Are you hearing this increasing refrain? “Meetings – not more *######*meetings?!”
A good eighty percent of my coaching clients over the last six months have indicated to me that working virtually from home has increased the number of meetings they have each day. Most of them complain that these meetings are relentless – scheduled back-to-back throughout the day. They often extend way beyond what was the usual working day. Most of my clients express their dilemma as “When do I get to do my job?” Many of them have stopped accepting meetings they don’t think they really need to attend. This attempt at relief is limited because of the common workplace practice of sharing calendars or expectations for attendance once sent an invite. While people’s autonomy over how they apportion their time is diminishing, they remain fully accountable for their productivity.
Whilst clicking “decline meeting” seems a great start to a solution, it treats only the symptom. It is difficult to decline a meeting unilaterally when it is called by one’s line manager or a senior. In some organisations declining could constitute a career-limiting move. Conscientious employees are caught in a paradox between robotically complying with meetings and making judicious decisions about what actions and activities contribute to productivity. Whenever my coaching clients complain about their constant meetings, I ask the same question: “Are the meetings productive?” And their answer at best, is “Seldom!”
As professional coaches we get to hear a great deal about what people find productive and unproductive in their workplaces. Much of this may not surface into conversations when leaders and managers are around, or surfaces in grumblings and complaints. I offer the following insights in the hope that they will spark responsiveness in everyone who calls meetings.
Meetings themselves are not the problem. They are necessary – a valid means of discussing issues, brainstorming ideas and generally getting things done more effectively and seamlessly. For me meetings should seldom (probably never) be used as a report-back mechanism. We can use email for that purpose; after all, anyone can open a spreadsheet or the previous minutes and read them. “Ah,” I hear you say, “but my people won’t read those reports if we send them to them. So, we have to have a meeting to discuss those reports”. I have several responses to this. Firstly, do we discuss those reports or does the person responsible for the report bore us by going through their spreadsheet or the actions they have, or have not, taken since last meeting? Secondly, why should we need to discuss something that everyone at the meeting can look through or read in preparation for a meeting? Thirdly, it talks to leadership if people reporting to a leader are not taking responsibility for ensuring they are prepared for these meetings. After all, teams are there for the purpose and benefit of a greater entity than the individuals in them. As part of a management team for example, the leader, together with his colleagues in the team are responsible for the management of the business and not just for the department. That is their primary concern, focus and RESPONSIBILITY. A department is of course important, but its importance in relation to the management team’s purpose is secondary.
Back to the report-back meetings themselves. My question has always been – Why do we need to gather brains – often expensive ones – around the table, albeit now a virtual table, to listen to a series of monologues and soliloquies? Wouldn’t we be putting those expensive brains to better use if we actually required the brains to be active, and even stretched, at these meetings? What might we collectively accomplish if these brains were used to co-create solutions, brainstorm innovative strategies and ideas, whether product- or organisationally-related? Meetings should primarily be used as a vehicle to enable the generation of thought and solutions. Only then will meetings become more productive and perhaps less ubiquitous.
“What about budget meetings and monthly or quarterly management meetings?” you might ask. “Don’t we have to discuss our new budgets and our monthly progress?” My answer is, yes indeed, the aspects of the budget or management accounts that need discussing do need to be discussed, for example, contentious issues, or strategies or obstacles. But not the spreadsheets, especially not line by line. The people around the table are normally paid salaries that suggest that they are able to digest the details outside the meeting, If they can’t, there is always someone in the finance or relevant department that can help them prior to the meeting.
My concerns about the way we use meetings unproductively goes further than what I have stated above. I am bold enough to say that virtually all businesses could slash the time spent in virtually (excuse the pun) all their meetings by 40%, and probably the number of meetings by at least 20%. Try it and see what happens. I predict that, after a short while, meetings will be convened only for a specific purpose. When that happens, attendees will at the very least become better prepared, and discussions will become more focused and creative, and in time, increasingly collaborative and co-creative in decision-making and action-taking.
However, if you as a caller-to-meetings leader wanted to make only one change and asked me on the basis of my knowledge of workplaces gained as an ICF professional coach what to tackle, my response is this. Set aside 5-15 minutes at the end of every meeting you convene. Pose the following questions and invite a response from each attendee: “How can we do this better next time? How can we make the next meeting more productive?” Don’t settle for any responses that are satisfied with rumbling along with the status quo – late-coming, open laptops with attendees busy with non-meeting related activities, early leaving, mind-switched-off in physical attendance only mode people.
If you do decide to experiment with tweaking meetings so that they become part of productive working not an interruption to productivity, do spread the word far and wide. There is nothing like stories of success to generate interest from others. Remember, the biggest room in the world, even in this time of virtual online working rooms, remains the room for improvement. Be part of restoring workplace productivity, preventing energy drain, and creating workplaces that are supportive to the human beings who work there. Also, working with an ICF professional coach can help you adjust to the current times, with self-awareness and self-trust. These are life skills and absolute must-have in today’s business environment.
Want to learn more?
Perlow, A., Noonan Hadley, C., and Eun, E. (2017) Stop the Meeting Madness. Harvard Business Review. https://hbr.org/2017/07/stop-the-meeting-madness
Rogelberg, S. (2019) Less fluff, more stuff: the science of productive meetings. (includes a podcast) https://knowledge.wharton.upenn.edu/article/less-fluff-more-stuff-how-to-make-meetings-more-productive/
Lauron Buys is an experienced international organisational and executive coach. He has more than 20 years’ experience in Leadership, Executive and Strategic roles in law, commerce, education and sport. He has been practising as a full time professional coach since 2001, is a Master Certified Coach with the ICF. Lauron is the author of two published books, Management by Coaching and High-Performance Coaching for Managers and some 200 articles in the daily press and professional online magazines.
About the ICF:
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