I went three weeks without a single meeting

I went three weeks without a single meeting

Meetings are rarely fun and yet, for many of us, they dominate our days. The UK is no stranger to this modern phenomenon and the average office worker devotes more than a day a week to preparing for and attending unnecessary meetings. A 2019 survey of 2,000 employees in the UK, France and Germany, conducted by Crowne Plaza Hotel & Resorts, found that a typical staff member spent 187 hours—or the equivalent of 23 days a year—in meetings. But were they worth it? Perhaps not always: 56% of respondents said the meetings were “unproductive”. The situation has not improved with the switch to Zoom during the pandemic either. When CV-library surveyed 2,000 working professionals earlier this year, it found that 96.3% of them had up to four meetings a day. What’s more, three-quarters said that the meetings were a waste of time.

Armed with this information, it was time to launch an experiment. What if we cut back on our addiction to meetings? Might it even be possible to go as far as having no meetings at all? What would be the impact on staff and organisations? My boss challenged me to go three weeks without attending a single meeting. The rules were simple: I could call my colleagues at any time and send them emails whenever I thought it was necessary, but I was forbidden from attending meetings with them. While it might sound ludicrous, we hoped to learn something from the trial. So what was the verdict?


A poisoned chalice?

In a team, individuals come together to form a whole that works to a greater or a lesser extent. There are five of us on my team—seven when you add management—and it’s fairly balanced. But I’d always felt the least adept at business etiquette. So imagine my surprise when my manager, who is always looking for ways to improve our efficiency at work, asked me if I’d try to spend three weeks without any meetings. I was pleasantly surprised, even excited. After spending two months in lockdown and then four months working remotely with several hours a week of Zoom meetings, I jumped at the chance to skip these gatherings. Accepting the challenge would allow me to work like a freelancer but I’d still have all the advantages of a permanent contract. There were some potential drawbacks, however. What if this extra remoteness, together with the physical distancing, affected my work or my role in the business? Fears aside, I love a challenge. So I embarked on my very own anti-meeting crusade!

Accepting the challenge would allow me to work like a freelancer, but I’d still have all the advantages of my permanent contract.

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Should we put an end to meetings for good? For 1 - Against 0

Day 1: A new-found efficiency

Many of us have felt at times that a large part of our working day is not necessarily spent working, but looking busy. Meetings are a prime example of this. How often have you participated in a meeting that neither gave you any new, useful information, nor helped to improve productivity?

IFOP, an international polling and market research firm based in France, published a survey in 2018 entitled: “Executives spend more time in meetings than on holiday.” The study found that time spent in meetings increased by an average of 5% each year, and that 78% of those who participated felt that their opinion was never, or almost never, taken into account. Half of meetings had no real agenda, nor did they lead to concrete decisions because of a lack of time. And that was before COVID-19 lockdowns and the resultant surge of telecommuting led to an increase in Zoom meetings.

Let’s get back to my own experiment. On my first day without a meeting, I was determined to be extra productive, so I threw myself into my work. Nine hours later (including breaks), I had managed to do the equivalent of a day and a half’s worth of work on a normal day, during which some of my time would have been spent in meetings. I really wanted to share this news with my team. The day was drawing to an end as I went on to Slack. There was no response, however. Checking their calendars, I noticed that they had been in meetings all day. What was on the various agendas? Was I automatically being sidelined and my projects too? I hadn’t the foggiest idea.

Was I automatically being sidelined and my projects too?

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Should we put an end to meetings for good? For 2 - Against 1

One week without “Zoom fatigue”

Generally, my team meets almost daily for quick updates and to check on the progress of each other’s work. We ask each other questions, such as: “Were you able to get a hold of so and so?”, “Are you satisfied with what you’ve written?”, “Should that publication be delayed?” We also meet once a week for a two-hour editorial conference. Then there are the constant Slack messages, emails and phone calls. It can be pretty overwhelming.

After a week with no meetings, I really got used to the silence and noticed I was much more focused. It was satisfying, but I was beginning to miss my colleagues too. I found myself calling them a lot more often to chat about non work-related matters. Even if it was only for a few minutes, it meant I was no longer all alone in my living room. I also noticed that I was in better physical shape. So “Zoom fatigue” wasn’t a myth! I looked into the issue and a number of experts say that there are several reasons for the physical and mental exhaustion brought on by remote meetings. First of all, it’s harder to gauge non-verbal cues, such as body language, facial expressions and tone of voice. As a result, our minds have to focus even harder on the words. Technical problems and the negative feelings some people have when they see tiny, hazy versions of themselves on screen when they are speaking can also cause stress. Whether or not it is productive remains a matter for debate, but it is not conducive to mental and physical wellbeing.

First of all, it’s harder to gauge non-verbal cues, such as body language, facial expressions and tone of voice. As a result, our minds have to focus even harder on the words.

Should we put an end to meetings for good? For 3 - Against 2

Week 2: Justifying yourself and letting go

In the second week, my behaviour began to change radically. The distance from my colleagues felt like a punishment or like I’d been sacked. While my colleagues never questioned what I did with all my free time, I wondered if my work was being second-guessed. I constantly needed to justify what I was doing and to show that I was still working as hard as ever, so as to ensure that there were no misunderstandings. Does that sound paranoid? Maybe a little? Okay, a lot. But let’s move on.

Lots of employees don’t value meetings, but I found myself regretting the times I’d felt the same. It now seemed clear to me that when everyone comes together, whether around a table or on their computers, they can ask questions, clarify certain points, or decide to stay on a topic and help out others when they are struggling. And for the first time, there were a few instances when I got stuck on a project because I was waiting for one of my colleagues to respond. “I can’t respond until 4 PM, I have a meeting,” was not a phrase I wanted to hear. Everything started to feel like a major event: one of my papers was corrected late, a colleague wasn’t answering their phone or someone wasn’t connected to Slack when I needed them to be.

My colleagues’ attitudes hadn’t changed but without them around, my work made less sense. My self-confidence was at a low point and I had the sneaking suspicion I was neither indispensable nor important. I felt disconnected, less involved. To avoid running off early for the weekend or taking a three-hour wander outside my flat, I had to act fast. Ultimately, I decided that getting physically closer to my work was the best way to close the distance. Since full lockdown had ended, the office was open to a limited number of employees at a time. We simply needed to sign up in advance. So I put my name down for three consecutive days, compared to the one day I’d normally have taken.

Everything started to feel like a major event: one of my papers was corrected late, a colleague wasn’t answering their phone or someone wasn’t connected to Slack when I needed them to be.

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Should we put an end to meetings for good? For 3 - Against 3

Week 3: Time to take stock

The highlight of this week was an email mix-up. While I’m not usually a hothead, and the other person meant no harm, I lost my temper over a trivial matter. What really upset me was that this colleague was not available to respond to me as he was “in a meeting”. Finally, at the end of the day, we settled the issue after discussing over the phone what I had wrongly taken as a snub. It became clear that it was time to end my experiment. I had no more ideas to send in for editorial meetings, I had no idea which article to focus on and I was feeling increasingly isolated. I needed to take stock, before finally reconnecting to Zoom.

In the end, what I liked about my time with no meetings was the autonomy, the proactivity, the freedom, the extra energy and getting back to basics. On the other hand, the longer it went on, the more impossible it seemed that I could do without meetings entirely. It just didn’t seem to be compatible with business life. The loneliness, feeling sidelined, being out of the loop when it came to organisational changes and not being challenged by my team all weighed heavily on me. When I look back and rate the experience, I’d have to say that getting rid of meetings entirely is not a solution. However, with the right tools and processes, I do believe things would improve markedly if 20% of them could be eliminated, and the others shortened significantly.

Final verdict: Should we put an end to meetings for good? For 3 - Against 4

Translated by Andrea Schwam

Photos: WTTJ

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