During Covid, Less Meeting Meant Higher Performance…


Didier Marlier

January 07, 2023

From Disruption to Engagement

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Yesterday, I came across an interesting post by Serge Golay, mentioning an article published by a consultancy with an inspiring name, Corporate Rebels.

The post refers to a Harvard Business Review article, dated March 2022, mentioning a study concluding that, if the length of meetings had been reduced by 20% on average, during COVID, their number had increased by 13.5%. HBR also noted that newly promoted managers tend to hold 30% more meetings than seasoned executives, probably due to their eagerness to connect with their remote team members and how easy it has become to order meetings through Covid times, causing “Zoom fatigue”… Nothing new under the sun.

But, then HBR surveyed 76 organisations which had decided to focus on meetings reduction targets and found out (see drawing) that productivity was improving between 62 and 86%, when the numbers of meetings was reduced, from 20 to 80% respectively. That is interesting and, probably a bit counter intuitive…

In order to reach these “Meetings reduction targets”, the article suggests to:

  • Be selective: Do you really need to organise a meeting on that topic?
  • Use Slack or another information spreading tool to ensure people know who does what today (not the smartest thing to do in my view, as you transfer people from Zoom to Slack fatigue as we see with some of our own clients)
  • Use digital tools for asynchronous work: Yes but what we also see with clients using this extensively is an “Asynchronous Work Fatigue”, since the work still needs to get done (reading endless discussions, reports etc.)

If the research of Harvard is validated and that less formal meetings dramatically improve performance, wouldn’t it be worthwhile integrating this into a long lasting cultural change, rather than through wobbly technological quick fixes?

Remember that, following Hay (now Korn-Ferry) and Gallup, 70% of a corporate culture comes from the behaviour of its leaders. So, change your behaviours and the rituals, rhythm and fatigue of meetings will change. Should we, as leaders, be convinced that holding less meetings is an interesting way forward, let us not commit the mistake that so many other executives commit: Parachute change and new technologies without having properly prepared the culture and people first. Should you really opt for a “Meeting-light organisation” you need to evolve, in your own behaviour and thinking:

  • From Transactional to Relational: Too many meetings are run on a transactional basis to solve transactional issues between participants. This is the realm of paralysing formalism, PowerPoints & Excel spreadsheets, boredom and win/lose decisions (that end up never being taken). Rather than ordering a meeting where 80% of the participants will be passive, do encourage and create a relational culture, where problems and issues can be solved with the involved people sitting down (for a coffee) and talking respectfully (Psychological Safety) with each other. Then inform the team of the joint decision. I never kept a formal track of it, but would say that in the Enablers Network, 90% of the issues have been solved so far through informal and relational conversations and 10% (at maximum) through formal meetings (which usually tended to crystallise diverging positions, ended up in pseudo rational arguments instead of helping us collectively progress).
  • From Monday morning convocation to Pizza meeting invitation: The most advanced plant of one of our clients (bio pharma giant) had realised how frustrating and underperforming its regular meetings were. Of course they kept (to the strict minimum) the meetings that were ordered by Corporate or needed for compliance and security reasons. But for all the rest, they chose the Pizza Meeting Process. Its idea is simple: Do not fear to admit temporary incompetence and… call for help. A Pizza Meeting was rated as a priority by all, being invited to it, perceived as a honour and its relational informality was symbolised by the pizzas that the originator would order for his/her guests. Those meeting were short, sharp and efficient, they boosted morale and pride to belong. They made people closer to each other and greatly contributed to create a High Support/High Challenge culture in the plant.
  • Grant your people the Right to say No!: I am shocked when being told, in a painfully apologetic tone, by participants to a course or program: “I am sorry, I won’t be able to attend that session, because our boss imposed a meeting during those hours”. Running a Community of 30 leaders around the Globe, I fully sympathise with a leader imposing a date for a meeting. But should this come as a “marching order”? Should mandated participants have a right to choose whether what is imposed on their agenda is something more important than what they already have pinned down? In our Community, people are invited, welcome to attend but we fully trust each other to understand what the priority should be for the benefit of the organisation. Anyway, imagine the motivation, pride to belong and energy of people “told to join a meeting”… Creating an intelligent organisation is also made by showing people we trust them into choosing how they best use their time.

Thank you Serge for having generously posted. I hope this, added to the HBR article, will strike a balance between technology driven solutions and… Leadership!


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