Cristina looks at her agenda for the next day and sighs: she has 10 meetings between 9am and 4pm. The marketing manager, who did not wish to give her real name, says that on a normal day she has around seven meetings, which take between 30 and 40 minutes each. She usually has to work extra hours – which are unpaid – to make up for the lost time, and says that at least half of these meetings are unnecessary.
It’s a conclusion that’s supported by several studies. In fact, just recently, a group of researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) carried out an unusual experiment on this topic: for a few days of the week, they completely eliminated work meetings at 76 companies with more than 1,000 workers. The goal was to assess how this would affect workers’ productivity. The results surprised even the researchers: companies increased productivity by up to 73%, while worker stress fell by 57%.
“Meetings tend to demand a high level of concentration from you, which is impossible to maintain at peak levels for a long time,” explains Mariela Checa, a psychologist specializing in work environments and dean of the professional association COPAO.
To carry out the study, the MIT researchers divided the companies into five groups according to how many days they would go without meetings. The number of meeting-free days ranged from one to five. To maintain communication on the meeting-free days, the companies used tools such as Slack and Microsoft Teams.
According to the results, the businesses that saw the biggest benefit had no meetings three days of the week: productivity increased by 73%, worker satisfaction by 65%, while employee stress levels fell by 57%. This impact was lower for the companies that had less than or more than three meeting-free days.
“While it may seem counterintuitive, our research concluded that having too many meetings detracts from effective collaboration, derails workers during their most productive hours, and interrupts people’s train of thought,” the researchers say in the study. “Thus, we conclude that the optimum number of meeting-free days is three, leaving two days per week available for meetings, for two reasons: maintaining social connections and managing weekly schedules.”
But the research also finds that work meetings could be beneficial in the right measure, pointing out that it is when the number becomes excessive that productivity falls. To avoid this, the authors of the study recommend establishing a clear agenda with concrete objectives, to help ensure that those attending are properly prepared and stick to the question at hand.
“Meetings are important for establishing goals and evaluating the achievements of the organization,” says Angélica Acosta, a clinical psychologist. “However, holding meetings constantly breeds disinterest, especially when they are organized without notice, without preparation and over issues that are of little importance.”
“They have to be reduced, or held only in the morning,” agrees Cristina. “Last Friday, I also had meetings from 9am to 4pm, nonstop. It would be amazing to reduce them to just two days.”
But Cristina thinks it will be difficult for companies and institutions to take this on board. Experts agree that bosses and employees often have a very different perception of work meetings, with business leaders less likely to see them as unnecessary.
For Checa, the goal should be to reduce the duration, not just the number of meetings: “For them to be effective, they should be fast and focused on productivity.”