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How to Optimize Meetings to Engage Employees

Rachel Reed
5/1/19 11:23 AM

Meetings. Love, hate, tolerate–necessary evil, or unnecessary waste of time? Several studies have addressed how employees feel about meetings–ineffective, inefficient, and distracting. These grievances are more than just grumblings and eye rolls–poorly managed meetings not only take a toll on productivity, focus, and employee engagement, but also cost US businesses an estimated $37 billion a year.  

How Managers Feel About Meetings

HBR surveyed 182 senior managers and found that meetings fall short on several accounts:

  • 65% said meetings keep them from completing their own work
  • 71% said meetings are unproductive and inefficient
  • 64% said meetings come at the expense of deep thinking
  • 62% said meetings miss opportunities to bring the team closer together

How Employees Feel About Meetings

Doodle’s State of the Meeting report surveyed employees:

  • 44% said poorly organized meetings mean I don't have enough time to do the rest of my work 
  • 43% unclear actions lead to confusion
  • 38% bad organization results in a loss of focus on projects
  • 31% irrelevant attendees slow progress 
  • 26% inefficient processes weaken client/supplier relationships 

A study by the University of California, Irvine found that it takes about 23 minutes to refocus after being interrupted by a distraction. Multiple meetings, especially when poorly managed, serve as distractions to employees in “deep work”–a state of work described by Cal Newport as the ability to focus on a cognitively demanding task without distraction. Meetings and distractions can begin to accumulate as valuable deep work time lost while attempting to refocus.

Meetings will always be necessary in order to keep employees and managers connected and up to date, but there are a few effective practices to improve meeting quality and effectiveness. Minor adjustments like time, number of attendees, and meeting frequency, for example, can alleviate meeting-related stressors.

Meeting Issue: Time

Time of day and duration are two adjustments that could save your meetings. If a meeting is first thing in the morning, for example, varied commute times can have some employees joining the meeting late, which can derail progress.

What time of day is best for meetings?

End of day meetings have been proven ineffective, as people are more prone to check out around that time. One study suggests that 3 p.m. is best—especially if it’s on a Tuesday. We’re all familiar with the 30-minute meeting that’s booked for a full hour. Using time just because it’s available eats away at valuable, individual work time. Experts suggest setting a specific agenda and sticking to one designated lead per meeting to improve efficiency.

Meeting Issue: Too Many Cooks

The number of attendees can sabotage meeting productivity and effectiveness, more often than not. Some studies show that too much data from too many people can be disabling (“too many cooks in the kitchen”). As Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos said, “if you can’t feed a meeting with two pizzas, it’s too large.”

How many is too many?

In fact, studies show seven is the magic number of attendees for an effective meeting. The “Rule of 7” states that for every individual added to a group beyond seven, decision effectiveness declines by 10 percent. Parkinson’s law of triviality states that people in groups tend to give disproportionate weight to pointless discussions. Try limiting attendees to those who are specifically necessary to the agenda, and if possible, keep it under seven.

The result:

Interruptions and lost time brought on by poorly managed, too frequent, or too long meetings can contribute to disengagement among employees. Disengaged employees are more prone to burnout, feel their organizations do not value them, and are more likely to contribute to a decline in productivity. Boost engagement by asking for employee input on your organization’s meeting strategy and make adjustments. Employees who feel their concerns are being heard and addressed are more likely to be engaged.

Download: How Employee Recognition Influences Attitude & Behavior in the Workplace 

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