Why do I need to attend all these boring meetings? Can I skip this meeting today? These are typical questions that I hear all the time. “Death by meeting” is a common complaint which sooner or later leads to lowered motivation and job satisfaction. I already raised this issue 2 years ago in another post, but guess what?
The number of meetings per day has actually increased since many workplaces switched to a completely remote work arrangement in 2020. Based on meta-data from 3,143,270 users all over the world, the number of meetings per person increased by almost 13% .
It’s a silent killer that takes away your colleagues from the team. Another common thought that often appears in retrospect is “if I could, I would get rid of all meetings”. But let’s be honest, even if that idea seems tempting, it’s unrealistic. Without any meetings at all it would be hard to communicate, coordinate and collaborate, which is crucial for teamwork. And I would definitely not recommend it. However, what you can do is eliminate all the bad meetings. So, let’s take a look at how to improve meetings in order to make your colleagues happier and more productive.
Hold shorter, more effective meetings
Long story short, meetings at work are considered an interruption. And nobody likes interruptions. Even when meetings are planned, they cause a perceived down-shift in productivity and job satisfaction. Professors Luong and Rogelberg  determined that the more meetings one has to attend, the more time one spends in meetings, the greater the negative effect is.
The graphic below shows how people are paying attention in their meetings versus when they lose focus doing something else, like checking email. The review of thousands of meetings revealed the optimal length of a meeting based on how long people tend to pay attention and at which point they tend to drift off.
Get rid of 60-minute meetings
Work usually takes up all the time that you allot for it. For this reason, keeping your meetings to 30 minutes or less is better. It’s scientifically proven that people can pay attention for approximately 10 to 18 minute before they start checking out. If you limit your meetings to such an amount of time or you at least make sure that the most important topics are discussed during the first 20 minutes, you will get the maximum attention and productivity from your team.
A simple approach to avoiding meeting fatigue would be to put an end to all meetings that last over 30 or 60 minutes. But let’s be honest, it can’t really be done. Sometimes you just need to meet with a broader audience to discuss strategy and one hour is usually not enough. So what can you do about that?
Don’t be afraid to suggest a break. Especially if you get into a difficult discussion and you can see that people need much more time than you predicted, as a facilitator you can recommend continuing later, after a short break. You can, for instance, ask a specific part of your group to work on a heated topic offline, outside the meeting, and then get back to the main group. That’s particularly worth using when you are in a meeting with middle and senior managers. Senior managers are eager to solve problems but they don’t necessarily want to be included in nitty-gritty conversations. They prefer meetings with succinct summaries. Taking a break in such a situation is a nice move that will show them you can actually lead the meeting.
The same mechanism may apply when you conduct longer sessions, e.g. workshops. You should plan breaks ahead of time, and acknowledge, from the very beginning, that there is such a thing as meeting fatigue and there is nothing wrong about it. It’s a natural reaction in situations when a stimulus remains constantly unchanged over time.
Lleras  noticed that a similar phenomenon occurs in sensory perception: The brain gradually stops registering a sight, sound or feeling if that stimulus remains constant over time. For example, most people are not aware of the sensation of clothing touching their skin. The body becomes “habituated” to the feeling and the stimulus no longer registers in any meaningful way in the brain.
“Constant stimulation is registered by our brains as unimportant, to the point that the brain erases it from our awareness”
That can also explain why people experience meeting fatigue. They are not losing focus. They are changing focus to something else because the stimulus, i.e. a speaker or a slide topic, remains the same for far too long. What you need to do is to simply offer a break in order to let people switch off for a while.
What if someone wants to attend but has nothing to share?
Go for the smallest number of participants possible, meaning that there should be no spectators. No one who came “just to listen”. It’s about culture. If you show people that you expect participants to be active during a meeting, then that is what you will get. But if they notice that it’s ok to join in just to listen, then you can imagine how people will act in the future.
Steven Rogelberg, who studies meetings, suggests that if you really need to invite spectators, you should consider inviting them to a part of the meeting only, not to the entire thing.
I know that some managers want to be included in every meeting. They don’t want to leave anybody out, even when someone is not essential. They are worried that they may miss something important. Even if that is well-intentioned, it’s an anti-pattern which makes those managers more busy and exhausted than they should be. So, what can you do instead?
Don’t invite them, but share meeting notes with them afterwards. It will make them feel connected, and they will be able to read the notes and contribute whenever they need to.
Get inspired by tech companies
Long meetings are slowly becoming a hallmark of the old-school, traditional organizations. There is no place for huge conference room meetings filled with hundreds of people listening to corporate news in our current, remote setting. Modern tech companies have started to use short meetings and experiment with different formats. For instance, Percolate, a company offering a content marketing platform, has set their default length for meetings at 15 minutes.
Another example is Marissa Mayer, the former president/CEO of Yahoo, who used large time blocks filled with 10-minute meeting windows. While such an approach often resulted in having almost 70 meetings each week, it allowed her to be more responsive to employee’s needs. It’s much easier to find a spare time slot in her calendar when you want to schedule just a 10-minute session instead of a 30 or 60-minute one. As she pointed out, it helped projects and initiatives keep moving forward without delays. She also claimed that the meeting length led to employees coming in with tight agendas, which ensured their success in the end.
Keeping meetings short is one thing, but it’s also important to keep an eye on timing. Some organizations take the practice of ending on time very seriously. Google has been known to put timers in conference rooms. A timer, noticeable to all attendees, counts down the time remaining for a particular meeting or topic. Even if that’s stressful for some people, it warns attendees of how much time is left. They created this practice to keep meetings from ending late.
But you don’t need to be so strict. There is also a lighter approach to keeping time. At Tripping.com, a vacation rentals platform, a meeting leader must contribute to the team’s beer jar if the meeting does not end on time. It reminds people that time is important, and there is some kind of penalty for not being attentive to it. I also heard about another approach – if a meeting runs over, the last person talking has to do 50 push-ups. Even if that doesn’t make your colleagues happier, it will definitely make them… more muscular.
 Evan DeFilippis, Stephen Michael Impink, Madison Singell, Jeffrey T. Polzer & Raffaella Sadun. July 2020. Collaborating During Coronavirus: The Impact of COVID-19 on the Nature of Work. DOI: 10.3386/w27612.
 Allen, Joseph & Sands, Stephanie & Mueller, Stephanie & Frear, Kate & Mudd, Mara & Rogelberg, Steven. (2012). Employees’ feelings about more meetings: An overt analysis and recommendations for improving meetings. Management Research Review. 35. 405-418. 10.1108/01409171211222331.
 Atsunori Ariga, Alejandro Lleras. Cognition, 2011. Brief and rare mental ‘breaks’ keep you focused: Deactivation and reactivation of task goals preempt vigilance decrements. DOI: 10.1016/j.cognition.2010.12.007