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Why scrapping pointless meetings could boost productivity, creativity, and the economy

Lydia Smith
·Writer, Yahoo Finance UK
Business people in large modern meeting room
Employees waste almost 13 days a year in unproductive meetings, research found. Photo: Getty

If you’ve ever been summoned from your desk for a long and dreary meeting, you aren’t alone. Many of us have been forced to sit in a stuffy room to listen to someone who loves the sound of their own voice, when the time would have been better spent getting on with our actual work.

According to the online scheduling platform Doodle’s 2019 status of meetings report poorly organised meetings cost the UK economy £45bn and $399bn in the US.

A 2018 survey of 2,000 people from the UK, France, and Germany found employees waste almost 13 days a year in unproductive meetings. The average employee spends an astonishing 187 hours in meetings every year — the equivalent of 23 days. However, more than half of these (56%) were deemed unproductive by workers.

More than a third admitted to switching off during meetings that lasted too long, while almost a quarter (23%) of those surveyed said they had witnessed someone fall asleep in a meeting.

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Meetings can be essential to catch-up with employees and make sure everyone is on the same page, but it can be difficult to ensure they are effective. Pointless meetings are more than just boring, though — they can negatively affect productivity, creativity and, ultimately, a company’s bottom line.

Meetings are supposed to boost productivity by allowing managers and workers to share ideas, opinions, and collaborate. In reality, however, research has shown they can be a productivity killer.

According to organisational expert Michael Manish, purposeless meetings eat into time that ought to be spent on important business tasks. In his book ‘Time, Talent, Energy: Overcome Organisational Drag and Unleash Your Team’s Productive Power,’ Manish writes that employees of all levels repeatedly complain that they’re unable to get work done, in part, due to endless meetings.

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When researchers from Harvard Business School and Boston University surveyed 182 senior managers across several industries, the results were eye-opening — 65% of senior managers said that meetings keep them from completing their own work and 71% found them to be unproductive and inefficient. A further 62% stated that meetings miss opportunities to bring the team closer together.

It will come as no surprise that meetings that lack structure or a clear purpose and are too long affect creativity too.

Pointless meetings also impact workers’ happiness. A study by the University of North Carolina suggests how workers feel about the effectiveness of meetings is linked to their job satisfaction.

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“Given the sheer amount of time spent in meetings compounded by the number of attendees, it is imperative that future leaders become highly aware and sensitive to how well they leverage, manage, and participate in meetings,” the researchers found.

“Though further research is needed, the studies reported here suggest that meetings are worthy of investigating in their own right. The strength of the relationship between meeting satisfaction and job satisfaction, even when controlling for a number of relevant factors, suggests that employees’ experiences in meetings can no longer be ignored or taken for granted by human resource management researchers and practitioners.”

So what can we do change this?

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The report suggests doing just four 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 stimulus such as videos.

Even getting rid of chairs can boost creativity in meetings. According to researchers at Washington University in St Louis, standing meetings may be a low-cost option that encourages brainstorming and collaboration — as well as negate the negative health impacts of sitting for long periods of time.

“Our study shows that even a small tweak to a physical space can alter how people work with one another,” said Andrew Knight, an assistant professor of organisational behaviour involved in the study.