Updated: Jul 19
I've never worked in an office, but as a teacher, I attend a lot of meetings - Sometimes 3-5 per week or more - and often at inopportune times. There are meetings with parents, meetings with administrators, meetings with colleagues, and of course, meetings with students regarding one thing or another. Is this really the best use of our time, or can we make our work communications and decision-making more efficient?
I didn't expect to find much when I started researching for this article, but it turns out there is significant literature on the topic of meeting productivity. Unsurprisingly, most of this research comes from the business sector. Furthermore, there has been a flurry of studies conducted in recent years with the aim of assessing hybrid and remote meetings (as a result of the pandemic, no doubt). Teachers are used to being told what to do by people with no background in education, but in this case, it seems there is an awful lot we can learn from other industries.
How many meetings do we really need?
According to a 2022 article by MIT Sloan School of Management, up to 71% of managers believe meetings to be expensive and unproductive. Even so, most organizations continue to rely on them, but is this wise? What if we had fewer meetings, or no meetings at all?
In the same MIT study, surveys were conducted on over 1000 employees from 76 companies that decided to implement a 'no-meetings' policy for 1-5 days per week. 47% of companies said no to meetings 2 days per week, 35% for 3 days, 11% for 4, and 7% of ambitious organizations removed all meetings from their weekly schedules.
Unsurprisingly, there were improvements in almost all areas when meetings were scaled back - up to a point. The maximum benefits were achieved with a 60% reduction in meetings, equivalent to 3 meeting-free days per week. With this limit in place, stress levels were reduced by 57%. Also, cooperation increased by 55%, which might sound counterintuitive considering the lack of meetings. Apparently, staff members found other ways to communicate with each other and felt less micromanaged. As a result, their job satisfaction and productivity both improved. The benefits start to erode at 4 meeting-free days and beyond, however, leading to decreased cooperation and engagement, as well as fewer opportunities to socialize.
"Unless you want feedback, complaints, or a standing ovation, maybe it would be best to send an email instead."
It seems we need at least SOME meetings to stay on task and to feel connected to each other and the organizations we work for. Cutting back on meetings only addresses half of the problem, however. Maintaining efficiency and staff morale depends on the quality of meetings, not just their frequency.
Maximizing meeting efficiency
We've already established that you're probably having too many meetings, but can you really get everything done with just two collaborative days per week?
One authority on the subject of meeting science is Dr. Steven Rogelberg, a professor of management who has published over 100 articles on topics related to employee well-being and organizational management. He recently published a book on the subject of meeting science - The Surprising Science of Meetings - but you can watch his Google talk outlining some of the main points on Youtube. A lot of his arguments have to do with time management, which shouldn't be a shock to anyone. Among these is the idea that managers should adopt the mindset that they are stewards of others' time, and run meetings accordingly. He also stresses that scheduled meeting lengths don't need to be adhered to. For example, a 1-hour meeting isn't successful if it finishes on time. It is successful if it accomplishes the agenda goals earlier than expected, freeing up more time for other tasks. Also of note is the importance he places on diversity and inclusion during meetings, ensuring that everyone receives both the encouragement and the opportunity to have their voice heard, which involves subtly preventing the most active speakers from dominating discussions.
"Staff members were most dissatisfied when people criticized, resisted change, or lost their train of thought. All three interactions suggested significantly dire consequences in terms of long-term organizational success."
Another article from the American Journal of Pharmaceutical Education includes some useful advice on how to schedule and facilitate meetings. They recommend sending out a well-planned agenda ahead of time, inviting only relevant attendees, and holding timed discussions on each topic. The authors also mention, albeit briefly, that the contents of a potential meeting can sometimes be better addressed by email or executive decision. Got an announcement to make? Unless you want feedback, complaints, or a standing ovation, maybe it would be best to send an email instead.
Why don't teachers speak up?
Teachers regularly report dissatisfaction with staff meetings, so why do they put up with them? In a recent dissertation, Dr. Anne Zito examined the role of silence during teacher staff meetings, specifically referring to those teachers who attend but don't speak up. She was interested in determining whether silence is a positive behaviour (due to active listening, for example), a negative one (suggesting boredom or fear), or some combination of the two. She reports that in a related study of over 30,000 educators, 47% did not feel that they have a voice in the decision-making process. I can relate. When I started teaching, I felt like a kid in a room full of adults. I didn't know what I was doing and I didn't feel like I had anything to contribute. Finally, after more than a decade of teaching, I feel like there is a bit of weight behind what I say and I'm more likely to speak up during meetings, but still, I'm not the loudest voice in the room and I probably never will be.
"Teachers are used to being told what to do by people with no background in education, but in this case, it seems there is an awful lot we can learn from other industries."
Anyways, to answer the question of why teachers remain silent during meetings, Zito simply asked them to agree or disagree with a series of statements. Based on the results, she was able to broadly identify three groups of teachers, which she humorously refers to as Get the Party Started, I Don't Care Anymore, and Don't Stop Believin'. The first group, Get the Party Started, likes to talk, and feels that meetings are important and relevant to them. The I Don't Care Anymore crowd consists of teachers who are generally bored or disgruntled and are happy to remain silent in order to get meetings over with as quickly as possible. The final group, Don't Stop Believin', had a mixture of characteristics, with teachers generally feeling that they are helpful and hardworking but remaining silent unless a topic directly relates to them and perceiving meetings as an overall negative thing. Recognizing that there are different types of people with different meeting expectations is crucial for holding effective meetings. Zito goes on to suggest something teachers are intimately familiar with - differentiation, specifically related to the communication methods utilized before, during, and after meetings.
Meeting interactions - what works and what doesn't
An interesting 2012 study asserts that small interactions within meetings are critical to their success or failure, resulting in significant and long-lasting motivation or discouragement for those attending. Videos were collected from 92 team meetings and analyzed for microlevel interactions. In many of these meetings, team members described problems, expressed support, shared organizational knowledge, asked questions, or held side conversations. Of these, only asking questions and sharing organizational knowledge had a significant positive impact on team productivity, and none of these interactions affected meeting satisfaction levels. What made employees most satisfied during meetings? Visualizations, by quite a wide margin, followed by connecting solutions to problems, and yet these occurred less frequently than detrimental interactions such as disagreements and interruptions. Staff members were most dissatisfied when people criticized, resisted change, or lost their train of thought. All three interactions suggested significantly dire consequences in terms of long-term organizational success. It's also worth noting that two of the least common interactions - time management and planning actions - had some of the strongest short and long-term positive effects.
What the above study tells us is that meetings need to be organized, visual, and focused on solutions and actions. Furthermore, the people running those meetings need to be well-prepared, manage time effectively, and be open to questions and changes.
"A little bit of casual fun can lighten up a serious meeting, but too much can derail it or undermine it completely."
A 2016 article from the American Journal of Play (I'm surprised that's a thing) suggests that playfulness can be used to enhance meetings by improving staff morale and creativity. They tested this by surveying 18 groups from various industries before and after meetings in which candy and toys were left in the conference rooms during a break. They noticed a small but significant increase in creativity and productivity as a result.
While I appreciate the fact that play and creativity are linked, I've also seen this attempt at making meetings more casual backfire. If the workplace climate and employees are not receptive to such a strategy and do not feel it has been implemented purposefully, it can be perceived as a further waste of time, and in the worst cases, a feeble apology or something akin to bribery (sorry you had to work late every night this week - here's some gum!). It all depends on how, when, and by whom it is presented. A little bit of casual fun can lighten up a serious meeting, but too much can derail it or undermine it completely.
Putting it all together
As I mentioned previously, I had no idea how deep the research would go on this topic before I started looking into it, but now that I've read a sampling of it, I feel more strongly than ever that administrators and those in leadership positions should take a course (or two) on the subject to really take advantage of all the best-practices outlined by experts in the field. I think sometimes teachers spend too much time in the realm of education and child psychology and thus miss out on the wealth of knowledge being accumulated in other fields. This is a perfect example of that. So the next time you are asked to suggest possible topics for future PD sessions, consider meeting management strategies, especially for your admins and coordinators!
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