How Meeting Culture Affects our Workplace

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In 1975, the first-ever meeting between astronauts and cosmonauts took place during the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project. Soviets and Americans shook hands through an open hatch and remained docked together for 44 hours. The meeting cooled Cold War tensions and ushered in a new era of technical and scientific collaboration.

That was the last successful meeting in history.

Ok maybe not.

But a general hatred or at least an acceptable level of disgust of meetings is one of the few common bonds of mankind.

Here’s some insight into how we got here and the status of business meetings today.

The Meeting Culture Problem

In 2005, a Microsoft study found more than two-thirds (71%) of respondents said their meetings during the week were unproductive. Twelve years later, similar research was published in the Harvard Business Review. Again, 71% of managers said their meetings were unproductive and inefficient. 

During this 12-year period, we’ve seen a lifetime’s worth of technological advancement. SaaS has exploded, high-speed internet is the norm and the amount of available tools to improve meetings and avoid them when unnecessary has increased exponentially. 

Yet the issue of unproductive meetings is still pervasive. Why? Let’s start with the obvious, no one likes them because they usually suck. We know the culprits. 

The “couldn’t have this been an email?!” meeting - The meeting is brief (thankfully). But covers a singular topic without any collaboration with the participants. From the participant’s perspective, it was unnecessary. From the manager’s perspective, they can’t confirm the email would be read, or even opened. So yes, it was necessary.  

The “amnesia” meeting - The meeting goes well, but it all goes downhill when an airborne form of dementia disperses through the room just before the meeting concludes. Whatever was said, is lost. Whatever was written, is unintelligible. 

The “BYOD” meeting - Surely we are professional enough to bring our laptop to a meeting for the purpose of taking notes or looking up relevant info - wrong. Laptops during meetings usually means “bring your own distraction” with multi-tasking, general tasks of distraction (social media, internet errands, etc) or chatting with coworkers...who are in the same meeting. 

The “remote conference bingo” meeting - If one or more remote employees are teleconferencing, you’ll often begin playing remote conference bingo. 

“Can you hear me now”
“You’re on mute”
Excruciating feedback noise
“Are you still there?”
FREE SPACE
Overtalking… “Sorry, go ahead”
Child and/or animal noises
“Can you repeat that, you broke up”
“Sorry, I was on mute”

The “wanderer” meeting - If casual conversation and camaraderie isn’t common in at a workplace, meetings become the only place for employees to interact. This turns meetings into watercooler sessions with rambling, off-topic conversations. 

The “lone ranger” meeting - By definition, meeting means: “the act of coming together.” So when one person spends the duration of the gathering to pontificate or deliver a one-way sermon, it’s not helpful. More importantly, it won’t deliver the desired result. 

Those are just a few common examples. Meetings can also be repetitive, lack context or direction, important people could be missing, or the whole thing can get interrupted by an unsolvable disagreement. 

We’ve all experienced these issues, and more than a decade of data confirms that people feel the issues above create unproductive outputs - so why is “meeting culture” still such an issue? Some argue it’s not. Meetings are a necessary evil for sharing important information. The problems are simply a byproduct of the system, but do not hinder businesses. 

However if you try to calculate cost for bad meetings, the numbers are astronomical. Doodle’s 2019 State of Meetings Report estimated that two hours of pointless meetings per week equates to $399 billion of wasted money. Another frequently shared estimate says $37 billion. Similar to the issue of tribal knowledge loss, it’s hard to quantity this issue with an exact dollar amount. 

The Distraction Culture Problem

There’s another way to illustrate the problem, the cost of unnecessary distraction. 

Marketers, writers, developers, salespeople and executives all have one thing in common. We require dedicated periods of focus during the day to get things done. This is referred to as “deep work” time and a lack of it hurts productivity. This is one reason why the amount of remote jobs and remote work in general continues to rise, remote workers are generally less prone to distraction. 

A University of California study found it takes 23 minutes and 15 seconds to resume a task after being distracted. A click-tracking study of app developers found that only 10% of the time, were they able to return to their task in less than a minute after a distraction. 

These distractions can be avoided by scheduling meetings well ahead of time and having strict time guidelines. But we know it doesn’t usually work like that. 

The DocOps Culture

There are plenty of SaaS products focused on improving meetings with features such as calendar integration, agenda builders and automated follow-ups. Others rely on Microsoft Office products or Google suite to provide similar functions. 

They might save you time, and make meetings more enjoyable. But they’re not going to overhaul your organization. The DocOps system goes beyond just accepting the problems that meetings bring. 

Instead you can focus on getting to the underlying issue which causes ineffective meetings. This could be a lack of information sharing between departments, a missing central database of information or general confusion on what meetings should and shouldn't be. All of these problems are addressed through the documentation of processes and protocol. 

Identifying your meeting problem, and paying for or instilling solutions to help is a great start. But the rest of this series focuses on how to improve meeting agendas and decision making.