What would happen if meetings disappeared? Shopify plans to find out.
In a memo sent out to staff Jan. 3, Shopify COO Kaz Nejatian announced the e-commerce platform’s plans to delete nearly 10,000 calendar events. Among the eliminated: recurring meetings with three or more people; meetings scheduled on Wednesdays; and meetings with more than 50 people taking place outside Thursday afternoons.
Shopify’s move aims to give employees more time. “No one joined Shopify to sit in meetings,” Nejatian said in the memo, which the company shared with HR Dive. “Not one person has ever thought, ‘you know what will make a big impact on entrepreneurship? Day after day of back to back meetings.’”
Days of endless meetings have come to characterize the work experience of many, especially since the pandemic arrived. But the pandemic brought the business world more than a deluge of meetings, according to Eric Yaverbaum, CEO of Ericho Communications. The pandemic also created an opportunity to transform the way work gets done. And Shopify’s meeting-less experiment serves as a prime example.
“Corporate America is more open to change than ever before,” Yaverbaum told HR Dive in an interview. “So many things changed during the pandemic. We finally saw that there are different ways to work and communicate.”
As high-profile companies like Shopify test out changes as appealing as meeting-free workdays, other employers are bound to consider following suit. But if Shopify’s plans are an experiment, Nejatian’s declarations serve only as a hypothesis. The question remains: Will the experiment work?
‘A total buzzkill for morale’
As Yaverbaum pointed out, the pandemic showcased that work could be done differently. But the pandemic’s new way of work didn’t point to a future without meetings. In fact, the mass transition to remote work gave way to a barrage of meetings.
At the onset of the pandemic, workers logged more time overall, and they spent more time in meetings in particular, reported a 2020 study from Clockwise, a “time orchestration platform.” Compared to the last weeks of February 2020, Clockwise found that workers in March 2020 spent 24% more time in one-on-one meetings and 29% more time in “team sync” meetings.
The trend continued as the pandemic drug on. The average Microsoft Teams user spent 252% more time in weekly meetings since February 2020, Microsoft said in a 2022 report. The number of weekly meetings themselves increased 153%.
The frustration caused by excess meetings is familiar to many. “When people are sitting in meetings rolling their eyes because they have so much work to do, it’s a total buzzkill for morale,” Yaverbaum said.
Avoiding the bad to promote the good
It’s not surprising, then, that employers like Shopify are attempting to curb meetings. “The goal is to boost productivity with fewer meetings while improving employee satisfaction,” Yaverbaum said. He predicts employees will enjoy the extra free time. But employee happiness isn’t the only factor at play, he noted. “The question is: Can they be more productive?”
Shopify’s success will likely depend on the health of its communication infrastructure. Employers attempting a similar challenge will need to lean on company newsletters, employee intranets, chat platforms and email, Yaverbaum said. Social events like happy hours and club gatherings may carry more weight in the absence of pre- and post-meeting chit-chat.
Emphasizing alternative modes of communication will help mitigate some of the risk that comes with such an experiment. Reduced meetings sounds like a perk, but it could quickly spawn problems that tank the things it set out to improve — things like employee experience, company culture and productivity. “You want to avoid bad consequences, so you need to monitor it on a regular basis,” Yaverbaum said.
Employee pulse surveys can help employers keep track of whether their meeting revolution is serving its purpose. Employers need to know, for example, whether managers can effectively communicate with their reports. Surveys will also help leaders understand whether individual contributors have enough information to be productive with their newly freed time.
If the results disappoint, employers can pivot. “Shopify didn’t commit to doing this forever. They’re trying it,” Yaverbaum said.
Are there alternatives to going cold turkey?
It appears many employers and employees may be trying to reclaim their meeting-free time, even if they’re not cutting them out altogether. Meetings are still up, according to Microsoft data. But they are shrinking: Meetings under 15 minutes make up 60% of all meetings. These brief meetings are also increasing more than any other meeting length — they rose 39% between 2021 and 2022.
For those dreaming of clearer calendars and quieter workdays, there’s no shortage of online advice for keeping meetings short and productive. The New York Times proposes three quippy must-haves for successful meetings: an agenda, a timeline, and an action plan. NPR advises readers to meet only when necessary, to use an agenda and to mind one’s manners, especially when operating remotely. The Harvard Business Review criticizes the impulse to eliminate all meetings and suggests providing training to the managers running meetings.
Whether employers decide to cancel their Zoom memberships or quietly discourage meetings after 4 p.m., the plan of action is less important than the mindset behind it. Employers can show workers they value their time and well-being by being willing to experiment with new practices and procedures, Yaverbaum said. After all, an excess of meetings is far from workers’ only complaint. Employees have expressed their frustration with overloaded inboxes and unwieldy notifications.
As Yaverbaum concluded: “All of corporate America needs to have an open mind.”