The 3 Reasons You Have Too Many Meetings

Unearthing the root cause behind our collective meeting burnout

“Too many meetings!”

Whether you’re working from home or from the office, the complaint is the same. It’s not just a matter of Zoom fatigue — though yes, online meetings are more exhausting than in-person meetings. It’s that we’ve taken a business culture that was already overloaded with meetings, and piled on even more, as if a never-ending series of individual and group calls can somehow make up for the loss of conversations that used to happen spontaneously at the office.

This is not a problem we can cure by simply returning to the central workplace, or by paring our current call volume back to something more like what we had in the olden days of office life. Meeting culture was broken long before Covid; we were just so accustomed to booked-up calendars that our complaints were held at the level of a grumble rather than a roar.

Fair enough, because when you’re at the office, the opportunity costs of a meeting are relatively low: If you pass up a meeting in order to get a quiet hour of work done at your desk, someone will probably interrupt you anyhow. So embrace the non-stop calendar invitations on your days at the office, and get your work done around the boardroom table. In fact, that’s a great use of your office days: Max out on meetings, collaboration and connection, so you get the very most from your time on-site with colleagues.

On the days you are working at home, however, all those meetings really are disrupting what could be productive solo work time. That’s fine when you’re part of a meeting that is truly productive, like a half-hour session that whips through key decisions and project bottlenecks, so that you can all move forward with your respective tasks. It’s less okay when your calendar is filled up with a series of hour-long meetings that each require only five minutes of your attention, yet somehow add up to your entire day.

What’s the root cause of all those meetings? Three widespread problems.

The problem: Feedback failure

You’re on the call, and everybody agrees to submit their project ideas via email, or fill in the survey, or submit their project reports. Except only two people actually do: Everyone else needs to be chased down like a stray dog. When colleagues can’t trust one another to provide feedback as requested, a meeting becomes the default solution: Bringing people back in a (virtual) room in order to get their input, as if they’re kids who need a babysitter to ensure their homework gets done. The same problem arises if people don’t reply to emails or text messages: A meeting becomes the only way to reliably get their answers or input.

The solution: Prioritize post-meeting requests for feedback. If you don’t want so many meetings on your calendar, be diligent about promptly providing feedback via survey, doc, or other online mechanisms. And make an effort to answer any addressable email as quickly as possible. That way you get to share your comments on your own time — which you’ll have more of, without all those babysitting meetings.

The problem: Worker’s block.

Writers aren’t the only people who get stuck staring at a blank page. Sometimes it’s hard to figure out where to start on a new project or task, even if it’s a relatively modest one. You need to develop a new billing system but you can’t figure out whether to start with the software or the process or the reasons your team isn’t following the current system properly. So you book a meeting to talk it all through — when actually, you just need something to get you rolling. If everyone on the team is using one another to get unblocked at the start of each project, you’re all going to have a lot of meetings.

The solution: Start at the end. Start with the results you’re aiming for, and then work backwards. In chapter 5 of Remote, Inc., we explain how focusing on the final product can help you tackle any project more efficiently. Part of this process involves starting from the end point: If you imagine that you had to hand over your document, presentation or other deliverable right now, what would you produce? Force yourself to do this exercise before you even think about scheduling a meeting: Just sit down and see what you can come up with solo. If you develop this habit you won’t rely on meetings to get the ball rolling; instead, you can reach out to your colleagues when you’re very clear on the questions you need to ask or the decisions you can make together.

The problem: Fuzzy or overwhelming communication.

Too often we fall back on meetings because our colleagues’ emails are long and confusing, or their text replies are so slow that you lose the thread of the conversation. As the (deposed!) queen of the Incredibly Long Email, I know how that happens: I used to write such long, detailed emails that my clients would book me into meetings just so they could get my advice in more concise form. If our written communications are blurry or time-consuming, we’ll inevitably fall back to meetings as a more efficient alternative.

The solution: Write better emails and messages. I was lucky to have Sprinklr’s Nicole Summitt as a client: She drilled me in the art of writing emails with a clear recommendation at the start of the message. I still write my long, detailed emails, but I always begin with the decisions needed and my own recommendation. That’s followed with any context or information that may be useful ー but it’s optional reading. (Our chapter on email turns this into a universal email recipe.) Making it easy for people to make decisions without a meeting means I have fewer meetings.

Solving these three problems won’t erase meetings from your calendar. But they will reduce the number of meetings you need to schedule, and ensure that the meetings you do have make efficient use of your time. Best of all, these strategies give you a good shot at keeping your meetings to the days you spend at the office — so you can make the most of your days at home.

Author, Remote Inc: How To Thrive at Work…Wherever You Are. Tech speaker. Writer & data journalist for Wall Street Journal, Harvard Business Review & more.

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