One Company’s Trick to Getting 95,000 Hours Back? Canceling Meetings.

From a Wall Street Journal story by Lauren Weber headlined “One Company’s Trick to Getting 95,000 Hours Back? Canceling Meetings”:

When Reynolds American Inc. was preparing to update staff on its restructuring plans in January, it scrapped plans for a 90-minute town hall meeting. Instead, it posted a 10-minute video for employees to watch.

Meetings are the new corporate hobgoblin. Executives at Shopify Inc., Wayfair Inc. and other firms say overstuffed calendars—partly a symptom of more remote work that crimped quick, serendipitous gatherings—waste thousands of hours and cut into productivity.

How many hours? Since announcing a temporary purge of some kinds of meetings in early January, Shopify has deleted 12,000 events from staffers’ calendars, freeing up some 95,000 hours.

“We’re starting the year fresh with some useful subtraction; freeing ourselves from an absurd amount of meeting time, and unlocking an incredible amount of maker time,” Shopify Chief Operating Officer Kaz Nejatian wrote to employees.

Long-winded and excessive confabs have long been the bane of worklife. In the past, employers have tried standing meetings and even walk-and-talks to make the gatherings shorter and more productive.

Considerable research shows the number of hours spent in meetings skyrocketed during the pandemic. Using data gathered from its suite of business software, Microsoft Corp. found the number of meetings a week attended by the average user of Microsoft Teams more than doubled from February 2020 to February 2022, while the amount of time spent in meetings more than tripled.

That’s right. Whether workers had the bandwidth or not, they were in a frenzy of circling back, touching base, and bringing something to the table, unless there was a hard stop, in which case they’d make a plan to take it offline later.

“Last Monday I had 13 meetings,” said Jennifer Wakefield, president and CEO of the Greater Richmond Partnership, an economic-development organization in Richmond, Va. Most were 30 minutes long. For the whole day, from 7:30 a.m. until 6 p.m., she had two 30-minute breaks. How did she spend those precious lulls? She caught up on her email.

Ms. Wakefield’s current vexation is a regular weekly meeting whose sole purpose seems to be—to meet.

“That one drives me nuts,” she said. “Sometimes it’s just someone talking nonsense about something. If there’s not an agenda, I don’t want to go.”

Shopify canceled recurring group meetings, banned most Wednesday meetings and now requires that gatherings with 50 or more people happen only in a 6-hour window on Thursdays.

A Reynolds spokesman said the tobacco company, a unit of British American Tobacco PLC, switched to a short video for the January event because it didn’t have enough information to share with staff to justify a long meeting, and it considers the experiment a success.

“Last year, we received several good ideas about how to simplify our communications and reduce meetings where possible,” Chris Zona, head of internal communications at Reynolds, said at the beginning of the video, which was viewed by The Wall Street Journal.

One result of all those extra meetings? More work at night. In a separate study, Microsoft discovered people were logging on to their work applications between 8 p.m. and 11 p.m. either to accommodate more meetings, especially with colleagues in different time zones, or to complete their work.

“When we went remote, bosses were thinking, ‘how do I know people will get their jobs done?’ and people were thinking, ‘how do I prove to my boss that I’m getting my job done?’ Meetings became an answer to both questions,” said Jared Spataro, Microsoft’s vice president of modern work and business applications.

Now, “people are overloaded,” he said, and that has created tension between workers and managers, a strain that is mostly unresolved.

“The worst kind of meeting is where you’re there for no particular reason,” said Brian Frye, a professor at the University of Kentucky College of Law and a visiting professor at Tulane Law School. In academia, he said, “you’re often expected to be there but you don’t have any interest in what’s taking place or any contribution to make. Everyone complains about it but the complainers are as bad offenders as everyone else.”

Slashing time spent in huddles, and spending more on productive work, has become particularly urgent for executives as workforces shrink. Shopify, which helps businesses set up e-commerce websites, laid off roughly 1,000 workers in July. And the CEO of online furniture retailer Wayfair, who recently announced 1,750 layoffs, told employees the cuts were part of a reorganization effort “to be more efficient.”

Among other things, he said, “We want to reduce time spent in meetings.”

Sarah Williams thinks her company found the right formula. Ms. Williams is a consumer-marketing manager at Stride Health Inc., which sells health insurance and other benefits to freelance workers. In 2021, Stride, which has roughly 100 employees, reinstated no-meeting Wednesdays after an initial experiment in 2017.

She uses that day of focused work, in part, to analyze data that informs her meetings later in the week about the email marketing campaigns the company runs, especially during open enrollment season.

“The meeting on Thursday and Friday wouldn’t be as effective if I didn’t have no-meeting Wednesdays to do the analysis,” said Ms. Williams, who is based in Denver. “Otherwise I think we’d just be spinning our wheels and maybe making the same mistakes twice.”

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