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Hybrid meeting remote work and workforce productivity

Human Resources

Five strategies for managers to kill unproductive meetings and boost workforce efficiency

Published 6 October 2023 in Human Resources • 5 min read

Autumn provides a timely opportunity to assess work habits, especially with the advancement of AI tools. However, it’s essential not to overlook the foundational elements of workforce productivity.

In a bold move earlier this year, Canadian e-commerce giant Shopify took a radical step towards boosting productivity: it instituted a ban on meetings with more than two participants. Kaz Nejatian, the company’s Chief Operating Officer, succinctly captured the sentiment in a tweet: “Meetings are a bug … Companies are for builders, not managers.” This initiative, along with Tesla founder Elon Musk’s directive for staff to exit meetings once their contributions cease to enhance value, underscores the major challenge that inefficiency in meetings poses to achieving optimal productivity in an organization. With the ongoing impact of the COVID-19 pandemic that brought forth a surge in virtual meetings, the importance of refining meeting practices has gained further prominence. Recognizing the need for change, several business leaders have made noteworthy strides in this direction. Jeff Bezos’s “two-pizza rule”, which dictates that meetings should only involve as many individuals as can collectively consume two pizzas, serves as an example of streamlined decision-making. Further, the former Amazon boss’s ban on PowerPoint and insistence on commencing meetings in silence to allow participants to absorb preparatory memos, underlines the importance of tackling the culture of ill-prepared executives, bluffing their way through meetings. The autumn, when we return to the office after the summer break (hopefully rested and recharged), provides a timely opportunity to assess work habits. This issue has become even more pertinent with the advent of groundbreaking AI tools like ChatGPT, which hold the potential to boost productivity. However, amid the AI hype, it’s critical not to overlook the foundational aspects that underpin workforce efficiency. According to Microsoft’s 2023 Work Trend Index, which draws insights from an extensive survey, the most prominent barriers to productivity are inefficient or excessive meetings and a lack of well-defined objectives. Furthermore, the influence of technology as a persistent distraction underscores the need for managers to adopt specific strategies to elevate productivity.
AI VS human
However, amid the AI hype, it’s critical not to overlook the foundational aspects that underpin workforce efficiency

1.     Streamline meetings for efficiency

The issue of inefficient meetings is among the primary productivity roadblocks. Despite a wealth of established best practices, many organizations consistently grapple with the dynamics of effective meetings. A key challenge is the prevalence of side conversations that erode meeting efficiency. Staff striving to maximize each working hour often inadvertently allocate inadequate time for interpersonal interactions. This results in casual conversations spilling into meetings, disrupting their intended purpose.

2.     Empower for meaningful contributions

Empowerment is another dimension that influences the effectiveness of meetings. Although managers frequently discuss empowerment, they often fail to implement it, primarily due to a lack of trust. In situations where trust is missing from bosses, meetings become platforms for staff to showcase their work, even when its relevance to others is minimal. Conversely, a lack of employee trust in an empowering manager compels workers to clarify tasks in meetings, ensuring they aren’t left exposed, essentially covering their backside. To mitigate this, a novel approach involves introducing a brief emotional check-in before delving into formal meeting proceedings. This practice, embraced during the pandemic, cultivates relaxation and sharper focus during discussions. However, it’s essential to ensure that this practice remains concise to avoid derailing the meeting’s momentum. Just a few minutes can suffice, allowing everyone to fully engage with the topics on the agenda.

3.     Tame the fear of missing out (FOMO)

FOMO is an additional challenge. The allure of attending meetings in the absence of a clear purpose, fueled by the uncertainty of pivotal decisions made in one’s absence, is a persistent drain on productivity. This often results in a waste of precious time in meetings as a safeguard. Sending meeting invitations, out of politeness, can perpetuate this cycle. Once present in a meeting, the sense of needing to say something — even if the input is inconsequential — adds to the inefficiency. An alternative, more effective approach involves summoning the courage to extend invitations only to individuals who bear pivotal roles in the meeting’s objectives, and then transparently communicating the decisions that significantly affect individuals who aren’t present.

4.     Set continuous goals, beyond isolated targets

The quest for optimal productivity is further hampered by the absence of clear goals, as underscored by Microsoft’s survey. Effective strategies for managers to establish and communicate goals are paramount. An essential tenet of this approach involves encouraging staff to set continuous goals, as opposed to isolated targets. Targets are quantifiable objectives with defined timeframes, such as achieving $1 million in revenue from new clients within a quarter. In contrast, goals encompass broader, overarching aspirations that guide an employee’s direction and purpose. A goal might entail achieving market leadership through consistent delivery of exceptional customer service, for instance. The nexus between targets and goals is crucial for sustained success, as productivity often wanes once targets are achieved.

5.     Balance technology and distractions

While managers are pinning their hopes on AI to herald a productivity boom, striking a balance between leveraging technology and curbing the distractions it poses is paramount. As AI increasingly infiltrates workflows, it becomes imperative to foster a culture of focused engagement, shielding against the peril of constant interruptions. While technology can be helpful in many ways, it can also easily distract us from the key issues we need to resolve, the information we need to take in, or the conversations we are supposed to follow. Whether you meet in person or on Zoom, whether you are having lunch with someone or simply a coffee, or whether you are reading a memo, book, or article, put your phone away and turn off your email notifications. You will learn more, be more productive, and have more fun. And, in all likelihood, you really won’t miss anything.


Robert Hooijberg

Professor of Organizational Behaviour at IMD

Robert Hooijberg is Professor of Organizational Behavior at IMD. His areas of special interest are leadership, negotiations, team building, digital transformation, and organizational culture. Before joining IMD in September 2000, Professor Hooijberg taught at Rutgers University in their MBA and Executive MBA programs in New Jersey, Singapore, and Beijing. He is Program Director of the Breakthrough Program for Senior Executives and the Negotiating for Value Creation course.


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