"Uninterrupted time is the most precious resource of a craftsperson," was the reasoning digital retail giant Shopify gave employees in January when it announced its radical plan to eliminate most meetings. The e-commerce company canceled recurring meetings that involved more than three people and made Wednesdays a no-meeting day.
Shopify expects the change will cut approximately 10,000 events, or 76,000 hours of meetings, in 2023 alone. And in the policy's first few months, new data points to a boost in company productivity. Shopify says the average time employees spent in meetings has dropped 33 percent so far this year, compared to the same period in 2022. The company also predicts its engineering, product and user experience teams will complete 25 percent more projects by the end of this year, compared with last year.
While Shopify's dramatic meetings diet grabbed the headlines this year, meeting restrictions have been occurring at companies around the world. Facebook has stuck to its commitment of "No-Meeting Wednesdays," and Amazon measures the necessity of a meeting by whether it's small enough for all participants to easily eat two pizzas.
Decision-makers at other companies have taken note.
"The Shopify ban on recurring meetings is fantastic," says Corey Donovan, president of Alta Technologies, a computer server retailer in Plymouth, Minn. When Shopify announced its plan to slash meetings, the move prompted Alta's management to review whether the company's recurring meetings were necessary.
"So often these types of meetings were just put on calendars arbitrarily and didn't need to be held that frequently," Donovan says. "While we haven't done away with scheduled recurring meetings altogether, we have reduced the number of them. We also give people the option to not attend if they won't be able to add value or if the current week's topic isn't impacting their work."
The increase in meetings gained momentum in 2020 during the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, when locked-down teams were forced to solely rely on virtual meetings.
"For most employees, at the start of the pandemic when many companies shifted to remote work, overcommunication was essential and welcomed," says Robert Hosking, executive director of administrative and customer support at consulting firm Robert Half. "Now, about three years later, frequent calls and meetings are likely not necessary and can even feel intrusive for some workers who would rather have the option to connect via e-mail or text messages."
The Pros of Reducing Meetings
Free up focus time. At their core, unnecessary meetings are a time suck. A 2022 report by the University of North Carolina at Charlotte found that employees average 17 meetings per week, taking up a total of 18 hours. Employees responding to the survey said that only about 12 hours of weekly meetings were critical for them to attend, and nearly six hours of meetings could have been skipped as long as the person was "kept in the loop" about what transpired.
Let employees get into a rhythm. "People are more productive when working in the same mental mode for a dedicated block of time, as opposed to changing gears frequently," Hosking says.
Research backs this up. In the UNC Charlotte study, 86 percent of the 632 U.S. workers surveyed said they work more effectively when they have longer, uninterrupted periods of time.
Rethink priorities and other productivity gains. "Reducing meetings and forcing a reflection period causes all managers to evaluate what's really effective," says Gabriela Mauch, vice president of the Productivity Lab at ActivTrak, a workplace productivity software company based in Austin, Texas. "It forces people to slow down [and] feel the pain points generated from where they can get input and perspective" from other team members.
The Cons of Reducing Meetings
Work loses the "face-to-face" vibe. While some meeting content can be shared via e-mail or Slack messages, doing away with meetings completely threatens effective work-related communication. "There's no replacement for voice-to-voice or face-to-face communication when it comes to clarity and speed to action," Hosking says.
Teams don't get enough feedback. Without meetings, employees and managers are stripped of ad hoc feedback. "In an environment where remote work already prohibits drive-bys and watercooler chats, further reduction of meetings perpetuates lapses in communications and alignment across teams," says Mauch.
Communication happens in other, more distracting ways. While Shopify touts 320,000 saved hours due to fewer meetings, it fails to account for the hours of rework that result from misalignment or lack of coordination.
"It also leads to hours of time spent on e-mail and messaging to get input from necessary stakeholders, along with hours spent trying to solve a problem without thinking to ask for help (or feeling dissuaded to do so)," Mauch adds. "That leads to a larger cost of subpar solutions as a result of limited collaboration."
Going On Your Own Meeting Diet? 6 Tips for Leaders
Even if you don't plan a strict meeting reduction, you can still follow these steps to tailor your meeting policy going forward.
1. Get input from employees first. After the pandemic forced Pinnacol Assurance, a Colorado-based workers' compensation provider, to go 100 percent remote, the company "had a lot more meetings because it was the only way to connect and ensure people felt supported," CHRO Timothy Johnson says. "But as with many firms, meeting fatigue hit, and this showed up in employee engagement surveys."
In response, Pinnacol adjusted its meetings policy, including setting a "meetings-free Friday" rule.
"We developed a very directive framework of when a meeting is the best choice, and we provide lots of ways for employees to connect and build relationships out of meetings," Johnson says.
2. Cut and consolidate on a case-by-case basis. Look at each meeting individually and decide whether it's worthwhile to bring everyone together then. "We've found many recurring meetings involve the same people and have overlap; these can be consolidated," Johnson notes. "We evaluate project teams and disband them when initiatives wind down."
Also, consider experimenting with different meeting formats, such as stand-up meetings that typically last 10-15 minutes.
3. Ask hard questions before scheduling new meetings. It can be tempting to schedule time to formally connect with colleagues when opportunities to collaborate arise. Before you do, "consider whether the goal could be accomplished over an e-mail exchange or quick check-in chat instead," Hosking says. Schedule new meetings only when normal communication channels are exhausted.
4. Empower staff to decline or cancel meetings. Give employees the discretion to accept or decline any meeting invites. Meanwhile, encourage managers to cancel standing team meetings if there is no real reason to meet that week.
5. Offer guidance and tools. Pinnacol created templates to help employees decide if a meeting is needed, as well as to draft agendas and invitation lists. "We also got better technology for videoconferencing that makes virtual participants feel more like they're in person (e.g., cameras that follow the speaker)," Johnson says.
It's best for meetings to have a clear agenda, preferably with only one problem that needs to be solved. Share the agenda in advance.
6. Retain meetings for certain topics. If you have sensitive news to convey, or points that could be misinterpreted over e-mail, hold a live meeting with your team so you can deliver the news and respond to questions.
"Also, for new hires and onboarding, think twice about canceling meetings, as they play a big role in helping the employee adjust to the firm and their new role," says Johnson.
Brian O'Connell is a freelance writer based in Bucks County, Pa. A former Wall Street trader, he is the author of the books CNBC Creating Wealth (John Wiley & Sons, 2001) and The Career Survival Guide (McGraw Hill, 2004).