Every day in the US tens of millions of people attend tens of millions of meetings. And every day, people mock and complain about meetings: they are too frequent, too long, too unproductive, and invariably scheduled at the least convenient times. Reams have been written and published, for decades, about how to have fewer meetings, shorter meetings, and better meetings.
Starting in 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic pushed us into new workplace models and dynamics, incorporating remote and virtual interactions more than ever before. What’s one thing that hasn’t changed? The challenge of optimizing meetings. It simply followed us home.
If they’re so problematic, why not dispense with meetings altogether? Especially now that so much business and commerce reside in the digital realm, why do we need meetings at all? Because to some extent, regardless of the business we are in, our individual and organizational success depends on collaboration; on fostering strong relationships within our organizations and with customers, suppliers, and even competitors. Information must flow, and trust must flourish, for creativity and innovation to emerge. All these factors require at least some measure of synchronous, face-to-face interactions.
If holding meetings is non-negotiable, how many meetings are too many? And how can you tell if your team is meeting often enough?
The absolute answer depends on many factors including the business you are in and the kind of work you do, your team’s role and how you engage with other teams inside and outside your organization. Some of these factors may vary over time, for instance, if your business has a seasonal aspect or your progress against a specific initiative such as a product launch.
Direct feedback from team members will offer some insight into how effectively you are using meetings. SurveyMonkey’s Microsoft Teams Integration lets you gather feedback using pre-built templates and share analytics within MS Teams.
There are diagnostic questions that will help you determine the appropriate number and frequency of meetings for your situation. Before scheduling a meeting, run the following checklist to confirm a meeting is the best way to achieve your objectives.
The overarching principle is to keep these issues in mind and be intentional when scheduling meetings.
We all know intuitively that too many meetings are a bad thing. Let’s look at some specific ways an overly meeting-heavy culture undermines an organization.
Every minute spent in a meeting is a minute not spent on individual work. When the meeting effectively facilitates and supports individual work, the ROI makes the trade-off worthwhile. Otherwise, time is lost that cannot be replaced.
Even well-planned and efficiently conducted meetings create distraction from work, both before and after. It typically takes 15-20 minutes for an employee to regain focus on their individual work following a meeting.
Time is a non-renewable resource. Employees who feel their time is wasted or their individual schedules and responsibilities are disrespected by poor use of meetings tend to be less satisfied with their jobs. Anything that undermines employee satisfaction can be linked to an array of poor outcomes across the business.
No matter how thoughtfully deployed, meetings create disruption and distraction, prioritizing team time over individual time. Meetings that are too frequent, too long, or not optimized cut into productivity directly. The effect can be compounded when meeting overload creates frustration among employees, which can further decrease productivity.
What do lost time, diminished job satisfaction, and decreased productivity have in common? Each one links directly to the company’s bottom line, undermining profitability.
Over-reliance on meetings is often driven by a combination of factors, many of which are rooted in organizational habits. Examining them one by one can help identify adjustments that can bring your meeting culture into closer alignment with your team’s and company’s overall goals.
One factor that contributes to “too many meetings” is when meetings are not sufficiently productive. One of the most common ways to sabotage the effectiveness of a meeting is including too many people who are not directly involved. Transparency and inclusion are wonderful, until they are not.
Meetings that are primarily informational can accommodate larger attendance, but when issues need to be addressed and decisions taken, remember “less is more.” People invited as a courtesy may not feel comfortable declining, even though their presence will not contribute to the agenda (and will involve sacrifice of their own precious time).
Rather than extending courtesy invitations to people who are not directly involved but may have an interest in the outcome, send “attendance optional” announcements letting those individuals know meeting details and that they are welcome to attend but also advising how and when they can access the recap. This honors inclusion and transparency while helping keep meetings manageable and effective.
This guideline runs both ways. Resist the reflex to accept every meeting invitation. If your primary reason for attending is to learn the outcome and your presence is not needed for the proceeding, send a note politely declining and asking how to access the recap afterward.
How many times have you walked out of a meeting thinking, “Why didn’t she just send a message?” Before calling a meeting, think through alternative scenarios for achieving the objective: a quick phone call, an email thread, even a group chat. What do you need to accomplish? Whose input do you need? What is your timeline for getting it done? Maybe a meeting is the optimal choice and maybe it’s not.
Meet too often and your team members will struggle to get their work done and resent the “stolen” time. Meet too seldom and the team will lose cohesion and direction. There is no magic formula for determining the ideal frequency of meetings but there are guiding principles you can apply to establish the right approach for your team.
While considerable energy is often directed toward trying to ensure individual meetings are optimally productive, an increasingly popular strategy is to create an intentional meeting cadence for the team. Think of it as finding the rhythm that best balances team time with solo time, giving everyone what they need to complete their own work and contribute as team members.
In setting the most comfortable cadence, consider the team’s role in the organization along with individual team members’ roles and responsibilities.
Is the team charged with pursuing urgent and important goals? If so, meetings should be more frequent rather than less often.
The stability of the team is one consideration. Newly created teams and those with high turnover typically need more frequent meetings to establish relationships and build trust. Those that have some history and a track record of working well together can meet less often.
The stability of the environment is another factor to consider. Does the team operate within a sound strategic framework, enabling it to forge ahead with minimal meeting time? If not, then more frequent meetings provide needed opportunities to attain a shared understanding of the strategic situation and a framework for operating successfully. And, of course, in times of crisis it makes sense to meet more frequently.
Does your team work “in the business”—actively collaborating to produce what your company sells—or “on the business”—charged with oversight, governance, and strategic planning? Teams that are involved in the business typically need to meet more often, weekly if not daily. Teams charged with “on the business” responsibilities usually meet monthly or quarterly or even annually.
Another key question when setting your meeting cadence is how team members work together. How dependent are they on each other to meet their goals? Are they tightly interdependent such that a shift in a timeline impacts everyone else and it is critical to stay coordinated on a continual basis? Product development teams, for example, often rely on daily check-ins to ensure everyone is up to date and working on the same schedule and expectations.
Alternatively, does each member operate independently of the others? Franchise owners typically work on their own, gathering primarily to compare notes and work on the conditions that impact them all. But a specific event or problem that affects one will likely not affect the others. Less frequent meetings serve them and the organization best.
The structure of your team is another important factor driving the ideal cadence for meetings.
These are your teams responsible for marketing, sales, finance, HR, etc. and this is where we get the dreaded weekly staff meeting. Despite that (somewhat deserved) reputation for tedium, weekly meetings are optimal for these groups.
The key to ensuring the weekly meeting is effective and not despised is to make sure it is well designed, with an agenda that reinforces what matters most for the team’s success.
Pinpointing the perfect meeting frequency is less clear-cut for project teams because their responsibilities can vary so widely in terms of urgency and importance. A team whose project has a time horizon of 1 month should probably meet every day, while one tasked with a multi-year project likely needs only monthly meetings.
If your team uses an agile methodology, then you already have some guidelines about meeting cadence. Very short daily meetings, also known as stand-ups, are a hallmark of the agile approach which is based on moving fast and iteratively to achieve goals. Longer meetings are held at the start and end of each iteration.
There is no reason for software teams to have a monopoly on stand-ups. Any team that works fast and is challenged to stay coordinated, or any team that needs to speed things up, can benefit from an agile meeting cadence.
Optimizing the leadership team’s meeting cadence can mean the difference between surviving and thriving for the organization. As for other team structures, there is not a single perfect recommendation for the leadership team’s meeting frequency but there are guiding principles that apply.
The leadership team has several types of responsibilities and likely needs several meeting cadences operating in concert. More frequent meetings—daily and/or weekly—are for sharing information, reviewing performance, and solving problems. Quarterly meetings serve to adjust strategies as needed, and the annual meeting is for setting the organization’s overall strategy.
The ideal scheme may vary from one organization to another. To optimize effectiveness, experts recommend defining not only the frequency of each meeting type but setting the duration and the format of the agenda.
Tactics you use to streamline your team’s meeting schedule can generate their own benefits apart from the “too many meetings” issue. Looking at it from that perspective can help identify the approaches that are good fits with your team.
Earlier, we mentioned asynchronous collaboration as a tool that can take pressure off your meeting schedule. Teams whose members are situated across multiple time zones are no doubt already familiar with asynchronous communication, which simply means occurring at different times. But even those seated on the same campus or down the hall from one another can make good use of it.
Asynchronous collaboration enables each person involved in a communication or transaction to participate at their own convenience within a prescribed time window. It saves time and helps individuals protect their own blocks of focused work time, cutting down on unnecessary interruptions and distractions. It automatically generates a written record which can be made easier to follow and reference using tags and flags.
Asynchronous collaboration can be used to replace or shorten many types of meetings. It works especially well for status updates and stand-ups. Adding an asynchronous pre-read to any team meeting can tighten up the length and productivity. It also works well for brainstorming sessions and 1:1s.
Consider the kinds of work your team produces and, just as important, how your team members like to work—the daily schedules and routines that seem to support their highest productivity. Do they tend to keep their heads down in focused work in the morning, with more energy for collaborative activities after lunch? Or do they fare better getting all their “face time” commitments out of the way first thing, so they can control their blocks of time for the rest of the day?
Many teams implement time-blocking policies to protect solo creative time while accommodating the need to gather and collaborate regularly. This can be deployed at the individual and/or team level. For instance, one team member might block 2 days a week as unavailable for meetings, or the hours from 8–11am each day. You might coordinate with other teams to designate a certain day for scheduling cross-team meetings when they are needed.
The overarching principle is to find your team’s most comfortable, productive rhythm and establish predictability in the schedule. That will help optimize the ROI for the necessary evils—disruption and distraction—meetings bring.
Once you have a handle on the appropriate number of meetings for your team and the optimal scheme for scheduling them, invest some time and attention in ways to ensure every meeting is not only efficient but also maximally effective.
A meeting can be 100% efficient—start on time, stay on track, include only essential participants, and achieve the stated objective—and yet, lack effectiveness on a level that creates value for the organization in exchange for the time and energy invested.
The fundamentals of running an effective meeting include:
Effective meetings, even when they “steal” time from individual work schedules, serve to boost productivity. They also reinforce collaboration and engagement which contribute to a shared sense of purpose and nurture overall happiness among employees.
It’s safe to say that meetings are here to stay and that is a good thing. People are not machines and certain aspects of our work depend on engaging with each other directly. Meetings represent one of our most effective tools but only when deployed with care and intention.