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Employees work at the Shopify office in Toronto.Chris Donovan/The Globe and Mail

Rob Csernyik is a freelance journalist.

During my pandemic-era foray in corporate communications work, my manager decided to track our workflow. What we found was that about 20 per cent of my time was spent in meetings. It didn’t feel overwhelming and offered me ample time to work on tasks. But my manager’s response surprised me: Ideally I should spend closer to 40 per cent or 50 per cent of my time in meetings.

While I was shocked, I needn’t have been. Among many of my meetings were ones for a newly created committee straight out of a Dilbert cartoon. Its main function was having meetings to determine how frequently and when we should meet.

This week, e-commerce giant Shopify SHOP-T announced it would axe several categories of meetings. These include meetings on Wednesdays and recurring meetings with more than two participants, as well as meetings with 50 participants or more most days of the week. In one fell swoop, the company estimates, about 10,000 events have vanished from employee calendars.

Shopify’s willingness to experiment offers a signal that after nearly three years of “a new normal,” a long-overdue corporate reckoning on the value of excessive meetings may be afoot. It takes on a special urgency as some companies require workers to work onsite again, eager to restore an in-person company culture and monitor workers.

One characteristic of modern workplaces is a perennial fear that employees are somehow stealing time back from companies, costing them financially and in terms of productivity. This is true in all workplaces from fast-food joints to corporate office towers.

That’s why Shopify’s plan feels radical even today – or maybe especially today – when once-rare levels of flexibility such as working from home or four-day workweeks are more common than ever. For long, many workplaces are more likely to offer perks such as pool tables, beer taps or free snacks rather than to give employees their time back.

That reflects recently simmering fears that, as people worked from home amid the pandemic without the same supervision an office affords, enough time would be stolen that productivity would dip. But when Statistics Canada surveyed new teleworkers – employees who’d previously worked outside the home prior to COVID-19 – 58 per cent said they accomplished about the same amount of work per hour, and 32 per cent reported accomplishing more.

Trimming back on meetings pushes productivity goals even further. In 2022, the Harvard Business Review online published survey data on 76 companies which found that a 40-per-cent reduction in meetings increased employee productivity by 71 per cent.

This is principally because the move gave workers greater feelings of autonomy and empowerment, a benefit which requires granting employees more ownership and trust over schedules. Michael C. Mankins and Eric Garton noted in their 2017 book Time, Talent, Energy that one characteristic that helps big organizations be most productive is that employees have time to focus on work, instead of being stuck in unnecessary meetings or bureaucracy.

There’s a ripple effect to that, too – as meetings decline, employees spend less time preparing for them. The pesky small periods of time between meetings, where it can be hard to accomplish meaningful work, also vanish.

Not every meeting needs to disappear. Some, for instance, are useful to convey complex processes to large groups of people, co-ordinate team projects or brainstorm ideas in real time. My manager at my former communications job likely pictured me spending more time in purposeful meetings like this. Yet many pandemic-era meetings I took part in were unnecessary. Some well-meaning colleagues wanted to discuss issues that could have been resolved in a quick e-mail exchange. Other meetings were excessively bloated by being poorly paced, by participants going off topic or personal chitchat taking up time before or after. It likely comes as little surprise that the job wasn’t a long-term fit.

While these meetings offered the appearance of accomplishing something, they didn’t make me a more productive worker. If anything they gave me more limited space to work during business hours and contributed to feelings of Zoom fatigue, the weariness felt after excessive online meetings spent sitting, staring at a screen.

As a society, we’re long past a point where we need to continue to have meetings to fill time or offer a false sense of accomplishment. Workers expect more than this today, but what may finally tip the scales isn’t going to be the relative benefits for them – though that alone should be enough reason. Instead, it’s that having an honest dialogue like Shopify has started, about their connection to productivity, offers a simple answer to long-debated question. Companies wanting to take back wasted time need only follow Shopify’s lead – it’s time to start pruning those calendars.

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