People are frustrated with workplace meetings. Most people are. They feel they have too many of them and that these time-wasting meetings prevent them from doing their job. The real job they are paid to do. This is one of these rare cases where employees and managers of all ranks can easily agree on the problem. Nobody likes to think they are wasting their time. No organization would want to pay people just to sit in meetings and not perform their actual work. And when the problem is so widely spread, you can count on someone to come up with a quick fix with cool branding.
Enter Meet-Less Monday.
The idea is simple: If we have too many meetings, let’s have fewer. Coordinating and synching that, especially in a large organization, is challenging, so let’s make it simple. Just delete any meeting you might have on… hmmm… let’s say, Monday. Across the organization. From the CEO to the last employee. No exceptions. We can even enforce that using our IT systems, and just like that, we cut the number of these ineffective, time-wasting meetings by 20%. That wasn’t hard, wasn’t it?
What could possibly go wrong? Well, plenty.
The problem with our meetings seems to be quantitative. No one would have been frustrated with meetings if they had just a couple each week. If you could do meaningful work for the vast majority of your time, you wouldn’t have given having one to two meetings a second thought. So, yes, we are overwhelmed by the number of meetings, but, more importantly, these meetings are generally ineffective. It is the poor quality of the typical meeting that frustrates us. If every meeting on my calendar helped me do my job better, I would consider them an essential part of my work. By definition, nobody would have called these meetings time wasters.
Meet-Less Monday, and for that matter any other arbitrary constraint on the quantity, duration, or timing of meetings, is an overly simplified solution. It doesn’t address the real problem: We don’t need fewer meetings; we need better meetings. We need more effective communication in general. And once you realize that, the shortcomings of Meet-Less Monday become obvious.
Divide by Four
Here’s a riddle: If you have 20 meetings a week and are not allowed to have any of them on Monday, how many meetings will you have on the remaining four days? You got it! Probably 20. And why wouldn’t you? Arbitrary rules have technical workarounds. And if we are all focused on making Monday meet-less, the rest of the week is up for grabs.
When we don’t consider what makes a meeting worth having, there is no reason to assume some meetings will be canceled just because of this new arbitrary limitation. We might gain a Monday full of deep work, but the impact on the rest of the week could be devastating. We might end up not solving even the quantitative problem because we have a super-easy fallback for any meeting we need to remove from our Monday agenda.
So, let’s say the Meet-Less Monday program can somehow prevent pushing meetings to other days. You are instructed to reduce the number of meetings by 20%, but naturally, you still feel you must communicate with your colleagues on Mondays. Luckily, the solution is in the palm of your hand: emails and Slack messages to the rescue!
Email and instant messaging seem to be cheap. We text as effortlessly as we breathe, and we are already conditioned to respond automatically to any notification our apps just happen to throw at us. Compared to that one-hour meeting with a dozen people, the email and Slack fallback creates the illusion of the perfect solution. In reality, these platforms can easily create a more acute problem.
When the one hour-meeting is off the table (at least on Mondays), it will be replaced by “async” communication. When we fail to consider whether communication is needed in the first place or how to make it inherently more effective, people will use the “async” platforms to emulate what was taken from them. The same topics. The same loops. The same ineffectiveness, just on a different medium.
To make things even worse, when not used carefully, the “async” communication creates a fractured discussion. What you can cover in a one-hour face-to-face meeting will be broken down into dozens, if not hundreds, of back-and-forth messages. A fractured conversation is harder to follow and process deeply, but above all, it creates a constant buzz. Instead of having one meeting, intrusive notifications interrupt us hundreds of times. A meeting might unjustifiably block an hour in your calendar; the “async” equivalent will interrupt you at unexpected times across one, two, or more days.
Async communication can be effective. However, most of us don’t treat email and instant messaging as async platforms. Instead, we are being totally responsive, turning these tools into almost real-time communication means. I call this mode Near-Time Communication, and for the most part, it is as bad as having ineffective, redundant meetings. Often, it is worse. These platforms create the illusion of frictionless communication, but every time that ping distracts us, it costs. A lot.
When evading the real challenge of communicating more effectively, we replace one lousy practice with another. Sometimes, we get some marginal improvement. In the case of emails and instant messaging, there is often a grave cost.
The Other 80%
But maybe I’m just being a skeptic. Maybe everything goes well. People across the organization cancel their Monday meetings and don’t push them to the other four working days. Perhaps they do think twice and avoid converting a meeting to dozens of emails. Maybe we can really cut our communication cost by 20% just like that overnight. Then what?
When we aim for a quantitative improvement without dealing with the essence of making communication better, the best we can hope for is that 20% reduction (unless we go for Meet-Less Tuesday next). That’s hardly a game-changer. It might seem significant in numbers, but not in terms of frustration. The bottom line is simple: we still have four days full of ineffective communication and potentially pointless meetings. We might be happier on Monday but as frustrated as we’ve ever been by Wednesday.
I propose aiming for 100%. Not a 100% reduction in communication cost, but making 100% of workplace communication effective. When that is our target, no meeting (and no email, for that matter) is a waste of time. No meeting comes at the expense of real work because effective meetings are integral to real work. When we start thinking about the ROI of each interaction (instead of just cutting the total meeting count by 20%), we can make sure every minute we spend communicating creates real value for our business.
Will we have fewer meetings if we thoughtfully make them more effective? Probably. When we focus on whether a meeting is needed and how to make the most of each session, some redundant meetings will naturally be canceled. But if we happen to end up with the same number of interactions per week, we can be sure they are really needed. We might strive to devise more effective communication channels, but we won’t consider any of our interactions a time-waster.
We don’t cut construction costs by mechanically announcing a 20% reduction in building materials. We don’t save software development time by instructing our developers to write 20% fewer lines of code. Real improvements are based on making things more effective, not just inflicting arbitrary constraints on them. Communication is no different.
We can make every minute we communicate count. Communication can help us co-create and achieve our goals. And we should aim that it does so Monday or any other day.