Meetings at Work

A work meeting is a gathering of employees for a purpose related to the functioning of an organization or a group (e.g., to direct, to inform, to govern, to regulate). The gathering can occur in a single modality (e.g., a videoconference) or in a mixed-modality format (mostly face-to-face with one participant connected by telephone). A meeting can be described as more formal than a chat but less formal than a lecture. A meeting is usually characterized by multiparty talk that is episodic in nature. Typically, meetings are scheduled in advance (some notice is provided), informally or formally facilitated by one of the members, involve four to eight individuals (but can contain as few as two participants), last 30 to 60 minutes, and have some specific purpose or goal (which is often made known in advance). Less commonly, an annotated transcription of the meeting activity is undertaken (minutes). There are five principal types of meetings:

  • Information-giving meeting: The meeting is primarily about announcing and discussing organizational, department, unit, team, or personnel news.
  • Training meeting: The meeting is primarily about receiving some type of work training.
  • Recognition meeting: The meeting is primarily about recognizing and celebrating relevant events or accomplishments.
  • Routine monitoring and decision-making meeting: The meeting is primarily about day-to-day problems and issues; it is called to work on issues identified previously—for example, gathering reports about progress to date, assigning tasks, coordinating activities, or making decisions.
  • Special problem-solving meeting: The meeting is primarily about new or unusual issues rather than day-to-day problems and issues; it is called to discuss one or more special issues—for example, aiming for a greater understanding, a preliminary decision, a final decision, or a plan.

Impromptu meetings are those in which the gathering of individuals has not been planned in advance. They are rarer than scheduled meetings. They are usually smaller in size, less structured, more informal, and often assembled to exchange information or make decisions quickly, as in a crisis situation. Alternatively, these events may occur spontaneously to consider routine matters, as when a lunch is transformed into a quick meeting.

Besides their more formal purposes, meetings have an employee socialization, relationship-building, and networking component. In addition, meetings can serve to enforce and make clear formal and informal reporting structures and power differentials.

Time in Meeting

The meeting is a common organizational activity across cultures. Estimates of an individual’s time spent in meetings vary widely. On the high end, the average senior manager spends approximately 23 hours per week either preparing for, attending, or following up on meetings, and middle managers spend 11 to 12 hours per week on these activities. On the low end, estimates suggest that employees spend an average of approximately 6 hours in scheduled meetings during a typical week, and supervisors spend more time than nonsupervisors in meetings. Employees in large organizations tend to have more meetings than employees in small organizations.

Recent studies suggest that the amount of meeting activity in organizations appears to be rising. One study suggested that the average executive participated in twice as many meetings in the 1980s as in the 1960s. In a survey of 1,900 business leaders, almost 72% reported spending more time in meetings than they did five years ago. In addition, more than 49% surveyed expected to be spending even more time in meetings in the future.

Research on Meetings

Despite the practical importance of meetings, the meeting, as an entity in and of itself, has rarely been studied. In one of the first scholarly treatments of the meeting, anthropologist Helen Schwartzman discussed how the meeting is a neglected social form in organizational studies and how it is taken for granted because it is so commonplace and accepted by members of an organization. She further discussed how meetings have been used as a methodological tool to study other topics (e.g., small-group dynamics and group decision making) but are rarely studied empirically in their own right as a legitimate area of research.

Recently, however, there appears to be an emerging empirical literature focusing on the characteristics of meetings. For example, sit-down meetings last longer than stand-up meetings, yet there is no improvement in decision quality. Another stream of research focuses on the impact of meeting demands (e.g., the number of meetings attended) on employee attitudes and well-being. For example, the relationship between meeting demands and employee well-being was found to be moderated by an individual difference characteristic called accomplishment striving. Namely, for individuals with a strong desire to accomplish work goals, a negative relationship between the number of meetings in a day and daily well-being was found. Conversely, a weak positive relationship between the number of meetings in a day and daily well-being was found when striving is low—for those who are less goal-oriented, meetings may be desired, perhaps to permit social interaction or to give structure to an unstructured day.

Meeting Effectiveness

The trade literature is replete with suggestions for improving the quality of meetings. Besides the overriding suggestion to meet only when necessary, the following structural and group dynamics factors are often mentioned in the literature. For the most part, these suggestions (in relation to meeting effectiveness) have not been empirically studied.

  • Provide an agenda in advance of the meeting. Have specific meeting goals and objectives. Provide relevant materials in advance of the meeting so that participants have time to reflect on them.
  • Establish a set of ground rules to promote good communication processes (e.g., staying on task, not dominating the discussion, constructive conflict resolution, listening before responding to others).
  • Evaluate the meeting periodically. Either midstream or at the conclusion, the group should reflect on what went well and what could be improved for the next meeting.
  • Pay careful attention to time. Start the meeting on time. End the meeting on time.
  • Assign someone to the role of meeting facilitator or leader to promote productive meeting practices (sticking to the agenda, not spending too much time to discuss trivial items).

References:

  1. Luong, A., & Rogelberg, S. G. (2005). Meetings and more meetings: The relationship between meeting load and the daily well-being of employees. Group Dynamics: Theory, Research, and Practice, 1, 58-67.
  2. Rogelberg, S. G., Leach, D. J., Warr, P. B., & Burnfield, J. L. (2006). “Not another meeting!” Are meeting time demands related to employee well-being? Journal of Applied Psychology, 91(1), 83-97.
  3. Schwartzman, H. B. (1989). The meeting: Gatherings in organizations and communities. New York: Plenum.
  4. Tropman, J. E. (2003). Making meetings work: Achieving high quality group decisions (2nd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

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