IIt was the return of business travel that tipped Stephanie Dismore’s calendar over the edge.
Earlier this year, as HP’s senior executive rushed to airport gates with a schedule still filled with pandemic-era Zoom calls, Dismore sat down with her assistant and conducted an audit of their meetings. Some have been delegated. Meetings set up just to share information were canceled and a request for a set of slides was sent. The rest got a tough look and had to pass a test to stay on their calendar.
“I tell my team ‘no goal, no participation,'” said Dismore, HP’s managing director for North America. If there is no clear goal, she says: “I simply refuse the meeting. If it’s important, it will eventually come back on my calendar with a goal.”
Not everyone has the authority — or executive assistant — to do this kind of calendar hygiene exercise. But after more than two years of meeting bloat from remote work, many professionals are struggling to reconcile the resurgence of pre-pandemic norms — in-person lunches and conferences, business trips and networking dinners — with calendars that are shifting have not yet changed from the load of successive virtual meetings.
“The actual meeting schedule hasn’t dropped to where it was pre-COVID,” says Dismore. “Everyone feels the same pressure.”
To address the issue, some companies are making more efforts to combat meeting overload, particularly the recurring weekly syncs, daily check-ins, and sticky team standups that never seem to fall off the calendar.
Managers at open-source software company GitLab have annual “meeting cleanup” days to determine which recurring meetings are actually needed, and some teams have “asynchronous weeks” with greatly reduced meeting time. Software company Asana conducted experiments this spring with a process they call “Meeting Doomsday.” This includes staff reviewing which ongoing meetings are valuable, then setting a time to delete them all and only adding the valuable meetings back after considering how often they need to happen and who is really attending got to.
And Slack said in June it not only added “Focus Fridays” — a practice many companies, including HP, have used to ban internal meetings on certain days — but also added “Maker Weeks” twice a quarter. During these weeks, all internal recurring meetings are cancelled, providing not only more time to focus, but also a “reboot” to review which meetings are still important.
“It’s basically an exercise to end all recurring meetings for a week” before adding the necessary ones back in, says Brian Elliott, Slack’s senior vice president, who leads the Digital First task force. The initiative began with their engineering teams almost two years ago, but has since spread more broadly, says Elliott, who also leads the consortium’s Future Forum and has written about the practice that executives at Slack call “calendar bankruptcy.” “This [meeting] It used to be eight people. Now there are 25 people. Can’t we turn it back?”
The practice comes as organizations seek to break habits established during the pandemic, when people had to block calendar time to chat rather than drive past a colleague’s desk. Research from Microsoft shows that between February 2020 and 2022, the average user of its Teams product saw a 153% increase in the number of meetings and a 252% increase in weekly meeting time.
Now, as companies try to navigate hybrid work, they increasingly face demands from employees to not only be flexible about where they work, but when. ‘Time flexibility’ is becoming increasingly important for workers, research from the Future Forum has found, with an even larger percentage saying they would like the ability to choose if they work as where. And more attention is being paid to “asynchronous” working, where teams use collaboration tools on their own time rather than meeting at specific times.
“Our default problem-solving approach is addition, and we have to fight that,” says Bob Sutton, a Stanford University professor who has studied how a “subtraction” mindset can help reduce meeting congestion. “The things you need to look for are: do I even need the meeting? Can the meeting be smaller? Can it be less frequent or shorter?”
At Asana, a pilot study showed that employees save an average of 11 hours per month by conducting a “meeting audit” and then deleting their recurring meetings before adding the useful ones back. “Many 30-minute meetings became 15 minutes, and many weekly meetings became monthly or quarterly,” says Rebecca Hinds, director of Asana Labs, an in-house think tank that works with academic researchers.
“It forces you to completely rethink your meetings and rebuild your calendar when you look at meetings one-by-one,” says Hinds, who calls the process “meeting doomsday” and says the pilot is now rolling out to a broader group of employees was expanded.
Jessica Reeder, Senior Strategy Manager for Workplace at GitLab, says it’s important to plan ahead for any type of bulk meeting deletion — even if it’s temporary. The work still needs to be done and there needs to be a plan for how the decisions will be made asynchronously. “The work doesn’t just stop,” she says. “It’s not something where you just say overnight that we’re not going to have any of those meetings.”
Meanwhile, it must be managed from above. All too often, Reeder says, recurring meetings remain on the calendar because lower-ranked employees feel obligated to attend and don’t feel like they can skip them. For this reason, it’s especially important for leaders to take control of auditing—and deleting—unneeded sessions. “Once you stop and become intentional, it helps with that politeness issue,” she says.
HP’s Dismore — which says cleaning up her own calendar and scheduling internal meeting-free Fridays is part of a broader effort to prevent burnout — acknowledges this. So many meetings between top decision-makers, she says, have a “herd mentality,” adding so many extra people who “could be doing something else,” she says. “It’s very intentional with the meetings that we have.”