Big, Frequent Meetings Are Unproductive and Crowd Out Deep Thought

(p. 7) To figure out why the workers in Microsoft’s device unit were so dissatisfied with their work-life balance, the organizational analytics team examined the metadata from their emails and calendar appointments. The team divided the business unit into smaller groups and looked for differences in the patterns between those where people were satisfied and those where they were unhappy.

It seemed as if the problem would involve something about after-hours work. But no matter how Ms. Klinghoffer and Mr. Fuller crunched the data, there weren’t any meaningful correlations to be found between groups that had a lot of tasks to do at odd times and those that were unhappy. Gut instincts about overwork just weren’t supported by the numbers.

The two kept iterating until something emerged in the data. People in Mr. Ostrum’s division were spending an awful lot of time in meetings: an average of 27 hours a week. That wasn’t so much more than the typical team at Microsoft. But what really distinguished those teams with low satisfaction scores from the rest was that their meetings tended to include a lot of people — 10 or 20 bodies arrayed around a conference table coordinating plans, as opposed to two or three people brainstorming ideas.

The issue wasn’t that people had to fly to China or make late-night calls. People who had taken jobs requiring that sort of commitment seemed to accept these things as part of the deal. The issue was that their managers were clogging their schedules with overcrowded meetings, reducing available hours for tasks that rewarded more focused concentration — thinking deeply about trying to solve a problem.

Data alone isn’t insight. But once the Microsoft executives had shaped the data into a form they could understand, they could better question employees about the source of their frustrations. Staffers’ complaints about spending evenings and weekends catching up with more solitary forms of work started to make more sense. Now it was clearer why the first cuts of the data didn’t reveal the problem. An engineer sitting down to do individual work for several hours on a Saturday afternoon probably wouldn’t bother putting it on her calendar, or create digital exhaust in the form of trading emails with colleagues during that time.

Anyone familiar with the office-drone lifestyle might scoff at what it took Microsoft to get here. Does it really take that much analytical firepower, and the acquisition of an entire start-up, to figure out that big meetings make people sad?

For the full story, see:

Neil Irwin. “How to Win at Winner-Take-All.” The New York Times, SundayBusiness Section (Sunday, June 15, 2019): 1 & 6-7.

(Note: the online version of the story has the date June 15, 2019, and has the title “The Mystery of the Miserable Employees: How to Win in the Winner-Take-All Economy.”)

The article quoted above, is adapted from:

Irwin, Neil. How to Win in a Winner-Take-All World: The Definitive Guide to Adapting and Succeeding in High-Performance Careers. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2019.

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