Dirk Schmachtenberg is Managing Director of the management and technology consultancy Plan D. His areas of expertise are innovation, strategy development and digitization.
Mr. Schmachtenberg, why do we have so many meetings when they often don't work?
The mistake is usually that you don't think about the goal of the meeting. Many are performed in relatively large circles by default. It is not clear who is supposed to contribute what. This leads neither to productivity nor to satisfaction among the participants. There are actually three reasons for meetings: either you want to work out something together, you have routine coordination, or the focus is on social exchange.
Is it this goal that the classic jour fixe meetings lack?
Yes I think so. Jour fixe meetings are good when you really need routine coordination. However, there is often no agenda and I personally find these meetings usually far too long.
What is the maximum length of a jour fixe?
It is interesting that meetings usually last as long as they are scheduled. If I schedule a meeting for an hour, it lasts an hour. Jour fixes actually last one to two hours. Half an hour would usually be sufficient.
What is the economic impact on companies when so much time is spent in unproductive meetings?
Economically, you can save half the meeting time. It makes sense to use meetings to promote social interaction, but otherwise the economic damage is immense. I myself multiplied the estimated hourly rates of those present by the duration of the meeting. That was pretty scary.
How much does a meeting cost?
If managers are present and you also consider the costs for office, work materials and so on, most meetings cost well over 1000 euros an hour.
If you transfer this to large corporations, it is a huge cost factor.
In any case. Another problem here is that in very few corporate cultures there is a reasonable documentation of meetings for those who did not attend. The motivation to take part in meetings is therefore very high. The same applies to emails, where many people like to be cc'd. All of this can quickly take up to 80 percent of the working time.
Amazon, for example, has already introduced the documentation of meetings. And at Tesla there is a rule that employees can simply leave conferences if they realize that the content is not relevant to them. Is that a good idea or could it damage the corporate culture?
The question is how radically this will be implemented. In my opinion, Amazon has done this very consistently. Each meeting starts with a quarter of an hour, in which everyone can first read up on the topic. Beforehand, the person who called the meeting must write down what he actually wants from those present. At the end, the outcome of the meeting must be documented.
And at Tesla?
It's the case that anyone can call a meeting, but doesn't necessarily have to stay. This is not suitable for all companies, for example banks or insurance companies, where reports need to be generated. But especially with creative processes, I think it's basically good if you don't have to spend hours in meetings without being able to contribute anything.
SAP has meeting-free days, Shopify has just canceled all recurring meetings with more than two people. What good can that do?
I really like the idea. In corporations today it is very difficult to find time in which one can actually work productively. A day off when you just have time is incredibly valuable. I think that many have now forgotten how to work with concentration for two or three hours. Meetings, emails or chats constantly interrupt work. We know neurologically that this is not good for creativity because the brain has to restart over and over again.
If I as an employee have a meeting-free day, how can I organize it optimally?
It is important to give yourself an inner structure and to set a goal. What do I want to do, what do I ideally want to have achieved at the end of the day? It doesn't matter if things don't go as planned. On a communication-free day, you should not work in a rage, but plan breaks as well.
Now you even talked about a communication-free day. Does that also mean: no emails or teams messages?
It doesn't have to be so dogmatic. I just think it's helpful to schedule at least a window of time to turn off email and mute the phone. Then you take another half hour to work through the accumulated messages. You could try such a thinking or working day to experience it. For many, that's no longer the case.
How do companies know which meetings to cut? Can artificial intelligence (AI) help with this?
With the help of AI and data, it is possible to identify the relevance of topics. At the moment, AI is making great strides, especially in the area of natural language processing. This allows you to evaluate which topics are discussed and how often. If we think of a manufacturing company, routine issues such as occupational safety or smoke detection systems will probably take up a relatively large amount of space. With such an analysis, human resources can be used more sensibly.
But that assumes meetings are properly named and have an agenda, right?
I agree. Having a clear topic for the appointment, a clear objective and a summary of the results would be a great step forward.
Would these be your three tips for making meetings more productive?
Yes, those are the main points. In addition, the participants should fit the appointment and only spend as much time as is really necessary.
What about a maximum number of participants?
At Amazon, the maximum is a "two-pizza team", i.e. eight to twelve people. I think that's quite a lot, less is actually better.
They are clearly in favor of reducing meetings. Are you in line with the trend?
Yes for sure. The meeting culture encourages the diffusion of responsibility and many recognize that large meetings bring little productivity. Especially in the context of remote work, it is very important to categorize what you actually want with a meeting.
This interview first appeared here on Capital.