My first job out of college was a design and product management position at a software startup. This was back in the early days of the internet during what came to be known as the .com bubble. Tech companies back then famously offered attractive incentive packages to keep us happy and working long hours. We had foosball tables, in-house coffee bars, and memberships to the gym. We even had a dry cleaning allowance, so there was no chance we'd turn up to a client meeting looking like we’d pulled an all-nighter.
But one of the most valuable perks was something that didn't specifically appear in the benefits package. We didn't have a meeting culture. There was a general vibe around our office that meetings were among the nine circles of hell and people avoided them.
We developers were even encouraged to block off time on our calendar so we couldn't get roped into meetings. If we were working on something tricky, we'd put big signs over our cubicles declaring "Cone of Silence." Translation: "don't even come by for a chat."
It's been over 20 years since I worked at that company, but my feelings about meetings persist. In subsequent jobs, I continued the practice of blocking off my calendar and putting signs on my door. Most people appreciated the transparency because the only thing worse than being in a meeting is being in a meeting with people who don't want to be there.
I'm not alone in my allergy to meetings.
Researchers at the University of North Carolina surveyed 182 senior managers and found that 65% said meetings kept them from getting work done. 71% viewed them as unproductive and inefficient.
Tech pioneer and eccentric billionaire Elon Musk once emailed managers at Tesla telling them to reduce meetings. He called them "the blight of companies." I may disagree with Musk on many things, but on this, he gets a special place in my heart alongside former Oracle CEO Larry Ellison, who once banned Powerpoint.
It will surprise no one that employees generally don't like meetings either. In a 2005 study in the peer-reviewed journal Group Dynamics: Theory, Research, and Practice, researchers discovered that when employees attend more meetings, they report an increase in fatigue and workload. In 2019 Doodle.com released its State of the Meeting 2019 report which showed that nearly two-thirds of professionals lost time every week due to unnecessary or canceled meetings.
Not only do full calendars and unproductive meetings diminish employee satisfaction, but they cost companies substantial money. One stat from the Doodle.com report sent headlines spinning: the US loses $399 billion yearly on just two hours of pointless weekly meetings.
And while business and HR journals are filled with articles on how to turn unproductive meetings around, another trend is picking up steam: no-meeting days. Big companies like Facebook, Citi, and Atlassian are all in on the movement.
No-meeting days are exactly what they sound like: at least one day a week when you don't schedule any meetings. No team meetings, no recurring check-ins, no one-to-ones. Literally no meetings.
I know what you're thinking. This sounds impossible. But I've been giving myself no-meeting days for decades, and I stand by the practice.
The Case for Reducing Meetings
One of the most meaningful aspects of meeting-free days is allowing employees to reclaim their productivity and personal work satisfaction. Specifically, schedules peppered with meetings prevent people from engaging in deep work. Computer science professor and author Cal Newport describes deep work in his book, "Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World." He writes that deep work is "the ability to focus on a cognitively demanding task." It enables people to produce better work in shorter periods of time. In fact, I wrote this article on two no-meeting days precisely because I could do the deep work of research and synthesis.
Over the years, I've observed the impact of meetings on my inability to get into a deep work mode. It's not just the time lost on the meeting itself. The more significant impact for me has always been how long it takes to get back to work when I've returned to my desk or left the Zoom room. I'm often distracted by loose ends from the meeting, processing body language and things discussed, and generally scattered. It can take 15-30 minutes of mucking about, usually on the internet, before I regroup.
In 2022, MIT's Sloan Management Review published a survey looking at the impact of meeting-free days. Their survey included 76 worldwide companies with more than 1,000 employees. Each had introduced at least one no-meeting day per week.
The findings were more impressive than even I anticipated. When companies implemented one no-meeting day per week, productivity rose 35%. Two no-meeting days ran that number up to 71%. Three no-meeting days per week produced a modest additional bump up to 73%. Employees also reported better work satisfaction alongside a decrease in stress and micromanagement.
As with many things, too much of a good thing can become a bad thing. The study also showed that reducing meetings too much had the opposite impact on employee satisfaction. When companies eliminated meetings entirely, employees expressed lower job "satisfaction, productivity, engagement, and cooperation."
Tips for Implementing No-Meeting Days in Your Company
1. Meeting-free days work best when the entire company implements them. Depending on your organization's structure and how much interaction there is among offices, individual units, and departments might be able to implement their own no-meeting days effectively. But if your company has a flat organization chart or there is a lot of interaction across teams, this approach will work best if everyone is on the same schedule.
2. Implement an interoffice chat tool. Chat software lets your employees ask each other quick questions that usually pertain to whatever they're working on. Most chat tools have snooze buttons where employees can pause notifications if they're engaged in deep work. Normalize respect for the snooze button.
3. Lead by example. Company culture flows from the top down, so management has to participate too. Even when something is corporate policy, if management doesn't do it, employees won't feel empowered either.
4. Conduct a calendar audit. Look for ways to eliminate, consolidate, or move recurring meetings. Get honest about how valuable and necessary these meetings are. If they're one-directional, consider publishing those announcements to your company intranet or send a weekly announcements email instead. And don't be afraid to tell your customers about your new policy. Reassure them that they can still call their reps for questions and emergencies. No-meeting days aren't black-out days.
5. Be flexible. Unless someone needs a Cone of Silence to meet a deadline, no-meeting days aren't about going incommunicado. But the intention is to give people a chance to sink their teeth into substantial projects uninterrupted. So, encourage minimal interaction while recognizing that emergencies come up.
How to Implement Your Own No-Meeting Days
If you run your own business or have a lot of autonomy over your work schedule, here are some tips for building meeting-free days into your week.
1. Consolidate client meetings into fewer days. Currently, I only see my coaching clients three days a week. One of the other days is 100% meeting-free, and the other is a flex day for networking and professional development.
2. If you're responsible for producing work for clients or others in your organization, consider blocking off even more days of the week. When I freelanced as a web consultant, I only attended meetings one day a week. The other four were dedicated to billable client work. Technically, I could call clients on those days because they were billable. But meetings with prospects, peers, and other non-billables were relegated to that one day a week. This discipline helped me to better estimate project timelines and hit my deadlines, something my clients greatly appreciated.
3. If your company uses an enterprise calendar app like Microsoft Exchange or Google Business, block off your no-meeting days on your calendar. Your colleagues will work around your blocked time or get in touch if they can't. And consider letting everyone know when you're under a deadline and respect when your colleagues do the same.
4. Don't be shy about telling your clients and colleagues what you're doing. Most people are impressed when I tell them about my scheduling boundaries, including my clients. I think they appreciate that if I'm conscientious in this area of my business, that same intentionality extends to other areas. And because I'm not stressed about getting other work done, I am usually more present and engaged in the meetings I do attend.
5. If all else fails, implement no-meeting half days. Schedule your meeting blocks when you tend to be less productive. My mind is sharper and less distracted in the morning, so I’d block off mornings if I were to go this route.
Post by studio BE Senior Faciliator Jennifer O'Sullivan.
Before building her wellness business and joining studio BE as a senior facilitator, Jennifer O’Sullivan designed and developed websites, online software, and mobile apps for businesses, environmental organizations, publishing companies, and the U.S. government. Her management superpower is streamlining processes and working smarter. Jennifer believes that transformational change starts from within. For nearly 20 years, she has been offering yoga and meditation classes, workshops, and trainings in the Washington, D.C. region. She’s also a Level 3 Internal Family Systems practitioner.