Too Many Meetings are Getting in the Way of My Job
June 8, 2015 4:10 PM   Subscribe

I work for a medium-sized (400 employees or so) nonprofit arts organization. Though there is an ostensible hierarchy, it is very much a "consensus culture" with a lot of different departments that work together on a daily basis. As a result, there are a lot of meetings. Like eight or nine hours a day of meetings for upper-level staff, including me. This means that it is crazy hard to do any work: answer e-mails and phone calls, write, edit, or "be creative." Has anyone had any luck controlling an out-of-control institutional desire for meetings? Any strategies that have worked?

All of these meetings make it impossible to actually do any work during the day, and as a result tasks are crammed in on weekends and before/after hours. When I voiced frustration about this, I wound up on a subcommittee to figure out what we can do about all the meetings (which of course will involve more meetings). There's probably a lot more to say about this involving deep institutional inefficiencies: the ability of people to make decisions without their managers, varying levels of administrative competency (like putting together agendas and desired outcomes), etc., but these issues would take years to address in this large and old organization. For now I am just trying to find a way to I often block time out on my calendar (gcal) to try to get things done during the day, but people will schedule over blocked time, including scheduling over pre-existing meetings with the excuse that "it's important." Saying "no" doesn't seem to work; it just pushes the meeting out a few days. A few of us tyrannized by meetings have come up with some ideas:

--institute a one-day-a-week "no meeting" day
--institute two hours every day as a "no meeting" zone
--limit all meetings to 30 minutes instead of an hour (an hour is the default)

but I have no clue as to whether these ideas would actually be solutions or just kicking the can.

Does anyone work in an organization that has successfully turned a "meeting culture" into a "working culture"? I'm looking for any suggestions, readings, anecdotes--either on an institutional or personal level. Thanks! Gotta run now to a meeting.
posted by fiery.hogue to Work & Money (31 answers total) 23 users marked this as a favorite
Your ideas are solid. Try using those.

In addition, people need to start being blunt about who gets invited to meetings. Perhaps you can start off each meeting with, "Before we get started, the goal of this meeting is XYZ. In order to do that, who doesn't need to be here?" Then allow those people to leave.

This also helps people decide, you know, what the meeting is supposed to be about. :-)

Do this a few times, and people start curtailing their invite lists to only those that really need to be there.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 4:26 PM on June 8, 2015 [18 favorites]

Here are my suggestions, in addition to the ideas that you mention:

- No meetings without a written agenda circulated in advance; additional new business allowed only with a majority vote

- Hold meetings standing up. I'm serious. Allow exceptions only for those with a bona fide need to sit, or when everyone really needs to refer to a bunch of paper or look at stuff on a screen.
posted by brianogilvie at 4:26 PM on June 8, 2015 [14 favorites]

Hah! This sounds like my workplace - down to the meetings/committees to figure out how to cut down on the meetings. We are extremely collaborative, which can be great, but the constant meeting schedules required to make collaboration happen are insane.

We haven't fixed it totally, but progress has been made and it basically all boils down to support from leadership around two themes:

- people saying no when they have to - be it to individual meetings or entire initiatives
- individuals making decisions without consulting 35 cross-functional partners

We got there by taking it to our department head and having a direct conversation about what would and wouldn't work. It helped that most of my fellow managers were already on board. Once we knew we had support from the people we ultimately answer to, only then did other strategies like scheduling "work" time on our calendars become effective.

It requires constant calibration but has definitely gotten better!
posted by marmago at 4:29 PM on June 8, 2015 [1 favorite]

Ugh, I had a similar experience at a nonprofit.

Maybe one thing you could do is to designate certain people to attend certain meetings, and then have them either brief other people who need the gist of the meeting but don't need to be there, or share their notes on the cloud somewhere so you can catch up on your own time.

If you block in your own work time and people schedule meetings over it, that sounds like boundary crossing to me. You don't schedule something over someone else's scheduled plans without asking first. Until this problem is resolved (and it really does sound like an institutional problem), can you surreptitiously title your scheduled work time "Meeting" in your shared calendar so people think you're engaged elsewhere?
posted by Miss T.Horn at 4:30 PM on June 8, 2015 [1 favorite]

Maybe this makes me a bad employee, but I freely decline meetings that are either scheduled over something else (including my own times I block out to work), or are not important for me to be at. It doesn't fix the larger problem, but at least it allows me to have more time to work...
posted by primethyme at 4:34 PM on June 8, 2015 [8 favorites]

Admin assistants are useful for this, if you have them.

My company has lots of meetings, but we also have a culture of "DNS [do not schedule] means DNS". If you can convince some of the most influential/in-demand people at the company to create DNS blocks on their calendars and decline meetings scheduled over them, other people will start to actually pay attention to these blocks when scheduling meetings. And then you, too, should RSVP no to meetings scheduled over a DNS block.
posted by phoenixy at 4:34 PM on June 8, 2015

So, what happens if you just don't go to a meeting? Is there even one meeting a week that you could just... skip? Like, you'd look over the minutes later and that would be enough? Maybe just start skipping your least useful meeting of the week, the meeting where either nothing is going to get decided on or the thing that's going to get decided is not important to you or your work.
posted by mskyle at 4:43 PM on June 8, 2015 [5 favorites]

The two things which actually work:
- your upper level management needs to agree to how you reduce meetings, such as "no meetings on Monday afternoons"
- you need to stick to whatever rules you make, otherwise people will believe that they are flexible.

In addition, when I previously led a team of about 20 people in a 300-person organization, my team and I came up with a few rules, which we circulated to other groups.

- No meetings after 5 PM, including "emergencies" unless approved by me
- I went through all of the meetings that my group attended, and thinned out the attendance. This also meant that the people in my group had to make decisions for the entire group, which they agreed to because it meant less meetings for everyone.
- Meeting objectives and agenda were to be sent out prior to the meeting. No additional topics to e discussed "because we still have time in this meeting".
posted by xmts at 4:43 PM on June 8, 2015 [3 favorites]

A senior person at my last workplace was known to hold all meetings while briskly walking up a nearby hill. It kept him fit, it made people who didn't desperately need to meet with him reluctant to do so, it kept the meetings short, and he said people were more creative outside in nature.

I think he also liked that people were usually too out of breath to talk much so they wouldn't interrupt him or go on at length about trivia.

Whether you can do something similar depends on your coworkers. It's kind of ableist to assume everyone can walk or even stand for an hour, but with certain people you know well it could work.
posted by lollusc at 5:22 PM on June 8, 2015 [14 favorites]

My suggestions mentioned so far are standing meetings, mandatory written agenda, and opening each meeting with a goal and relevant parties.

I also find it useful to have a call-in line open even within your organization, so people who might have a peripheral interest in the proceedings can listen in (contributing if necessary) while attending to other tasks.

As a cultural note, encourage everyone to ask "Can this information be communicated as a thoughtful email?" especially if the flow of information is primarily one-way. Replace 'email' with 'Keynote' or 'chart' as necessary.
posted by a halcyon day at 5:22 PM on June 8, 2015 [3 favorites]

Some things I've seen work:

Use Slack to move a lot of meetings into chat.

Schedule standing weekly meetings for any teams/projects you manage, and whenever people on those teams/projects try to schedule other meetings, just say "Let's put it on the agenda at the weekly team/project meeting."
posted by amaire at 5:43 PM on June 8, 2015 [3 favorites]

Things that have worked for me:

Refuse to accept a meeting request unless the organiser has said what they want to achieve in the meeting and attached an agenda. Just don't go. Ditto any meeting where papers aren't circulated with enough time to read them.

Block out times in your calendar for the other work and don't shift them for meetings - "I have another commitment at that time that I can't break".

And if I suspected a meeting was going to be largely a waste of my time, I wasn't shy about saying at the beginning that I would have to leave half-way through for another commitment, and asked for anything that required my input to be dealt with upfront. And then I'd walk out, with profuse apologies.

I have also, once or twice, asked people from my team to come and pull me out of meetings if I hadn't emerged by a particular time.
posted by girlgenius at 5:57 PM on June 8, 2015 [3 favorites]

Stop working on weekends and after hours. When silly meetings come up, ask your boss what they want more, your presence or XYZ specific task done.
posted by rpfields at 6:09 PM on June 8, 2015 [5 favorites]

Your first two suggestions are great. Your third will result in you having 16 meetings per day instead of 8. Some other suggestions:

I block time on my calendar as work blocks and politely decline to let people step on those times. On the very rare occasion that I move a work block for a meeting, I make it clear that it is an uncommon move on my part and "by golly you owe me a favor".

Some of those work blocks get scheduled for first thing Monday or last thing Friday, to give me a god damned break when I need it. Do this. Block your lunch hour. Block an hour a week to REALLY manage your inbox. Block time to think. Drop larger things on your to do list on your calendar to hold the time to actually do them.

I tentatively accept a meeting, stating that "I'm really only free for the first 30 minutes", which results in folks getting to the fucking point a little quicker.

I religiously try to "give time back" when I schedule meetings. The tyranny of Outlook is that it's not super-convenient to schedule 15 minute meetings, so most people schedule 30 minutes as a default. If you can give some of that 30 minutes back, people love you forever and are a little more conscious of YOUR schedule. I have a reputation for getting to the point.
posted by ersatzkat at 6:15 PM on June 8, 2015 [4 favorites]

One other thing - too many meetings is often a symptom of a culture where people don't want to take responsibility for things. Try to use your time in meetings to avoid more meetings by pushing for individuals to take on decisions. So instead of the meeting just agreeing that "We will do X", try to get agreement that "Fred will do X and circulate results out of session, and everyone can agree or comment by email". That way you don't then need a meeting to get agreement to what has been done.

Oh, and if you're using Outlook, change settings to 15 minute slots so you can make any meetings you organise shorter. open the Calendar, got to the View tab, and choose 15 minutes from the Time Scale drop-down.
posted by girlgenius at 6:42 PM on June 8, 2015 [5 favorites]

Other than the organization size, I probably could have written this question, down to being part of a task force to deal with the issue of too many meetings. All I have to offer beyond what you've thought of and others have suggested is that our "we have too many meetings" task force is specifically attempting to conduct itself entirely without having a meeting. So far we've managed a pretty good brainstorming just by email! We'll see how it goes once we have to finalize our presentation to a larger group, but I think it's important that we demonstrate it's possible.

I'm trying really hard to use this to get buy-in to tools like Slack and maybe Trello, to help people conduct some of this collaboration in less disruptive ways.

If your organization is like mine you may have higher ups that respect business pubs like Harvard Business Review - if so this article may be persuasive: Do You Really Need To Hold That Meeting? It outlines a framework for deciding if work -- even collaboration -- needs to happen in a meeting. There's an additional HBR article linked in that one (Break Your Addiction to Meetings) that supports many of the ideas in this thread.
posted by misskaz at 6:48 PM on June 8, 2015 [3 favorites]

Is your manager on board with you going to fewer meetings and doing more work instead? If they haven't bought into the idea, I suspect that even if you're successful in going to fewer meetings that you'll be labeled by other employees as not a team player and problematic to "work" with. If your manager isn't willing to protect you from that, it is likely to negatively affect you. Really, change is going to have to come down from on high, so I'd focus on persuading a few of the key people that the current system is untenable.
posted by Candleman at 7:36 PM on June 8, 2015 [2 favorites]

Speaking as a non-profit business strategy consultant, this is not an uncommon problem. There are lots of underlying causes for 'meeting culture' workplaces. They vary from good intentions such as wanting to keep everyone as informed as possible or wanting to gather everyone's thoughts on a decision before it's made to less positive things, like not trusting one's project managers or being too timid to come up with and stand behind a decision.

The following may or may not work for your particular company, but it might be a place to start.

My general solution to this is to sit down with upper management and help them design 'circles of leadership' in which some, or even most, decision-making power (other than high-level financial commitments or things like that) is handed to the project leaders, who are responsible for not only conveying the decisions they have made to the 'inner ring' of management/C-level execs, or whatever, but also bringing back necessary information to their team from the inner group. The inner group meetings are usually scheduled on a weekly basis, and all project leaders attend. This ensures information comes in, information goes out, decisions get made, everyone gets to have their opinions conveyed, and it doesn't take up your entire working day.

This can take some time and effort to transition to, and it involves upper management really letting go and trusting that the project leaders will work in the best interest of the company, but a company that doesn't have confidence in delegating decision making is going to have a rough time of it anyway.

The main keys here are figuring out *why* there are so many meetings, what the focus tends to be (decisions versus information gathering / information giving), and then to figure out how to streamline that process so the results happen more efficiently.
posted by ananci at 8:10 PM on June 8, 2015 [5 favorites]

This is a novel idea, wish I had the guts to try it more often!

Other ideas - just decline a meeting if you don't think you need to attend, or delegate to someone else.
posted by watrlily at 8:29 PM on June 8, 2015 [1 favorite]

Some great advice here, but I'll just add one thing: Don't let anyone talk to only one other person for any longer than it takes to say "Why don't you two take that off-line and discuss it after the meeting." If anyone objects to those two taking it off-line, then you've got a conversation that the whole meeting needs to have. But you'd be surprised how willing people will be to let two people make a decision without their input, if they think they don't have to have input.
posted by Etrigan at 8:31 PM on June 8, 2015 [2 favorites]

The too many pointless meetings is a huge time suck in advertising, and really gets in the way of any actual creative work being done. So much so, they have actually invented a position where someone manages the scheduling, workload and meetings to make sure things get done and our time isn't taken unnecessarily. This role is called 'traffic'.

Now this person had a pretty thankless task, being the gatekeepers of access to the teams, as they are often yelled at for not allowing managers to just grab us whenever but my god, when they are on your side they are your best friends ever and mean that you can actually have time to get things done and have a life too.

You should suggest that someone gets given this role and watch how much more smoothly everything flows once it is directed properly. They don't call it traffic for nothing.
posted by Jubey at 8:34 PM on June 8, 2015 [1 favorite]

Please don't go with the suggestions (meetings standing up, meeting while walking briskly) that exclude or single out people with visible and invisible disabilities.
posted by animalrainbow at 8:55 PM on June 8, 2015 [3 favorites]

One of the most efficient (engineering) managers I've worked with built himself a clock that counted money instead of time. He figured out the average fully burdened hourly rate of the group (note, this exists at any organization, non-profit or for-profit) and had buttons for the number of people in the group. It's amazing how efficient people will be when meetings start to cost thousands of dollars without obvious value for the money.
posted by saeculorum at 10:23 PM on June 8, 2015 [18 favorites]

I agree with having blocks of no-meeting time, preferably on a company-wide level.

I've found the concept of manager time vs maker time useful in convincing people why these measures should be taken.
posted by the_blizz at 9:37 AM on June 9, 2015 [2 favorites]

You may find it useful if these meetings were done through an online tool like WebEx, where you can participate but also be working in the meantime - multi-tasking. About half the meetings I attend this way involve me putting the phone on mute when I'm not talking, and taking care of work tasks that don't require me to focus in really deeply.

My brother has to attend a similar number of meetings on a daily basis, and he brings his laptop and/or phone to each meeting and gets lots of work done while sitting in these meetings.
posted by hootenatty at 9:51 AM on June 9, 2015

FWIW one part of the problem seems to be in spending lots of unpaid overtime to just get your normal job responsibilities done.

One thing you could think about is setting some boundaries as to how much total time/hours-per-week you are going to spend on this job. Even if you don't feel you can just cap it at 40 hours per week (which would honestly be best both for you and the organization) even something like 45 hours/week with exception of one 55 hour week no more often than once every 6 weeks is probably a LOT better than what you are doing now.

Then the problem for *your* manager becomes that your actual capacity is X and your meetings plus job responsibilities equal X+25%. So, what does your manager want you give up in order to bring your responsibilities in line with your actual/realistic capacity and available hours? You can proactively go to your manager with a plan for addressing this issue and then make reporting on the situation and progress part of your regular reporting to your manager.

This makes it their problem to solve but you are a helpful person coming to them with proactive solutions to their difficult problem.
posted by flug at 10:23 AM on June 9, 2015 [1 favorite]

To second what saeculorum said above, start to communicate the cost of your meeting culture in some way. A one hour meeting with 6 people who make 75k a year has a opportunity cost of around $250.00. If you have 6 hours of meetings a day, 5 days a week, that small little team has a opportunity cost of $7500.
posted by jasondigitized at 10:28 AM on June 9, 2015

1) No meetings without a clear agenda in the meeting invite
2) Tell everyone that if they are ever in a meeting and don't feel they need to be there, just get up and leave

For #1 that means topics to discuss, decisions to be made, etc. Which brings up

3) Cancel meeting if important stakeholders or decision-makers are missing. Having a meeting "anyway" even though critical people are not in attendance makes no sense. You'll just have to do it again.

As other people have said, it sounds like there isn't a clear division of labor and ownership in your org. Even if you want consensus, you don't need every single person to sit in every meeting and argue out every detail. Have a few key people hammer things out and present the outcomes for a vote or for general info sharing. You can still invite more people as optional so they don't feel excluded. Optional Attendees needs to be clarified as just that - "come if you want to".
posted by freecellwizard at 10:30 AM on June 9, 2015

Hold meetings standing up. I'm serious. Allow exceptions only for those with a bona fide need to sit
Please don't single out people with a disability or injury.
posted by soelo at 2:59 PM on June 9, 2015

One of the most efficient (engineering) managers I've worked with built himself a clock that counted money instead of time

See also the meeting ticker. Load it up on your laptop and display it prominently in the meeting.
posted by Pink Frost at 5:31 PM on June 9, 2015 [1 favorite]

Please don't single out people with a disability or injury.

Standing meetings are not singling out people with a disability/injury any more than speaking at meetings singles out deaf people. Allowing people who are not able to stand to sit at a standing meeting is a reasonable accommodation. Forcing employers to ignore the quantitative benefits of standing meetings is not reasonable, and is not necessary for supporting someone's disability.

To the OP's question - standing meetings have wide support, both in academic study and in industry (especially Agile proponents). There's no reason to handicap everyone in order to avoid making one hypothetical person uncomfortable (especially when that one hypothetical person may actually prefer not to be catered to at the detriment of the group as a whole).
posted by saeculorum at 6:02 PM on June 9, 2015 [2 favorites]

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