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Implementing no-meeting days improves productivity

Making at least one day meeting-free every week is enough to improve autonomy, communication, engagement and satisfaction in the workforce.

Achieving greater efficiency and being most productive means managers need to keep dialogue channels and communication open for workers. Meeting have for long been the go-to method of touching base, discussing, brainstorming, etc. However, it is becoming increasingly apparent that organizations across the world tend to overdo this, and it also comes with drawbacks.

For example, the average knowledge worker spends more than 85 percent of their time in meetings, making their schedules tighter when it comes to completing tasks, and having a negative impact on their physical and mental wellbeing.

Also, before the COVID-19 pandemic, 71 percent of managers already thought meetings were a costly waste of time. The lockdowns then drove up the number of people working from home, and the frequency and longevity of meetings increased to make up for the forgone opportunities to socialise in the workplace.

Companies like Facebook and Atlassian have been the vanguard when it comes to implementing no-meeting days. No-meeting days allow employees to plough on with work and communicate with their colleagues only when convenient, rather than being restricted by a formal and inflexible itinerary.

With fellow researchers, I surveyed 76 companies with a first condition was that they had employed over 1,000 employees each. A second condition we ensured was that these companies also had to have operations in more than 50 countries. The last condition we sought was that these companies had already enforced at least one (maximum five) no-meeting day a week, for the last one year.

Nearly half of them had implemented two per week; 35 percent had made it three; 11 percent had chosen four; the remaining 7 percent had dropped mandatory catch-ups entirely.

Our primary aim was to investigate if taking break days from scheduled gatherings, more specifically incorporating meeting-free days a week, made a difference to satisfaction and productivity within the workforce.

We found that making at least one day meeting-free every week was enough to improve autonomy, communication, engagement and satisfaction in the workforce, which in turn increased productivity. Additional benefits were decreased stress and a lower prevalence of micromanaging behaviour.

On first glance, it seems illogical that fewer meetings lead to more effective communication. However, our research showed that the presence of just one day without meetings reduced employee stress by 26 percent and boosted communication by 45 percent. We concluded that meetings hijack the most productive hours of the working day and cut off people’s trains of thought. Workers either had little to report or had not enough time to formulate their thoughts in entirety, so communication was poorer. In summary people needed to be in ‘their zone’ to perform at optimal levels, and have n-meeting days helped them achieve this ‘optimal zone’.

While a single day is enough to make an impact, we found that three no-meeting days was the optimal amount. Employees replaced compulsory gatherings by communicating with each other at a convenient pace, and often used project management tools to help keep each other in the loop. This approach to interfacing reduced employee stress by 57 percent, leading to improvements in the mental and physical wellbeing of workers.

Nevertheless, we are not advocating or suggesting a quick-fix by initiating no-meeting days. It’s still important to implement a no-meetings policy with caution. Three meeting-free days per week led to a 41 percent increase in employee engagement, but this dropped to a 27 percent increase if a company ended timetabled catch-ups entirely. Though engagement still goes up, business leaders must think about how they can get the most out of creating new management strategies if their target is maximum efficiency.

People need social interaction in the workplace, be that in a traditional brick-and-mortar office or through the glowing pixels of their computer screen. In either case, meetings can satisfy that need in a way that emails, texting and project management tools cannot – if they are properly utilised.

Pursuing a no-meetings policy risks making employees feel isolated within the company. Hence, the potential benefits to engagement, satisfaction and productivity are lessened. It’s a delicate balancing act and all policy changes should be tailored to the individual criteria of each business intending to implement them.

If you want to deploy a no-meetings strategy, or simply adjust the schedule you already have, it’s important to first connect with your employees. Circulate your new proposals and the reasons why you think they will be beneficial to the company.

Be open to receiving pushback, particularly from cross-functional teams who rely on interdisciplinary communication to complete projects. Address their concerns clearly and patiently. Explain the new plan is designed to help relieve pressure on crammed timetables and improve communication, not shut it down.

Plan an adjustment period. If your target is three days without meetings, start off with just one day per week. Then up it to two. Then finally to three. This gives you plenty of time to observe how the changes are affecting the workforce, and alter the scheme as necessary.

Encouraging informal communication is also beneficial to workers’ satisfaction and engagement. Allowing people to share memes, emojis, holiday plans and so on, which helps them feel at ease when connecting with colleagues. We found that more questions get asked and answered, and the opportunity for social venting and unwinding together is always appreciated.

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