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Can an email always replace a meeting?

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Lydia Smith
·Writer, Yahoo Finance UK
·4-min read
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Business colleagues getting bored in a meeting at office
Studies show a significant proportion of meetings are pointless. Photo: Getty

“Well, that was a waste of time — that meeting could have been an email.” How many times have you thought something along those lines as you’ve filed out of a meeting room, or closed your laptop after two hours of cross-talk and no progress?

Research has shown we are having far more meetings now than we were 50 years ago. Executives spend nearly 23 hours a week in them, up from less than 10 hours in the 1960s. With more people now working from home, many of us are finding ourselves drowning in days filled with back-to-back video meetings.

It's only natural for managers to want to keep tabs on their staff with regular distanced meetings via Zoom, Skype or other video conferencing tools. But there is a growing feeling among workers that time spent talking is time that could be spent checking off more of their daily tasks.

Meetings are a chance to catch-up with employees, plan ahead and share ideas, but studies show a significant proportion of them are pointless. In 2018, a survey of workers in the UK, France and Germany found employees waste almost 13 days a year in unproductive meetings. More than a third admitted to switching off during meetings that lasted too long, while almost a quarter (23%) said they had seen someone fall asleep.

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So when should a meeting be an email instead?

If you have questions that require specific answers or data, it’s probably better to use email instead of calling a meeting. This allows people to gather the information they need and send it over at their own convenience. Questions that require a discussion may be easier in a meeting rather than a long back-and-forth email chain, in which things can easily get lost.

If you need to share some information, send it via email rather than asking people to sit and take notes. It also means you will have a record of sending that information out, too. However, if the information is complicated and people may have questions, a follow-up meeting may help.

Whether you send an email or hold a meeting also depends on whether the subject is emotional. For example, announcing layoffs or restructuring in a company may be best done in a face-to-face meeting or a Zoom meeting, if people are working from home.

A mass email about redundancies may seem insensitive and send out the message that people aren’t appreciated. Instead, take the time to speak to people in person and allow them to process the situation and ask questions.

If not all team members are able to attend a meeting, emailing will give people with busy schedules a chance to access the relevant information at a time that suits them. If you do need to speak to people face-to-face, you can arrange a meeting afterwards.

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Whether we should hold a meeting also depends on if you’re asking someone to do something. A study from the University of Waterloo, Canada and Cornell University suggests that while ditching meetings in favour of email chains and Slack channels may free up our schedules, we may be underestimating the usefulness of direct communication.

The researchers found that people are more likely to comply with requests made in person because of the “underestimation-of-compliance effect”. So if you need to ask someone to change direction at work or take on another project, it might be worth doing so face-to-face.

How to hold a productive meeting

We’ve all sat through a dull meeting at some point, thinking about all the work we could have been getting done instead of listening to someone drone on. But pointless meetings are more than just boring — they negatively affect productivity, creativity and, ultimately, a company’s bottom line.

Holding too many meetings can also have an impact on employee engagement and lead to resentment among workers too, particularly if they feel their time isn’t being valued.

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Research carried out by Harvard Business School and Boston University found doing several things can make a big difference — setting clear objectives for a meeting, having a clear agenda, involving small numbers of people in meetings, and using visual aids such as videos.

Keep meetings short and sweet, too. As soon as it becomes obvious that you aren’t adding value to a meeting, bring it to an end. Only include people who are really necessary too, rather than forcing everyone to break away from their work.

Finally, it’s important to be considerate when arranging a meeting. If someone is swamped with work and can’t spare the time for a non-essential catch-up, hold it another time. This is particularly important when people are working from home and juggling other responsibilities such as childcare.

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