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One company is jettisoning meetings. Here’s how we can improve them instead.

January 10, 2023

“How do you measure, measure a year?” In daylights? In sunsets? How about time sitting in meetings?

One of Canada’s largest technology companies, Shopify, recently announced a two-week ban on most employee meetings. Nearly 10,000 events in employee calendars will be cancelled, saving 76,500 person-hours – that’s 8.73 years – of work time.

After the two-week trial period, employees and managers will be allowed to schedule meetings again, but they will be encouraged to recognize that they can get by with a lot fewer meetings, and to think carefully about which meetings are really necessary. The company hopes for increased productivity through avoiding “wasted” time, not only during meetings, but also during the short breaks between them when it’s hard to focus on a task.

While many people applaud Shopify’s move, meetings can have value. As we learned during the pandemic, focusing on computer screens instead of spending time with colleagues doesn’t always mean stronger work. Indeed, isolation can harm both our productivity and our mental wellbeing. And beyond the social benefits, meetings can be essential to facilitate creative brainstorming, align people to a common vision, bring teams onto the same page operationally, and clarify misunderstandings that email often exacerbates.

Plus, as much as people complain about meetings, information needs to be shared, discussed and debated somehow. Overflowing email inboxes or pressure to catch up on multiple Teams, Slack or Whatsapp threads carry their own challenges.

To help your organization strike the right balance, here are some tips we’ve discovered over the years for making meetings more valuable:

  1. hold meetings only when necessary. While we don’t suggest banning meetings outright, consider an experiment like Shopify’s where meetings are suspended for a period of time, to help managers discover which meetings they need and which they don’t.
  2. meetings are best for tasks that require dynamic discussion and engagement from everyone present. Information transfer (for example, a manager giving information to employees) is often better done through text or video that employees can read or watch when convenient
  3. determine in advance whose participation is essential to the purpose of the meeting, and whose isn’t. Non-essential people can still be invited, for example, to help them feel like part of the team or in case they have useful insights, but make it clear that their participation is voluntary
  4. start and end meetings on time. This shows respect for everybody’s time, allows employees to plan the rest of their days, and avoids the “slippery slope” where delaying a meeting to accommodate one late arrival encourages others to arrive late next time
  5. create an agenda for the meeting and stick to it
  6. set and then enforce reasonable expectations for meeting etiquette, such as arriving a few minutes early, turning off mobile devices, and not interrupting other speakers