ADVICE: Optimizing meetings: a critical post-pandemic task for physician leaders
Aaron Johnston, MD
Meetings and committees occupy a significant amount of the working time of physician leaders and their teams. The amount of time spent in meetings has grown over decades and that growth has rapidly accelerated over the COVID-19 pandemic. The return to in-person work offers physician leaders the opportunity to optimize their meetings by thinking about the entire suite of meetings they and their teams are involved in. Creating a meeting inventory and evaluating it can reveal patterns, inefficiencies, and redundancies that can become targets for optimization. Effective meetings can create a competitive advantage for leaders, teams, and organizations and can support productivity and job satisfaction. Meeting optimization should be a high priority for physician leaders.
Johnston A. Optimizing meetings: a critical post-pandemic task for physician leaders. Can J Physician Leadersh 2022;8(3):99-102
Physician leaders spend a significant amount of their working time in committees and meetings. The frequency and length of meetings have been increasing steadily in industry over decades,1 and have rapidly accelerated over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic.2 Among senior managers, 65% said meetings kept them from completing their own work while 64% felt that meetings came at the expense of deep thinking.1
The option of virtual meetings has moved meeting culture outside of the office and, where many physician leaders were previously able to confine meetings to certain times or days of the week, many now stretch into early mornings and evenings or occur alongside clinical duties. New committees formed to address challenges arising from the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as existing committees, often increased their meeting frequency to address new and emerging challenges related to the pandemic. Virtual meetings were initially a way to keep teams engaged and connected, but, over time, issues of Zoom fatigue, technical factors, and engagement issues have become important themes.3
In the literature, a focus has been on making individual meetings effective, but relatively little attention has been given to understanding the suite of meetings that occur within organizations as a whole and how they fit together and connect to the purpose, principles, and production of an organization. The first step in creating a successful meeting is determining whether it is necessary and then defining its purpose and the participants required to ensure success.4 As a return to the physical workspace occurs, leaders can evaluate the meeting landscape for themselves and their teams and make improvements that can support both productivity and job satisfaction.
Creating a meeting inventory
The first step in optimizing meetings is creating a detailed inventory for yourself and your team. Include all types of meetings in this inventory. For each meeting, record the frequency, duration, and timing. Consider whether the meeting is under your control. Do you run the meeting? Do you set the timing and agenda or are you there to inform others of their schedule? Do you decide when to attend the meeting? Consider your importance to the meeting: how often is your presence critical to the meeting’s success? How effective is the meeting in achieving its goals? Finally, categorize the meetings into types, such as information sharing, strategic meetings, decision meetings, etc. Collect all the data from your inventory and from your team’s inventories into a table for further analysis (Table 1).
Evaluating your meeting inventory
As you create an inventory for your department, patterns, inefficiencies, and redundancies may begin to emerge. Perhaps you are spending the same amount of time meeting with an experienced direct report who needs little guidance as you are with a new hire who needs significant support and direction. Perhaps your schedule is dominated by low-effectiveness meetings or meetings are stacked heavily into certain workdays creating meeting fatigue and limiting effectiveness.
The frequency of meetings impacts value, and optimizing meeting frequency is a key step in managing the meeting suite of your team. Meetings that are too frequent can lose sight of the big picture and get lost in detail as a way of filling up the meeting space. For example, a weekly one-on-one meeting with a highly productive direct report may focus too much on the details of that person’s work. Less frequent meetings could lead to more meaningful updates and focus on important bigger picture issues. On the other hand, infrequent meetings can be problematic, as the team may struggle to maintain the work without direction. Consider whether the work done at infrequent meetings can be combined into an aligned work stream or if it needs to take place at all.
You may identify meetings where the original task of the group has been completed or is no longer relevant to the team or organization. A common phenomenon is a highly effective team that accomplishes its goal but continues to meet because they have enjoyed working together. Remember, the fifth stage of Tuckman’s small-group development is adjournment.5 Even great teams and great meetings can come to a natural end.
Identifying inefficiencies and redundancies is critical in optimizing the meeting suite of your team. You will likely find meetings with overlap that may be combined, meetings that are too frequent or run too long, and meetings or committees that have more members than required.
External meetings, meetings that you or your team are a part of but do not control, deserve special attention. Where the role of your team in these meetings is to bring its perspective, a single representative from your team is desirable. Where the purpose of the meeting is purely informational or where there is rare overlap with your team’s core work, consider being a communicating member, receiving minutes and communications but not attending every meeting.
Every committee and meeting should be able to articulate its own purpose and how it connects to the overall purpose, principles, and production of the team and organization. Making this connection clear and apparent supports the success of meetings. Where there is no clear connection to the overall goals, cancellation of the meeting or committee should be considered.
Optimizing your team’s suite of meetings can create a competitive advantage for your team and your organization. Meetings are expensive, and unnecessary meetings can distract from the core work and purpose of your team. Reviewing the entire suite of committees and meetings your team is involved in will allow you to make changes that will support productivity and job satisfaction.
Each meeting should be optimized in terms of frequency, duration, timing, and modality (e.g., in person or virtual). The frequency and duration of many meetings increased during the last two years, but the status quo should not be assumed. For each meeting, consider the work that it supports and whether less frequent or shorter meetings could accomplish that. Consider the timing, not only of individual meetings but also of the suite of meetings as a whole, so that they are spread out over the work week and time for focused work and deep thinking is maintained.
The organization and running of meetings need not all fall on the leader. Delegating leadership of some meetings can improve performance and support employee growth. Creating an optimized suite of meetings will allow the meetings themselves to be more effective and will also create space outside of meetings for deep thinking, creativity, and completion of day-to-day tasks of work.
Change can be hard, and leaders should approach optimizing meetings with change management in mind. Team members may feel loss as an ineffective but fun committee ends or may feel left out as meeting membership is streamlined. It is important to understand the psychology that supports the continuation of ineffective meeting patterns in organizations.6 Leaders must be clear with their teams about the purpose and potential of optimizing meetings and be open to navigating the challenges that will arise as with any change.
The return to in-person work provides a logical opportunity for physician leaders to optimize the committee and meeting involvement of their teams, and should be a high priority for physician leaders. Leaders can make improvements by considering the entire suite of meetings in which they and their team are involved and using an organized approach to eliminate redundancies and low-value meetings and to optimize the frequency, duration, timing, and modality of each meeting. Optimizing meetings can create a competitive advantage for leaders, teams, and organizations and can support productivity and job satisfaction.
6.Whillans A, Feldman D, Wisniewski, D. The psychology behind meeting overload. Harv Bus Rev 2021;12 Nov. Available: https://tinyurl.com/5n85558w
Aaron Johnston, MD, CCFP-EM, FCFP, is an emergency physician in Calgary and the associate dean of Distributed Learning and Rural Initiatives at the Cumming School of Medicine. He is a former CCFP-EM residency program director and current chair of the College of Family Physicians of Canada’s section of teachers. He has interests in medical education, leadership, and faculty engagement.