How to ditch meetings that prevent productivity

Another meeting invite is in your inbox… sigh. There are multiple reasons you probably don’t want to attend it at all: it is the only slot available for working, it is at 7 am/pm at your location, it’s at lunchtime, or you do not know what the meeting is about. This gives me a real déjà vu.

We are all going through this turmoil after remote working became a must, thanks to (or more like damn) COVID. We had to in such a short period adjust to not being in the office, but still learning to deliver outcomes as we were doing before. It was neither an expected nor a planned event for the global economy and human beings themselves. However, it is estimated that around 25% of the global workforce will stay remote.

Pandemics disrupted the workplace and work culture concepts at their root and the future is uncertain. One of the biggest unsolved difficulties of remote work is staying productive, and one of the concerning reasons about it is the number of meetings we are having.

When shifting to Home Office, I felt like instead of creating a Home Office mindset, we brought the Office mindset into our homes. Instead of tapping on the shoulder of a colleague to ask a question, now we are sending a meeting request or calling. A difference I am experiencing is that, before, at the office, it had taken 2 minutes to discuss and finalize the conversation, whereas now it takes at least 10 minutes to wrap up a single question.

There are quite many examples of unproductive meetings. According to a recent survey, it’s suggested that 71% of the meetings are unproductive. If I check my calendar, I am spending, on average, 20-25 hours of my week in meetings. If 71% of them, we may assume, are unproductive, I am wasting around 15 hours (~40%) of my week on unproductive meetings. As time is a zero-sum asset, I lose those 15 hours from my life and the company’s resources.

In the following paragraphs, we will have a look at the ways of politely saying no to “Hell No” meetings.

Hell Yes vs. Hell No meetings

It’s challenging to decide which meetings we should attend and which ones we should ditch. To make this binary decision of “Agree” or “Decline”, let’s first check what the properties of great and pointless meetings are.

Properties of “Hell Yes” meetings:

  • purpose of the meeting is well defined and clear.
  • The agenda of the meeting is present in the invitation
  • The Meeting owner provides materials & references for preparation within the invitation e-mail
  • Meeting has a clear expected input and output
  • The meeting owner invites only a few relevant people
  • The Meeting owner considers the time-zone differences and working hours when inviting people

Properties of “Maybe Yes” (a.k.a “Hell No”) meetings:

  • The meeting is longer than one hour
  • Meeting owner invites too many people (i.e. one-hour long meeting, 60 invitees and meeting starts with an introduction of the round.)
  • The invitation has no purpose, agenda or output defined
  • The meeting takes place outside of the typical working hours(i.e. 7 pm or 7 am)

Decline meetings, politely

Start by assessing the value of the meeting

If the meeting has properties of above mentioned “Hell Yes” meetings, then it is a green light for us to attend. But, if the invitation is vague, we can reply with the request for clarification. “What is the purpose?” How may I contribute to this meeting?”

Decide, decline the meeting, and communicate with relevant context

Do not attend the meeting if you feel it is not relevant for you:

  • “It sounds like an interesting topic. Given the priorities we have, I am afraid it will be difficult to have a productive conversation on this topic. Can we postpone this meeting and meet up after the working group makes a little more progress?”
  • “I’d like to finalize the conceptualization of this issue. From the invite, I see that the Analytics team is not taking part yet. Could you please re-invite for another slot with them, since I do not think without them we can make any decisions.”
  • “Based on the description, it looks like this meeting is for informational purposes. Would it be possible to get a video recording or written summary of the session sent out so that we can watch it at our convenience?”

Delegate it to someone else:

  • “I’m humbled that you are interested in my input. Nonetheless, I am afraid I am not the most qualified person on this topic. Would you rather discuss it with one of the front-end developers?
  • “Given that this is a decision-making meeting, I think it’s more appropriate to have my manager represent our team.”
  • “Thanks for the invite. I do not think I can provide input for this meeting. If it is alright, I’ll ask my colleague to join as my delegate.”

Provide feedback/input in advance:

  • “This is going to be an important discussion. Due to another parallel important meeting, I cannot attend, but I will find some time to share my thoughts with you in advance so that you can include them in the discussion.”
  • “I’m sorry that I can’t attend the meeting. If I prepare you in advance, could I ask that you represent my ideas at the meeting?”
  • “I’m afraid I cannot attend the meeting. If I prepare you in advance, could you kindly represent us in the meeting, please?”

Attend part of the meeting:

  • “Thanks for inviting me. I think it’s quite significant for me to contribute to the topic of rebranding. Given other priorities I have at the moment, I’d ask if we could tackle that topic first so that I can excuse myself afterward.”
  • “Would it be possible to tackle the reporting discussion as the first agenda item? I cannot stay the whole meeting, but I’d like to give input on that one.”

Remote Organization Culture

Communication is just one dimension of the abrupt change most of us lived by shifting from office to home. Once there were times when we were spending more hours of our days with colleagues than our friends or families. The work relationships we had built were satisfying one of the very basic human needs, feeling connected. The feeling of being connected has an impact on our physical, mental, and even more specifically a neurological impact. Thus the change from a social office environment to a home office environment is not smooth. The new environment requires a change of organisational culture. Remote working is not a mandate, it is a flow. Thus it requires continuous experimentation and adaptation. To get to know the practical tips of getting used to and improving remote working setup, read Psychology of Remote Working.

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