Corporate America Tries to Free Itself of Meeting Creep

At a recent meeting, Shannon Bender and Keith Martine tried something new: They stood the entire time.

The two founders of Apostrophe, a New York City start-up that focuses on expanding access to art, knew their meetings had been running long. It didn’t seem to matter whom they were talking to — artists, or investors, or employees — a lot of meetings took two hours.

“Sometimes that is intentional because we are relationship-building, but other times that is not,” Mr. Martine said.

“We have one team member who definitely likes to talk a lot,” Ms. Bender added, laughing. “Meetings with him are not efficient at all.”

All that time in meetings left little time to do work. At Apostrophe, that meant less time for forming connections with artists and buyers and curating art shows.

U.S. workers spend an average of 31 hours per month in meetings they consider unproductive, according to Zippia, a site that provides job seekers with information about a company’s culture.

Ms. Bender and Mr. Martine knew the problem. For them meetings of any kind — with a potential hire or a longtime collaborator — tended to run long. What they needed was a solution.

So when they interviewed a candidate to be their new assistant, they didn’t offer her a seat, instead asking if she was open to having a standing conversation. Then they skipped small talk and dived right in on her work history, ambitions, strengths and weaknesses, and views on the art industry.

“After 20 minutes, we 100 percent got what we needed,” Ms. Bender said. “The conversation was so efficient that I almost felt bad it was so short.” They hired her, and it was such a positive experience — even though Ms. Bender and the interviewee were in heels — that Apostrophe will encourage standing meetings from now on. (Indeed, at their next staff meeting everyone stood up.)

Meetings are a source of stress for both employees and managers.

“Meetings in and of themselves don’t cause problems,” said Steven G. Rogelberg, a professor of management at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. “They were not created with a sadistic mind-set.”

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Their basic premise — that a leader wants more people informed, or involved in decision-making — can help workers feel engaged. Meetings elevate more voices, and being invited can feel like an honor, Mr. Rogelberg said.

“Bad meetings are what causes the problems,” he explained. “When meetings are poorly run and have too many attendees and run too long and don’t have a clear purpose, that is problematic.”

It’s also a problem when people have too many and can’t do their work. In a 2022 study, Mr. Rogelberg found that office employees spent about 18 hours a week on average in meetings, which amounted to roughly $25,000 in payroll costs per employee. He also found that employees felt they didn’t need to be in 30 percent of meetings they were invited to.

Remote work during the pandemic, which took away opportunities to have spontaneous discussions, led to meeting creep. A Microsoft report from March last year found that the number of meetings per week had increased 153 percent globally since the start of the pandemic.

Many companies are trying to tackle the problem, finding creative ways to make meetings, both in person and virtual, not only more efficient but more scarce.

Sarah Kellogg Neff, the chief executive of the Lactation Network, a 65-person company that connects new mothers with breastfeeding resources and is the nation’s largest network of board-certified lactation consultants, wants her employees to feel in control of their workdays.

“We are a high-trust, high-autonomy culture,” she said. “This is what high performers want.”

That’s why it is company policy that employees can opt out of meetings regardless of who invited them. (Even their boss or boss’s boss!)

“When they get a meeting invite, every person is empowered to say, ‘What is my role here?’ Or: ‘Hey, I’m working on another thing. Is it OK if I check out of the meeting?’” Ms. Neff said.

People cancel on her sometimes, but she doesn’t take offense. “In a weird way it makes me proud,” she said.

Sam Kaser, 30, who lives in Chicago and works on the Lactation Network’s patient care team, said she exercises this right regularly, especially when a regular check-in on a long-term project is going to be outside her purview that week.

She has had more meetings at this company than in any previous job, she said, but isn’t as frustrated by attending. “I am 100 percent confident why I should be in that ‘room.’” she said.

Many companies, including the Lactation Network, are experimenting with meeting-free days.

Studies show that this type of intervention can work. A study published in the MIT Sloan Management Review found that when companies introduced one no-meeting day per week, autonomy, communication, engagement and satisfaction improved.

In a Microsoft study of 435 of its employees, 73 percent said no-meeting Friday was good for their well-being and 77 percent said it was good for their focus time.

Canva, a design software maker, has 3,500 employees across eight offices worldwide. If someone tries to schedule a meeting on Wednesday, the company’s designated no-meeting day, an auto decline comes “with a note that says that we are trying to adopt this policy for mental health and productivity,” said Jennie Rogerson, Canva’s global head of people, who is based in Sydney, Australia.

The company cherishes this policy so much — “I use Wednesdays to get through my emails,” Ms. Rogerson said, adding that “there is nothing better than inbox zero” — it is experimenting with entire weeks, called focus weeks, when nonessential meetings are canceled.

It’s not easy to carry out something like this, Ms. Rogerson said. For example, employees are in different time zones.

“Having meeting-free Wednesday means one more day that Australia and the U.S. don’t get to meet, and with the time zone shifting, the amount of hours people can meet is already minimal,” she said. “We’re trying to think through this.”

Another problem is that other workdays can be busier than they otherwise would. “You know when you have a game of Tetris and things get wild?” Ms. Rogerson asked. “That is what my calendar looks like with the exception of no-meeting Wednesday.”

At the beginning of 2023, Shopify, the global commerce company, reinstated its meeting-free Wednesday, which it had tried in the past, and meetings that day dropped 44 percent.

To free up more time, Shopify also automatically deleted recurring meetings with three people or more and asked people to hold off on rescheduling them for two weeks (a cooling-off period) so they could think about what needed to be added back in. The company also created one specific time slot when companywide meetings could be held.

Jacques Krzepkowski, 39, a staff product designer for Shopify in Calgary, Alberta, said he spent 18 hours per week in meetings in 2022. Now his average week has eight hours of meetings.

“The one-on-one meetings are easier to cluster, so I have larger blocks of free time to get deep work completed,” he said.

Ms. Neff, from the Lactation Network, cautioned that eliminating large group meetings might make some employees feel excluded. While her company is trying to cut back on meetings, it still allows anyone to join who wants to.

“We have a very open-door policy,” she said. “If you see a topic you are interested in or a meeting you are interested in, you can attend, but otherwise we respect your time.”

Mr. Rogelberg, who also works as a consultant, said he had clients who made meetings more efficient by rewriting agendas as questions to be answered instead of topics to discuss.

“If you do that, you have to really think about why you are gathering,” he said. “If there is no question to be answered, you don’t need a meeting.”

This also helps determine who needs to be there, he said, because only the people who are essential for answering the questions should be included.

The problem with all of these techniques — no-meeting Mondays, standing-up staff gatherings, focus weeks with no meetings — is that even the most meeting averse can find it difficult to enforce them.

“These no-meeting days or half-days can have some success, but it takes a really strong collective commitment to do it,” Mr. Rogelberg said. “We have data to suggest that people are scheduling meetings during those meeting-free periods because they know everyone is available.”

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