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Addressing Meeting Overload: What You Can Do

Submitted by Jennie Franke

I’ve been having various conversations (on and off-line) with coworkers, colleagues, friends, and family about meeting overload. It’s in the media because it’s a challenge that a lot of us are having. I wanted to have a pointed discussion with the EA Management team to ensure we were aligned (more or less) so that we could provide some guidance on what to do about Meeting Overload in our hybrid, mostly remote world.

What is the value of having meetings?

Meetings are great for facilitating alignment across groups or individuals. They can be a framework for collaboration, helping us work through complicated topics.

However, meetings cost money. If you apply a resource rate* of $100-per-hour, we spend a great deal of money on meetings. And meetings rarely create the solutions we are charged with producing to help the university’s mission. In fact, they take away from focus work.

 Why are there so many meetings?

According to Microsoft, since the pandemic began, the number of meetings has jumped 153%. However, in a remote working environment, many conversations and collaboration can be identified as a “meeting.” There’s less spontaneous discussion and working sessions, as we have to be more intentional and overt in engaging others.

Another consideration is that it’s easier to book back-to-back meetings since travel time isn’t required.  This can cause us to feel its OK to grab someone’s 15- or 30-minute block of free time in between their other 6 hours of meetings.

Parkinson’s Law asserts that work expands to fill whatever time is allotted for it. In an environment where we must schedule time to interact with anyone else, the idea that the discussion will fill the time scheduled can result in meeting overload.

What can we do about it?

First, as a leader in EA, I’m fully endorsing all the following methods, and use them myself.

 Ensure the meetings you schedule have value.

  • Could pre-work be done?
  • Formulate your agenda as questions to be answered, rather than points to be delivered.
  • Diversify the discussion to include more people. If you are doing most of the speaking, then that is a sign that your meeting isn’t adding a lot of value and could have been handled through a written communication or other asynchronous method.
  • Move things along by placing a time limit on each discussion item.

Protect your time: Use these techniques to help manage meeting overload.

  • Defensive Calendaring – Outlook Viva Insights. Block time to allow yourself to deliver against your commitments. And to focus on Deep Work.
  • Delegation – Is there someone else on your team already attending? Do you need to be there?
  • Prioritization – Is this aligned with your goals?
  • Push back or decline – Is there an agenda? If you don’t know what you will be discussing or why you are needed, you aren’t going to come prepared, and the value of the meeting will be reduced.

Personal effectiveness during meetings: Stop multi-tasking. You are giving the false impression that you are engaged and in support of decisions. Ask yourself, would your time be better spent on another activity? Then maybe that should be your priority; especially if someone else on your team is already there.

Balance and moderation in everything: While meetings can be tedious, they are also effective ways to build relationship (if you are present, engaged, and prepared.) There is absolutely value in meetings, so don’t take this as a charge to eliminate all meetings from your calendar. But do advocate for yourself and your time.

What’s the Impact for reducing my meetings?

Not only will reducing time spent in meeting allow for focused work but asking your team member to represent you or your area can help build trust. Let one person attend, speak for what they know, and take action-items for anything that needs follow-up.

And through more time spent on producing solutions for the university, we address the perception (and perhaps reality) that IT work is resource heavy and expensive. This aligns with our IT Strategy that “Value is demonstrated through responsible and transparent financial stewardship.”

So, what’s this “Meeting Free Friday” that people talk about?

Last week I put a poll into teams asking what is getting in the way of “Meeting Free Friday.” I didn’t realize that this isn’t a formal “norm” for WUIT. To offer some historical context – when we began working remotely in 2020, our leadership encouraged all staff to cancel meetings on Fridays. But in searching through emails and the website, I didn’t find anything. I think it may have been communicated through an IT All Hands.