The End of (Unnecessary) Meetings?

Nearly half of their meetings are a waste of their time, execs complain in a new survey. What about banning meetings outright?

Nearly everyone has had to endure a pointless work meeting at some point in their careers. For some workers, it’s a chronic issue. But a new survey indicates that efforts to improve the problem in the post-pandemic era have failed. The situation may even be getting worse.

In a survey of 10,000 workers by Future Forum—a think tank that studies work-related topics—executives said they believe that nearly half, or 46%, of their weekly meetings are essentially a waste of their time. That’s a significant chunk of their schedules, given that these leaders spend some 25 hours each week in all kinds of meetings, from product updates to video calls. Executives said they attend these meetings above all because they expect them to be useful and productive, but that in many cases, an email would convey the same information far more efficiently. “We meeting-ize everything,” says Sharon Egilinsky, a Korn Ferry senior client partner specializing in organizational strategy.

Managers and staffers have always complained about costly and unproductive meetings. Poor management of meetings hurts engagement and, according to some research, even increases the likelihood that an employee will quit. But with firms’ increasing reliance on Zoom calls, and now a weakening economy, many HR officials have been hoping leaders would scrutinize their practices for inefficiencies. One 2022 study estimated that unproductive meetings could collectively drain $100 million a year from large organizations.

On the one hand, leaders want to reduce the number of unproductive meetings; on the other, they’re concerned about potentially stifling team collaboration or missing out on key information. One Canadian firm made headlines at the beginning of the year by cancelling all recurring meetings involving more than two people, declaring Wednesdays “meeting free,” and encouraging its workers to decline future meeting invitations at their discretion.

Experts say they aren’t sure the meeting moratorium will be particularly effective. “Maybe trim meetings, but they’ll likely end up right back,” says Dan Kaplan, a Korn Ferry senior client partner specializing in finding human-resources executives. “It’ll be almost impossible to avoid backsliding.” Miriam Nelson, a senior client partner in Korn Ferry’s Assessment and Succession Solutions business, says meetings are the “drumbeat of business” and—if run well—can be an important engagement tool. “They are the way we form lasting relationships,” she says.

The idea of substantially changing meeting routines—and having meeting-free days—might garner more support than an outright ban would. During the COVID-19 pandemic, while many people worked outside the office, some companies experimented with curtailing meetings. A study in the MIT Sloan Management Review found that instituting meeting-free days in 2021 reduced stress and increased cooperation among employees. Productivity rose 35% on those days, the study found. “There is a value in having a calendar cleanup that reduces meetings,” says Kaplan.

Experts say that there are various ways, some of them new, to increase the effectiveness of meetings. Keep meetings short, Nelson recommends—20 minutes rather than 30 (or 50 minutes instead of 60). Keep the number of participants small. Circulate the agenda in advance and distribute a summary of key decisions, dates, and responsibilities to participants afterwards. Such structural changes can be done relatively easily, experts say. More important, Nelson says, is for participants to learn how to have richer conversations during meetings. “Encourage everyone to speak candidly,” says Nelson. “Those are skills to hone.”


For more information, contact Korn Ferry’s People Strategy and Performance practice.