Not everyone got it, at first: as the management professor Vijay Pereira spoke to companies about trialling meeting-free days, managers at one multinational did what managers do: they called a meeting. Then another. Then another, and another, and another, and… “They actually had 17 recorded meetings, at an average of two hours… 34 hours of their lives, they spent to decide whether they were to opt in!”
Eventually – perhaps the people opposing the motion just died? – the company decided to opt in to two days per week in which no one in the company would have any meetings at all. And like most of the 76 multinational companies in Pereira’s two-year experiment, they found that it worked. They didn’t need to have as many meetings. Most companies, on most days, didn’t need to have meetings at all.
Meetings are literally toxic: gathering a group of people into a room can raise carbon dioxide to far above the outdoor level. A Harvard study in 2016 found that the levels of CO2 in a crowded meeting room can reduce higher-level cognitive function (used in complex decision-making) by 50 per cent; a 2019 study warned that chronic exposure to elevated CO2 could carry long-term health risks.
For a company, the organisational problem of meetings is that they usually only benefit one person. The most common meeting structure is one in which junior employees do the work of providing information to a manager, then wait and watch while others do the same. Mostly, it’s a performance – one that cements the social hierarchy of the company and the authority of its managers. One telling point from Pereira’s data is that the people who demanded the most meetings were younger or newly-promoted managers – especially men – who were “keen to be visible… but also to send a signal that they were in control”.
This control is expensive: if a manager uses a two-hour meeting with 18 colleagues to make some decisions, they’re spending person-hours equivalent to one person doing an entire week’s work.
Pereira, who is head of the People and Organisations department at NEOMA Business School in Reims – one of the grandes écoles at which France trains its business leaders – describes himself as “a late entrant into academia”, having previously worked in industry as a consultant. Throughout his corporate career he had wondered: “Should we meet? How much should we meet? And do meetings actually lead to people being more productive?” In 2019, with colleagues from three business schools in the UK, he set out to find the answers.
The researchers 76 persuaded companies, each of which employed between 1,000 and 100,000 employees and worked in 50 or more countries, to take part in their study by switching to at least one meeting-free day (in which even one-to-one meetings were entirely ruled out) per week. Over two years, from 2019 to 2021 – during which time, the world’s offices switched to online meetings – they surveyed more than 25,000 employees on what changed when meetings were restricted. They gathered both quantitative data (on how the companies performed) and qualitative data (how employees felt about their work), interviewing executives and HR managers. Some companies stuck to one meeting-free day, others (7 per cent) went for the full five, but across the board the change improved every metric they measured.
“Micromanaging came down when there were less meetings, and stress came down… autonomy increased, communication was better, there was better cooperation, there was better engagement, there was better productivity, and there was better satisfaction.”
Across all the companies in the study, the most beneficial results came when companies restricted meetings to two days per week. Holding good meetings is like swearing – “the more you do it, the more mundane it becomes”. At the companies with more meeting-free days, “meetings were better structured… they wanted to not beat around the bush but come to the point, have an agenda – what we call ‘meeting hygiene’”.
Interestingly, the reduction in meetings didn’t lead to an increase in the other great stressor of white-collar life: email. In fact, employees’ satisfaction with how they communicated rose. More hygienic meetings lead to more hygienic communication elsewhere.
During the pandemic, the widely acknowledged increase in meetings and subsequent “Zoom fatigue” was in part caused by shared online calendars. A full calendar was the most public way for an employee to confirm that they really were working all day, and the easiest way to fill a calendar was with meetings. Some people “reported that they deliberately filled out their diary with meetings, to show that they’re busy… and then the pressure is to double book, even triple book”. This led to mistrust, as managers began to ask which meetings were actually happening.
Pereira is clear that this doesn’t mean all meetings are pointless. The meeting is as least as old as work itself, and for employees it serves a human as well as a corporate purpose. “By default, human beings are socially bound – they want to meet, they want to speak,” he told me. But as the world returns to the office, he sees an opportunity for companies to take a more rational approach to people’s time – including working four days a week, which he says also leads to higher productivity.
It’s easy to see why a company would feel uneasy about these measures, but managers should remember that what the company buys from its employees is not their time but the results of their labour. For the companies that fail to see this, the rapidly approaching problem is one of better-informed workers who quite reasonably ask: how much of my job is performative? And what would happen if I just didn’t do it?