How do you determine if your employees have “too many” meetings? Too many emails?
I’ve entertained this question many times over the years as part of my interest in “enterprise attention management“. But software vendors have put a new twist on the answer by building products that attempt to provide some data and perspective into this question. For example, Microsoft has been developing capabilities in Microsoft 365 (most recently their Productivity Score) to report on how much time people spend in meetings, along with stats like whether the meetings have many or few attendees. It can also report on the amount of free, unscheduled, or “focus” time.
That’s great, but still only hints at an answer to the common question “what is the right amount of time to spend in meetings?”.
I recently had a client who had hired a consultant to mine the data in their calendar and directory to determine how many meetings they had. They got fascinating results. As you’d expect they were surprised at how much time was locked up by employees in meetings. But then they asked me “what’s the right number?”
Here is how I approach this type of question (and yes, it’s a discussion, not a direct answer):
- The optimal number: I have never found a percentage or number of hours per week to give. Next …
- Benchmarks against other companies: Back to #1, I haven’t seen this type of answer either. Maybe everyone else spends too much or too little time in meetings, too many interruptions, etc.
- Correlating with other measures of success or productivity: This is closer to a useful answer. Comparing to the level of meetings for the clear leaders in a company yields some estimate of how they get work done. It’s certainly worth exploring. Of course, there are lots of factors that lead to success. I’m guessing that number of meetings or emails is way at the bottom of the list. But quantifying communications is an indirect reflection of those factors.
- Process mapping: I’ve written before that there are there are good and bad meetings, good and bad interruptions, good and bad emails. Simple attempts to reduce them take a too-equal swipe across both the good and bad of their type. What I recommend is analyzing the human-oriented communication and collaboration required as parts of key, repeatable business processes. Once the emails or meetings or interruptions are related back to a key business process you can understand why they exist and what some roles or teams may have more of them.
So understanding the communications in context is the key. This could mean formal business process mapping or an hour spent at the whiteboard with people involved at different levels of the process. This is not for the purpose of identifying best practices or creating a model, but just to determine where meetings, emails, interruptions, powerpoints – or anything else you’re trying to get a handle on – fit into a business process.
For example, let say you suspect too many emails, so you analyze the most common topics. You find a seemingly large proportion are related to the quarterly budgeting process. Too many? Well, now you have some context in the form of a process you can tie them to. You map out where emails are sent in the process.
Maybe you find email communication blasts to remind participants of due dates and any changes; informal emails on each team as they generate budget figures; emails with their portion of the overall spreadsheet back to the coordinator; emails to nag those who haven’t responded; email out final budget; a dozen emails or so on questions; and so on. Now you can start answering “Are there too many emails?” You can look specifically at each type and divide the good emails from the bad ones (or ones better handled another way) and eliminate the bad only. At the same time you’re learning “what is the value of email?” Within this process you can show what purpose the emails serve in this process. Maybe it convinces you to encapsulate many of these emails into the budgeting system instead of using email, which would eliminate a large swath of emails and, more importantly, ensure the company is now more productive because of the change.
Sure, it would be great to have someone tell you “the optimal number of emails per day is 73 and 1.75 hrs spend in meetings”. But if over those amounts you’d still have to figure out which emails and meetings to block, which would lead you back to the effort of mapping them to your business process to determine purpose and separate good from bad of their kind.
When it comes to attention management there are no easy answers today, just a more relaxed and productive future.
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