Too many meetings can make it difficult for companies to get things done.
They negatively affect employees’ psychological, physical, and mental well-being, according to “The Surprising Impact of Meeting-Free Days,” a report by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Sloan School of Business.
A “no-meeting day” is a workday in which meetings are blocked for one, some, or all employees. I prefer “Get Stuff Done” days, but no meeting days can help us get stuff done.
MIT Sloan worked with 76 companies, each introducing anything from one no meeting day per week to entire no-meeting weeks. The report found that the impact of meeting-free days was “profound.”
MIT Sloan’s research established that holding avoidable meetings “detracts from effective collaboration, derails workers during their most productive hours, and interrupts peoples’ train of thought.” They suggested that these findings were counterintuitive. However, if you think about some of the meetings you attend, it makes perfect sense. The issue isn’t too many meetings; it’s too many bad meetings — no agenda, targeted outcome, assigned actions, accountability, or the wrong people in attendance. MIT Sloan found that a benefit of no meeting days was that they trained people to better decide which meetings should be held, how they should be run, and who should join.
Current corporate culture suggests that if you aren’t invited to a meeting, you’re not important enough to be part of that discussion. That is 1950s-style backward thinking. More advanced corporate cultures recognize that it’s a badge of honor to be deselected from certain meetings. It’s recognition that your time is valuable and should be spent elsewhere.
In addition to modifying attendance and improving agendas, companies implementing no meeting days replaced those meetings with better communication methods. For example, instead of traditional face-to-face meetings, some workers utilized Microsoft Teams, Slack, scheduled (emphasis on “scheduled”) 10-minute Zoom collaborations, and email. A result was a 57 percent decrease in stress, “which improved employees’ psychological, physical, and mental well-being.” Employees felt more appreciated, respected, and engaged.
Shouldn’t you take the risk to break the status quo and do something great for your employees who are doing great things for you and your customers?
If I can’t appeal to your charitable side, consider the corporate benefits. MIT Sloan concluded that when two no meeting days were scheduled per week, employee productivity rose by 71 percent because they felt more empowered to tackle items on their to-do lists. Workers had more autonomy and had the leeway to hold themselves accountable, resulting in 65 percent clearer communication (fewer Slack conversations contained comments like, “I thought you told me…” or “I was under the impression…”).
My company, Berkshire Money Management, is experimenting with get stuff done weeks, using no meetings days as a tool. We performed one March 6-10; another is scheduled for May 8-12. I suppose the word “experiment” is a misnomer because there’s plenty of evidence that no meeting days are effective tools to help us get stuff done.
However, some parts of the experiment revealed opportunities for improvement. For instance, an entire workweek is too long of a stretch to optimize getting stuff done. MIT Sloan’s work suggested that the optimal number of no meeting days is two to three per week. Satisfaction, productivity, engagement, and collaboration recede when meetings are permanently removed from the schedule. For the week of May 8-12, we will reduce the number of days to three.
We will also leave two to three hours available daily for meetings. After all, my goal is not to have fewer meetings. The meeting schedule is the tool, not the desired outcome. My desired outcome is to create an opportunity for people to have the time and opportunity to work on meaningful projects or pursue continuing education. These no-meeting weeks evolve into get stuff done weeks when I give my team the time to decide if they want to collaborate. After all, that important project that needs to be accomplished may require cooperation.
When you try this at your company, it is essential to let your team know why you are using these techniques to support them in getting things done. Give them time to consider which projects to dive deeply into and be best prepared to tackle the appropriate tasks. The Berkshire Money Management team bought into the get stuff done week on two weeks prior. I shared information in this column to remind them that the firm’s productivity was simply a happy benefit to the main goal — crafting an environment where they can flourish and grow. On Feb. 19, I emailed the team a reminder of the upcoming get stuff done weeks so they could create individual agendas.
Fortunately, my team is fantastic when it comes to noting potential improvements. Based on their feedback, I suggest you use a different approach than we did. Here are some suggestions:
Get buy-in for one no-meeting day
Most employers should start with one day of no meetings, not five in a row. Five worked for Berkshire Money Management because I got 100 percent buy-in from a dedicated, competitive team after passionately explaining how I did this for them, even if there were corporate benefits. I sent calendar invites, provided guidelines to get the most out of the week, set expectations, and explained the outcomes I wanted to achieve. Businesses need to get buy-in from Day One; you want employees to understand the benefits. Otherwise, they won’t take those days seriously. If employees are not committed to getting the most out of no meeting days, there is the risk of them packing skipped meetings into a future day, creating an overload later. And while five worked, we found that less would have been more.
Provide clear expectations for how staff can leverage no-meeting days
It was helpful that we didn’t just mark off the calendar and tell people, “it’s a no-meeting week!” You must prepare your team for the workload and optimize the work environment. Let them know they should clear the day of the stuff typically done on each workday. Employees should prioritize one or two tasks and use the opportunity to focus on critical projects that often get put on the back burner because we’re too busy acting on what we feel are urgent daily activities. Let employees know they can disable notifications and silence phones to create an interruption-free space. Remind them that their coworkers are also part of the no meeting days, so they should avoid non-urgent interaction with them.
Create room for collaboration
I learned that some departments benefited from the experiment, and others felt frustrated because they could not connect with their colleagues. That was my fault for placing too great an emphasis on vision and not enough on defining acceptable actions. Some employees felt handcuffed because they didn’t want to interrupt their colleagues. I was, in a way, pleasantly surprised by this. Generally, humans are awful at time-blocking. Not BMM’ers specifically, but everyone – people ignore the blocked time, and those with the blocked time are too “nice” to shoo the interrupters away.
Let’s remember that meetings offer a chance to socialize. There are other ways to maintain a connection with colleagues. On no meeting days, MIT Sloan found it beneficial to semi-regularly fiddle around via group text or Slack chats with “memes, current affairs, celebrity news, holiday plans, and emojis.”
They’d have been wise to include gifs, but even MIT has room to learn.
This article first appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on April 5, 2023.