Numbers suggest that every single day, there are about 11 million meetings held on an average every single day, with employees attending about 62 meetings every month on an average. This number is only of the US work space alone. A European survey of 2,000 employees in the UK, France and Germany found that a typical staff member spends a total of 187 hours or the equivalent of 23 days a year in meetings. These statistics show how much an average working employee spends on meetings itself, however this number does not include the number of hours spent on trying to plan for the meeting itself.


According to Independent, 56% of these meetings are generally “unproductive” and 66% of people admitted to making excuses in order to avoid these meetings. If employees are eager to get out of meetings, and focus their use of time elsewhere, why are we still conducting these meetings?


There is so much stigma lying around meetings today, that it seems almost redundant to have them unless we develop a strategy to make them more useful for the employees. No one gains more than the company itself if employees spend their time working every Monday morning instead of attending a meeting. Even if the employee is 50% productive, he or she will still manage to get that much more work done, as opposed to snoozing off on the last seat in a meeting.


The time spent on each meeting is just the starting stage of a problem. The issues lie much beyond mere time management. Every meeting has its own set of consecutive problems. Take for instance having more employees than chairs available, thus having to spend an extra few minutes either looking for chairs of shuffling between people to find a spot. Sometimes this might lead people to be in positions where they cannot see the main screen, or the person who is talking -- taking away one of the main reasons behind why the meeting is held in the first place.


Then there is a plausibility of technical issues, causing everyone to look around for a solution. This leads to cramped spaces, people talking over one and other, and possibly rescheduling which ultimately leads to more wastage of time.


There is no need to crowd every single employee in a department, or the whole business for one meeting. It has proven to be more effective to have smaller group meetings between a few selective individuals, or direct fact-to-fact conversations which will help dissolve the possibility of misunderstandings. Talking directly to an individual has so far always proven to be more effective.


In my internship, we had two kinds of meetings: one was the weekly Monday morning meeting that was held in German, and went on for about 2 to 3 hours. The second meetings we had were daily, except Monday. They were casual, stand-up meetings. Every day at 9:15am, our founders would call everyone to join them in our open work space, and stand in a circle. One after the other, we would recite the tasks we had at hand on the particular day.


These meetings were a lot more effective, we would not only have these in english, but they were easy to follow through and gave everyone a good idea of how much workload each individual had. This allowed us to be informed about which employee to target if we needed help, and which one to avoid. These meetings also enforced total transparency between the whole team including the founders. Given that I worked with a startup where such meetings are easier to follow through, it seems like a more efficient use of time than the Monday morning meetings.


Forbes states that stand-up meetings are known to keep participants alert, engaged and can even reduce meeting times by 34%. Having shorter, but more frequent meetings encourages individuals to maximize output, and increase the effectiveness of the shared time because they’ll understand its value. Similarly, HBS review suggests that shorter meetings are beneficial because people are attentive listeners when things happen at a fast place. Keeping the employees engaged for a larger span of time as opposed to traditional sit-down meetings.


This is a phenomenon that I have experienced at large at my internship, but also am aware that is experienced world-wide in almost every other business that there is. My internship in India was also a startup, but followed the similar process of stand-up meetings where we would lay down the objectives for the day as opposed to discussing objectives for the whole month.


In conclusion, my internship experience has taught me a significant amount however, one thing I take away the most from this experience is that following an old norm might lead you to a down-hill slope. Cutting out meetings to having them when necessary, and not every day as a progress report would be highly beneficial to everyone that is in play. Starting from the interns to the chief operating officers: time is a valued asset, and in the business world, it is one thing you must spend as restrictedly as possible. Meetings do just the opposite, meetings take time as water gushed out of a tap. It is a valued asset that we need to work on better organizing.




Sources:

  • Leslie A. PerlowConstance Noonan HadleyEunice Eun, and Harvard Business Review. “Stop the Meeting Madness.” Harvard Business Review, 26 June 2017, hbr.org/2017/07/stop-the-meeting-madness.


  • mark_abadi. “I Used a Free Online Tool to Calculate Exactly How Much of My Life I Spend in Meetings, and I Was Pleasantly Surprised.” Business Insider Deutschland, BusinessInsiderDe


  • Editor, The Muse. “How Much Time Do We Spend in Meetings? (Hint: It's Scary).” Free Career Advice, The Muse, 15 Oct. 2014.


  • Economy, Peter. “A New Study of 19 Million Meetings Reveals That Meetings Waste More Time Than Ever (but There Is a Solution).” Inc.com, Inc., 11 Jan. 2019.


  • Hall, Astrid. “The Average Employee Wastes Nearly 13 Working Days a Year in 'Unproductive' Meetings, Poll Claims.” The Independent, Independent Digital News and Media, 18 Sept. 2018.




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