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‘Meeting Doomsday’ And ‘Calendar Bankruptcy’: How Leaders Are Battling Meeting Overload

It was the return of business travel that tipped Stephanie Dismore’s calendar over the edge. 

Earlier this year, as the HP senior executive juggled running to airport gates with a schedule still filled with pandemic-era Zoom calls, Dismore sat down with her assistant and did an audit of her meetings. Some were delegated. Meetings set up simply to share information were canceled, with a request sent for a slide deck. The rest were given a hard look and had to pass a test to stay on her calendar. 

“I tell my team ‘no objective, no attendance,’ ” says Dismore, HP’s managing director of North America. If there’s not a clear goal, she says, “I just decline the meeting. If it’s important, it’ll get back on my calendar with an objective at some point.” 

Not everyone has the authority—or the executive assistant—to go through that sort of exercise in calendar hygiene. But after more than two years of remote work-fueled meeting bloat, many professionals are struggling to balance the reemergence of pre-pandemic norms—in-person lunches and conferences, business travel and networking dinners—with calendars that haven’t yet moved on from the back-to-back virtual meeting load.

“The actual meeting schedule has not come down to where it was pre-COVID,” Dismore says. “Everyone is feeling that same pressure.”

To address the issue, some companies are making more efforts to combat meeting overload, especially those recurring weekly sync-ups, daily check-ins and sticky team stand-ups that never seem to fall off the calendar. 

Open-source software platform GitLab has annual “meeting cleanup” days to reset which recurring meetings are needed, and some teams have “async weeks” with greatly reduced meeting time. Software firm Asana conducted experiments this spring using a process they call “meeting doomsday.” It involves having workers review which standing meetings are valuable, and then scheduling a time to delete them all, only adding back the valuable ones after considering how often they need to happen and who really needs to attend.

And Slack said in June it had not only added “Focus Fridays”—a practice many companies, including HP, have used to ban internal meetings on certain days—but “Maker Weeks” twice each quarter. During those weeks, all internal recurring meetings are canceled, offering not only more time to focus but a “reset” to review which meetings still matter. 

“It’s basically a ‘kill all the recurring meetings’” exercise for a week before adding back the necessary ones, says Brian Elliott, a senior vice president at Slack who leads its “digital first” task force. The initiative started with its engineering teams nearly two years ago, but has since rolled out more broadly, says Elliott, who also leads the consortium Future Forum and has written about the practice, which executives at Slack call “calendar bankruptcy.” “This [meeting] used to be eight people. Now it’s 25 people. Can’t we scale it back?” 

The practice comes as organizations try to break habits established during the pandemic, when people had to block calendar time to chat rather than doing a drive-by past a coworker’s desk. Microsoft research shows the average user of its Teams product saw a 153% increase in the number of meetings and a 252% increase in weekly meeting time between February of 2020 and 2022. 

Now, as companies try to navigate hybrid work, they increasingly face employee demands not only to be flexible about where they work, but when. “Time flexibility” is increasingly important to workers, Future Forum’s research has found, with an even greater percentage saying they want the ability to choose when they work than where. And more attention is being paid to working “asynchronously,” in which teams use collaboration tools on their own time rather than gathering at specific moments.https://3e05e12d02e073c4994e3106ccea1690.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-38/html/container.html

“Our default problem-solving approach is addition, and we’ve got to battle that,” says Bob Sutton, a professor at Stanford University who has studied how a “subtraction” mindset can help reduce meeting overload. “The things you need to look for are: Do I need the meeting at all? Can the meeting be smaller? Can it be less often or shorter?”

“It forces you to completely rethink your meetings and rebuild your calendar from the ground up,” says Rebecca Hinds, who leads Asana Labs, an internal think tank at Asana. 

At Asana, a pilot study showed workers saved 11 hours a month, on average, by doing a meeting “audit” and then deleting their recurring meetings before adding back the useful ones. “A lot of 30 minute meetings became 25 or even 15 minute meetings; a lot of weekly meetings became every other week or monthly,” says Rebecca Hinds, who leads Asana Labs, an internal think tank that works with academic researchers. 

“It forces you to completely rethink your meetings and rebuild your calendar from the ground up in a way that you just can’t do when you’re looking at meetings one by one,” says Hinds, who calls the process “meeting doomsday” and says the pilot has now expanded to a broader group of workers. 

Jessica Reeder, a senior strategy and operations manager for workplace at GitLab, says it’s important to plan ahead for any kind of mass meeting deletion—even if temporary. The work still has to get done, and there has to be a plan for how decisions will get made asynchronously. “Work doesn’t just stop,” she says. “It’s not something where you just overnight say ‘great, we’re not going to have any meetings.’ You have to really put together the pieces that will allow you to continue to be productive and effective.” 

Meanwhile, it has to be led from the top. All too often, recurring meetings stay on calendars because lower-ranking employees feel an obligation to attend and don’t feel they can skip, which is why it’s especially important for senior leaders to audit—and delete—unneeded meetings. “Once you stop and get intentional about the meetings, it really easy to see which ones you need,” says Reeder. “That helps with that politeness issue. It’s a formal process.”

HP’s Dismore—who says unclogging her own calendar and planning internal meeting-free Fridays is part of a broader effort to help prevent burnout—recognizes that. So many meetings among top decision-makers, she says, have a “herd mentality” and add so many extra people who “could be doing something else,” she says. “It’s being very intentional about the meetings that we have.”

By Jena McGregor, Forbes Staff

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