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Is your diary filled with back-to-back meetings with no time for actual work? Here’s how to streamline meetings to improve productivity and effective collaboration.

In a meeting or about to jump on a call even though you have a mountain of work to get through? Even before the pandemic, unnecessary meetings were a frustrating time sap, interrupting workflow and harming productivity. The switch to remote and hybrid work has exacerbated the problem, with meetings increasing in frequency and length to compensate for reductions in in-person collaboration.

Owing to the twin demands of professional services, lawyers often spend a large portion of an average workday in meetings with external clients and internal colleagues, putting additional pressure on an already considerable workload.

There is no doubt humans are social beings, and that legal work is collaborative and service-based, but rethinking meeting culture can help to streamline processes, prevent burnout and drive productivity.

Demand for meetings

An estimated 15 per cent of an organisation’s time is swallowed by meetings, with middle managers spending 35 per cent and upper managers a whopping 50 per cent of their workday yapping in meetings, according to transcription service Research by Atlassian shows workers attend an average of 62 meetings each month – around three each day – with half of these get-togethers classed as wasted time.

Neal Woolrich, director of HR advisory at research and consulting firm Gartner, says there are three key issues plaguing meeting culture in law firms: a tendency to meet too often, lack of a clear objective for meetings, and inviting unnecessary people to meetings. “A lot of organisations fall back on meetings as that crutch to get things done,” he says, even though the result is often quite the opposite.

Instigating too many meetings can be a form of buck-passing that deprives workers of their time, says Ben Deverson, director of legal industry management consultancy Lawganised.

“Meetings can bring a sense of calmness to individuals who want to run them, but unfortunately that stress is often passed onto the people who probably don’t need to be there.”

During the pandemic, the transition to remote and hybrid work has increased dependence on meetings as a facilitator of connection and accountability. “It’s a very different way of working and we don’t really know how to manage effectively in the new environment, so we’re falling back on too many meetings as a coping mechanism,” Woolrich says.

As a result, the number of meetings attended by workers has skyrocketed – in particular, check-ins and one-on-one get-togethers. “With Zoom and Teams, it’s really easy to call somebody instead of having to set up a meeting,” Deverson says. “Have you got five seconds? You never do – it’s always 30 minutes.”

The demands of working in professional services add another dimension to meeting culture in law firms – one that’s less easily negotiated, explains Deverson. “In professional services, which is essentially a people business, you have internal meetings and then you’ve also got client-facing meetings. There must be a priority applied to who’s paying the bills.”

He says appointment scheduling platforms like Calendly that allow clients to book meetings can exacerbate the lack of diary control experienced by many lawyers.

“You’ve got to be really careful in how you manage these tools,” Deverson says.

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Two-thirds of workers complain that spending too much time in meetings affects productivity.

Calculating the cost

Unsurprisingly, the time cost of meetings is significant, with two-thirds of workers complaining that spending too much time in meetings affects productivity.

“There’s been this general overreliance on meetings and people not appreciating that collaboration and innovation can actually happen outside of meetings,” Woolrich says.

He cities research by Gartner that shows employees are typically most innovative during asynchronous work – working alone – compared to synchronous work that occurs with other people in meetings. Just 13 per cent of people reported getting their best work done in in-person meetings compared to 54 per cent who hit their stride while working alone remotely.

“When you put a document on a shared server or channel and you give people the option to add their comments, that’s where innovation and collaboration can also happen among a team even though they’re not working synchronously,” Woolrich says.

Beyond day-to-day productivity, spending too much time in meetings has ongoing implications for health and wellbeing. “Sometimes it can be coming from a good place, people thinking that they need to have a collaborative culture in organisations, but if we overplay that need for collaboration it can lead to too many meetings, which can lead to burnout and fatigue,” Woolrich says.

Managing your time

Reducing the amount of time spent in meetings starts with assessing the purpose of gathering. What are you trying to achieve? What value are you adding by having a meeting? “If you can’t clearly define that, chances are you’re calling that meeting unnecessarily,” Woolrich says.

Giving people the opportunity to opt out of meetings, either entirely or to leave once they’ve contributed, is another effective strategy – one that in a remote setting is as simple as clicking a button.

Crucially, Woolrich says, senior leaders must model this behaviour for it to become embedded in the firm’s culture.

“If you see partners attending every meeting that they are invited to and don’t feel as though they’re adding value, that sets the tone for the rest of the organisation,” he says.

Likewise, Deverson suggests fixing the issue of being “delegated to by staff” – cue a meeting to workshop solutions – by empowering employees to solve problems. “Instead of people coming to you and saying, ‘The client just rang and said this – what do I do?’, people can investigate three or four strategies to resolve the issue and present them to you,” he says. “You will save time in the end.”

Client meetings are of course more difficult to streamline. Deverson suggests using online forms and other electronic tools to allow clients to input personal details and information before meetings, which saves the lawyer time and the client money.

It can also be helpful to book time in your calendar for meeting-free work. “It could be that you’ve got a significant brief to prepare or a project due. Rather than start them at 7pm, which we all do, book a time in your diary during the afternoon and call it ‘work time’ or ‘project time’,” Deverson says.

“It’s important to book yourself time, otherwise all you do is meet and meet and meet. Then when do you get the actual work done?”