Meetings take a subtle toll

2006

Much has been written on the factors that affect employee well-being – everything from management style and organisational structure to the effects of the office environment. But one thing that almost everyone complains about but few have studied is the effect on us of all those meetings.

In the average workplace, there are lots of meetings. The average number of meetings more than doubled in the second half of the 20th Century and time spent in meetings keeps growing.

Unnecessary or unproductive meetings have been calculated to cost managers 10 per cent of their time - 24 work days a year, while a study by Microsoft in 2004 suggested that unnecessary meetings are the number one drain on the productivity of small businesses.

Now a new study on the effects of meetings on worker well-being has revealed some surprising dynamics behind modern meeting mania, with broad implications for the effects on morale and productivity.

The report, written by a team of researchers led organisational psychologist Steven G. Rogelberg from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, appears in the March issue of the Journal of Applied Psychology.

It describes the first international scientific study ever performed on the effects of meeting time on employee well-being, based on the responses of 980 employees to two work surveys.

More people view meetings as a positive part of the workday than they will admit publicly

One of the report's findings was that more people view meetings as a positive part of the workday than they will admit publicly.

"When speaking publicly, people generally claim that they hate meetings," said Rogelberg, "but in the surveys you see a different story – some people's private sentiments are much more positive.

"It's an interesting finding because it really helps to explain why we have all these meetings. And, though they are typically publicly negative, overwhelmingly people say that they want the day to have at least one meeting.

"They have to feel like they are accomplishing something positive in their meetings to produce this response," he said.

The two surveys tested the impact of meetings on employees in two different contexts – at the end of a specific day and in general, by examining the number of meetings employees had in a typical week.

The findings suggested that for some individuals meetings function as interruptions and for others they are welcome events.

The effects of meetings on worker well-being is "moderated" by three different factors; by whether jobs specifically require group work, by whether the meetings were efficiently run, and, perhaps critically, by where the worker falls on the personality scale of her/his "accomplishment striving."

"People differ on this accomplishment striving personality scale," Rogelberg explained. "In general, you can think of people who are high in accomplishment striving are those individuals who are very task-focused, who are very goal-focused, who have goals and objectives for the day that they want to get accomplished.

"People who have low accomplishment striving are not slackers, though - they are just individuals with a much more flexible orientation to work and like to allow the agenda for the day to emerge much more naturally."

The study found that people who are high in accomplishment striving are predictably and negatively impacted by meetings, particularly when they are frequent. Numerous short meetings have a greater impact on their well-being than a few long meetings taking the same amount of time.

However, participants who scored low in accomplishment striving were positively impacted by meetings. They appeared to be welcome events rather than interruptions. More time in meetings was associated with a greater sense of well-being.

"People who are high in accomplishment striving look at meetings more from the perspective of seeing them as barriers to getting real work done," Rogelberg said. "But the others may view meetings as a way to structure their day or a way to network and socialise. As a result, these people see meetings as a good thing."

But Rogelberg added that social attitudes tend to disguise this dynamic.

"It is socially unacceptable to talk about liking meetings, unless someone else starts talking about it," he said, explaining why the low accomplishment striving people do not go public with their preference for meeting.

"And it is also interesting that the people who are high on accomplishment striving are not complaining more the others.

"The toll that meetings take seems to be much more subtle. If you ask these individuals if they are more dissatisfied with the meetings, they don't report anything different from those who enjoy meetings," he said.