How to Have Productive Meetings
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On Tuesday morning, January 3rd 2023, Shopify employees came back from their holiday break to a surprise. Upon turning on their PCs, they found a memo instructing them to lighten up their calendars by canceling all recurring meetings of more than two people.1
Not only that: they were instructed to make Wednesdays “meeting-free” zones and move any large meetings within a six-hour block on Thursdays. They even met a bot that urged them to think twice before scheduling a meeting. Not long after, the Shopify Meeting Cost Calculator was introduced, a forceful reminder to say “no” to meetings as much as possible.
Shopify isn’t the only company to take a firm stand against meeting overload. Many organizations, including Facebook, Accenture, Slack, Asana, NPR and Atlassian, have gone on a “meeting diet”.2 Still, the tech giant’s January mandate caused considerable upheaval on social media platforms.3 Some characterized the move as "bold" and "brilliant", while others thought it "an overcorrection" that will lead to isolation.4 Which is it?
Behavioral Science, Democratized
We make 35,000 decisions each day, often in environments that aren’t conducive to making sound choices.
At TDL, we work with organizations in the public and private sectors—from new startups, to governments, to established players like the Gates Foundation—to debias decision-making and create better outcomes for everyone.
Yes, we need to get better at meetings
Meetings have spun out of control, both in quantity and quality. After observing 19 million meetings among 6,500 people, a study found that ineffective meetings cost up to $399 billion in the US and $58 billion in the UK.5
While these figures are massive, they actually underestimate the cost of bad meetings. They don’t account for indirect costs like opportunity cost, nor the toll on productivity, well-being and job satisfaction. In fact, research has found:
- 65% of managers say meetings keep them from completing their own work and come at the expense of deep thinking.
- 90% of meeting attendees admit to daydreaming during meetings.
- 85% of executives are dissatisfied with the efficiency and effectiveness of meetings at their companies.6
The bottom line is clear: we need to find a remedy for the meeting madness.7 Every minute spent in an unproductive meeting eats into time for deep work. Fragmented schedules disrupt concentration, compelling individuals to seek extra hours during early mornings, late evenings, or weekends. Moreover, dysfunctional meeting habits are linked with diminished market share, innovation, and employment stability. But what’s the right remedy?
Finding the right remedy for meeting madness
On one hand, the numbers so far support the move by Shopify’s management. That Tuesday morning, 12,000 meetings were immediately canceled. The company expects to free up 322,000 hours throughout 2023, the equivalent of 150 full-time employees. Six months later, Shopify employees are spending 14% less time in meetings compared to last year.8
On the other hand, as behavioral scientists, we can’t help but wonder whether the policy’s forcefulness will backfire on employee productivity, team effectiveness and performance. After all, meetings are a breeding ground for collaborative creativity and innovation.9 They foster relationships and facilitate effective information sharing. Meetings are necessary for teamwork and inclusion.
The crux of the matter lies not in meetings per se, but rather in the realm of unproductive ones.
Under a behavioral science lens, blocking meeting culture often forgoes the opportunity for collaboration – the chance for employees to make meetings more productive. Not just for the sake of financial results, but for individual performance, work-life imbalance and protection from burnout.
In other words, framing meeting madness in terms that employees care about – and giving them the opportunity to fix it on their own terms – could be a better remedy than mandates.
Which begs the questions: what’s there to fix?
Why we’re doing so bad with meetings
We can’t blame social norms and company culture. We need to identify the causes that have led to subpar meetings in the first place. And according to Steven Rogelberg, Professor at University of North Carolina at Charlotte and an expert on corporate meetings, the root causes of unproductive meetings are three: lack of effective managerial training, biased feedback and no accountability.10
Superficial training, if any
As Rogelberg argues, out of the few managers that receive training on how to conduct meetings, even fewer receive effective training.11 Most workshops tend to focus on tactics, like always having an agenda, without addressing the nuances behind such tactics.
Typical training doesn't account for the cognitive processes that rule meeting behaviors. Nor do they effectively tackle unhelpful, yet deeply-ingrained habits by equipping employees with the tools they need to self-correct.
Self-review as the only feedback
Alongside the lack of effective training, there’s self-inflation bias. Multiple studies have found that meeting leaders consistently rate their meetings more favorably than the attendees.12
That’s because of the positive correlation between the amount of participation in meetings and perceptions of meeting effectiveness.13 The more we’re involved in a meeting, the more effective we think it is.
This bias ultimately diminishes self-awareness and the ability to truly recognize one’s own developmental needs. With very few organizations collecting data on employee engagement in meetings, the only feedback we get is our own, admittedly biased, self-review.
No real responsibility
And lastly, there’s lack of accountability - who owns meetings in organizations? Who’s responsible for their productivity? In the absence of clear accountability (or, even better, a Chief Meeting Officer), meeting activity is one of the single biggest budget lines that goes unaccounted for.
But as pervasive as they may seem, we can get past all these obstacles. There's a learning curve to productive meetings – while it might take some effort, there are concrete practices we can take into meetings to make them worth our while.
How we can improve meetings through co-creation
Addressing the root causes of bad meetings is organizational change. And what does behavioral science teach us about sustainable organizational change? We’re best off leveraging the power of co-creation: involving employees in the design process.
Co-creating circumvents the force of psychological reactance that we feel when someone is attempting to limit our choices. While most evident in toddlers and teenagers, reactance accompanies us throughout our adult lives. It’s awakened when we experience loss of freedom – like someone telling us to cancel our biweekly team check-in.
The co-creation process also builds on the IKEA effect, our tendency to value something more if we’ve built it ourselves. We’re more likely to respect the new company rules around meeting culture if we had a say in their creation. And co-creation is an easy way to create unity and shared purpose within a company, motivating employees to do their best for the common goal.
Designing a co-creation workshop using behavioral science
While co-creation might sound like an abstract buzzword, it’s as simple as setting up a one-time workshop for employees. Together, the team can create a consensus on their ‘why’, ‘how’ and ‘what’ of productive meetings. Facilitated by the trainer, employees articulate why the way we run meetings must change, identify the causes of meeting madness that are particular to that organization, discuss tangible changes and commit to taking action.
Articulating the need for change
Starting with "why" helps align the efforts of the team, motivating members to work together collaboratively toward the common goal.14 Moreover, when people know and connect with the deeper purpose behind their actions, they become inspired. In the case of meeting madness, the “why” encompasses both professional and personal reasons. Giving permission to employees to consider all these reasons, and not just the ones related to organizational performance, is what will make them pay attention.
Identifying particular causes
Many of the causes of unproductive meetings can be traced back to behavioral effects, the kind that behavioral science deals with.
For example, the curse of knowledge is a cognitive bias where we incorrectly assume that everyone knows as much as we do on a given topic. When attending a meeting, we may think the purpose of a meeting is to get a firm grasp on what the core issue of a problem is, but someone else might think the purpose is to evaluate solutions, and another to brainstorm ideas. If the purpose of the meeting is not understood by everyone, progress is slow and frustrating.
Another cognitive effect that impacts meeting effectiveness is social loafing - the phenomenon in which people tend to put in less effort on any given assignment when they are working in a group than if they had performed the same task individually. A study that looked at data from consulting firm Bain & Company examined what happened to groups’ decision-making ability as the number of people involved grew.15 They found that if a group increased beyond seven members, each extra person lowered the group’s ability to make an effective decision by a staggering 10%.
A third example is bikeshedding or Parkinson's Law of Triviality - the phenomenon where a group of people will spend an excessive amount of time and energy discussing a minor or insignificant issue, while ignoring more important and complex matters.
As employees learn about the relevant heuristics and biases, social norms and mental models that influence meetings, they start to think of possible remedies for boosting their own behavior and structuring their own decision environments.16,17
Committing to tangible changes
Employees take action on two levels. First, they contemplate what changes they can implement for themselves to improve their own behavior. With the right guidance, they redesign some aspects of their work routines to overcome unproductive meeting habits. For example, having a short break between meetings.
Second, employees share their advice for how their team can get better at meetings. As long as input is framed as advice, not as opinions about or expectations for the company, then the results can be transformational. This is because providing advice puts a person in a merging state of mind, creating a feeling of unity and shared purpose, whereas providing an opinion or expectation puts a person in an introspective state of mind, which involves focusing on oneself. Upon collecting advice, the manager or an assigned person is responsible for drafting the new directive on meetings.
For employees, with employees
The best part about meetings is that they allow colleagues to be on the same page. Nowadays, there’s a general feeling of meeting misery among employees, feeling overburdened and resentful of having their time wasted. This is ripe ground, not for generic rules or mandates, but for co-creation.
By understanding the basics of behavioral science around meetings, employees can be effectively trained to co-design their own system of small habits, aimed at revamping their meetings in terms of better planning and execution, feedback and accountability.
Organizations that decide to go this way will acquire an accomplice – not just a passenger – in their fight against meeting madness.
- McGregor, J. (2023, February 1). This company is canceling all meetings with more than two employees to free up workers’ time. Forbes. https://www.forbes.com/sites/jenamcgregor/2023/01/03/shopify-is-canceling-all-meetings-with-more-than-two-people-from-workers-calendars-and-urging-few-to-be-added-back/
- Jones, D. (2023, July 31). No meeting days: Why & how to implement them. tl;dv. https://tldv.io/blog/no-meeting-days-benefits/
- Hsu, A., & Smith, S. V. (2023, February 15). Shopify deleted 322,000 hours of meetings. Should the rest of us be jealous? NPR. https://www.npr.org/2023/02/15/1156804295/shopify-delete-meetings-zoom-virtual-productivity#:~:text=To%20be%20clear%2C%20meetings%20are%20not%20gone%20all,are%20complying%20with%20their%20%22No%20Meetings%20Wednesdays%22%20policy
- Demopoulos, A. (2023). The company purging meetings from calendars: “uninterrupted time is precious.” The Guardian News and Media Ltd. https://www.theguardian.com/money/2023/jan/06/work-meetings-shopify-isolation
- Otter AI. (2021). Shocking meeting statistics in 2021 that will take you by surprise. Otter.ai. https://otter.ai/blog/meeting-statistics
- Rogelberg, S. G., Leach, D., Warr, P., & Burnfield, J. L. (2006). “Not another meeting!” Are meeting time demands related to employee Well-Being? Journal of Applied Psychology, 91(1), 83–96. https://doi.org/10.1037/0021-9010.91.1.83
- Perlow, L. A. (2017, June 26). Stop the meeting madness. Harvard Business Review. https://hbr.org/2017/07/stop-the-meeting-madness
- Estrada, S. (2023). Shopify’s CFO explains how its new meeting cost calculator works, and how it will cut 474,000 events in 2023: ‘Time is money’. Yahoo Finance. https://finance.yahoo.com/news/shopify-cfo-explains-meeting-cost-105829140.html?guccounter=1&guce_referrer=aHR0cHM6Ly93d3cuZ29vZ2xlLmNvbS8&guce_referrer_sig=AQAAAMYMYYdxpIXbG2d0kcau97bpHT--gC-_Bo6SDfbmboTY5o8buB5zom21lc-0KNmLVsAJuLMvfJIesgyQGnTVh_tIcliNy7EcMbqJ1AKklisqyXpObUavUcE7B-a38N9gKVpJ15LZnDAIaOuVwshPE9zy-WtUkpgAmULc1BfQBxgu
- Rogelberg, S., Scott, C. & Cello, J. (2007). The Science and Fiction of Meetings. MIT Sloan Management Review. https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Cliff-Scott/publication/265508855_The_Science_and_Fiction_of_Meetings/links/54107b050cf2df04e75d5eaa/The-Science-and-Fiction-of-Meetings.pdf
- Talks at Google. (2019, October 16). The Surprising Science of Meetings | Dr. Steven Rogelberg | Talks at Google [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FWIlZosXxCM
- Rogelberg, S. (2019). The surprising science of meetings: how you can lead your team to peak performance. Oxford University Press.
- Infocom. (2023). Meetings in America: A study of trends, costs, and attitudes toward business travel and teleconferencing, and their impact on productivity. Verizon. Retrieved from: https://e-meetings.verizonbusiness.com/global/en/meetingsinamerica/uswhitepaper.php
- See 11
- Sinek, S. (2011). Start with why. Penguin Books.
- Effective decision making and the rule of 7. (2020, January 23). Bain. https://www.bain.com/insights/effective-decision-making-and-the-rule-of-7/#:~:text=en-,Once%20you've%20got%207%20people%20in%20a%20decision%2Dmaking,Blenko%2C%20Michael%20C
- Hertwig, R., & Grüne-Yanoff, T. (2017). Nudging and boosting: steering or empowering good decisions. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 12(6), 973–986. https://doi.org/10.1177/1745691617702496
- Reijula, S., & Hertwig, R. (2020). Self-nudging and the citizen choice architect. Behavioural Public Policy, 6(1), 119–149. https://doi.org/10.1017/bpp.2020.5
About the Author
Dr. Melina Moleskis is the founder of meta-decisions, a consultancy that leverages management science and behavioral economics to help people and organizations make better decisions. Drawing from her dual background in business and academia, she works with determination towards uncovering pragmatic, sustainable solutions that improve performance for clients. Melina is also a visiting Professor of Technology Management as she enjoys spending time in the classroom (teaching as the best route to learning) and is always on the lookout for technology applications in behavioral science. In her prior roles, Melina has served as an economic and business consultant for 7 years in various countries, gaining international experience across industries and the public sector. She holds a PhD in Managerial Decision Science from IESE Business School, MBA in Strategy from NYU Stern and BSc in Mathematics and Economics from London School of Economics.