Progress Despite, Not Because Of Meetings? NS Journal 6.28.24

As we witness the upcoming elections in Cook, Lake, and St Louis counties, it's worth considering the workload of the average elected county commissioner, as detailed on the Cook County website. These elected commissioners are tasked with serving on over 40 different boards, committees, and state or regional peer groups. This multitude of commitments demands a significant amount of time dedicated to preparing for, attending, and following up on meetings each month.

According to Work Life, an online publication of Atlassian, a global software company, meetings are ineffective 72% of the time. Three out of every four meetings do not achieve their intended goals and probably should not take place.

The COVID-19 pandemic drastically changed the way we hold meetings. The ubiquitous Zoom app has become our virtual meeting room, connecting attendees from the comfort of home, their car, or their office. But these Zoom meetings aren’t what they used to be. 

A recent article in Axios by Emily Peck says workers are “zoning out in meetings.” 

Peck’s reporting shows, "In 2023, the share of workers who stayed muted for the entirety of a meeting was 7.2%, up from 4.8% in 2022.” She writes that workers attended 10.1 virtual meetings each week in 2023, higher than in 2021 when the number was 8.3 and more employees were working from home.

Work Life says its research shows that the meeting culture at most organizations makes it harder for work teams and boards to reach positive goals. They report five areas of meeting culture that explain why three out of four meetings aren’t effective.

  • One or a small group of people dominate the conversation. If attendees struggle to contribute, their participation is negligible and their interest wanes.
  • Too often, people leave a meeting with no idea what to expect next. Decisions aren’t made, and nobody knows what’s expected of them.
  • Repetition of a position or announcement more than a couple of times is tedious, leading people to disengage and sneak in other work during meetings.
  • Meetings that serve only to communicate information that could have been shared better by email are irritating and can lead to people disengaging from the entire meeting process.
  • A meeting without a clear agenda and a clearly stated purpose lacks focus, even if it is a regularly scheduled staff, committee, or board meeting. Discussion has no direction, no conclusion, and leaves no action that is to take place. 

Meetings are like advertising. John Wanamaker died over a century ago. According to Wikipedia, he is considered by some to be a proponent of advertising and a "pioneer in marketing.” He said, "I know half my advertising is wasted. I just don't know which half."

The same could be said about meetings. 

If Work Life is right, three-quarters of meetings aren’t necessary. The challenge is to find out which ones are. 

As for meetings in particular, Thomas Sowell, an economist, social philosopher, and political commentator, said, "People who enjoy meetings should not be in charge of anything."