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Updated 22 November 2019

What's the point of work meetings anyway? According to research, they're actually a form of therapy

Work meetings are rarely efficient, and this could be because their true purpose isn't really about getting things done... say Swedish researchers.

Poorly run meetings can be an intensely negative experience. They also cost companies millions of rands in lost productivity annually. There’s enough research to prove it – yet little is being done to change the situation. Ask anyone how they really feel about work meetings, and most would say they're miserable, dreadful, annoying, and basically just a waste of time.

However, according to ground-breaking claims by researchers from the University of Malmö in Sweden, the true purpose of meetings is to provide an outlet for employees to express what’s on their mind.

Professor Patrik Hall, a political scientist and one of the researchers, said that work meetings have become increasingly frequent in recent years, because of an increasing emphasis on "management" and "strategy". But more meetings don't actually generate more decisions – which prompted Hall to investigate the apparent contradiction.

Poorly planned

According to Hall, the larger number of meetings is due to a general increase in managerial positions, whose functions are sometimes vague, and where “the hierarchy is not that clear”.

“Many managers don’t know what to do,” Hall added, and when there’s uncertainty, they simply respond to it by arranging more meetings. It boils down to people enjoying talking, as it helps them define their role.

According to online meeting service provider Fuze, unproductive meetings are costing the global economy an estimated $37 billion (± R547 billion) each year. Fuze further notes that people spend up to four hours per week preparing for status update meetings, while executives consider more than 67% of meetings to be failures.

In another survey of 3 164 workers, meetings were found to be the number one time-waster at the office, with employees reporting feeling drained and fatigued, and that little or no work was actually accomplished during the rest of the day.

This is largely due to employees multitasking during meetings, or being ill-prepared, with a lack of structure and planning. Some remote attendees of meetings can also find it difficult to remain engaged when connected by telephone.

Opportunity to complain

Although it’s a concern when employees end up spending half their working hours in meetings and that these meetings essentially “arouse feelings of meaninglessness”, Hall says many people are missing the point.

The true function of meetings, particularly long ones, is that they’re “almost therapeutic” and give employees an opportunity to complain, and also be acknowledged by colleagues, argues Hall.

Stop the negative attitude

Most people sitting in meetings that drag on can lose patience – and as a result, meetings can end up becoming unnecessarily “maligned", with employees questioning why they have to be endured, says Hall.

If regular meetings seem pointless to you, your negative attitude could be as a result of a lack of understanding of their real purpose. It’s not about decision-making, but asserting the authority of the organisation, so that employees are reminded that they are part of it, explains Hall.

Doing it right

All companies rely on meetings as an essential component of business, and a world without meetings would be seriously problematic. But when attendees have no idea why they’re really there, it ends up making everyone feel miserable. It is only a well-planned meeting that can yield really positive, actionable results.

In the words of Steven Rogelberg, Professor of Organizational Science, Management, and Psychology at UNC Charlotte: “The elimination of bad meetings is the true goal.”

To get this right, Hall suggests booking rooms for shorter periods and to focus on the equality of all participants.

"When you have meetings with colleagues at the same level, as professionals, you get to discuss different issues that interest you," he said.

Meetings done right are incredible opportunities for inclusion, but when they’re dominated by different levels of status, the situation isn't improved and can potentially lead to "power struggles", leaving participants feeling frustrated and irritated.

Image: iStock

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