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Is it better to have more meetings at work or none at all?

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

It was the announcement heard round the internet - Shopify was doing away with meetings. The e-commerce platform called it useful subtraction, freeing up time to allow people to get stuff done. The news got people talking and wondering, how do you actually do that? NPR's Andrea Hsu and Stacey Vanek Smith take it from here.

STACEY VANEK SMITH, BYLINE: The meeting situation in a lot of jobs has gotten kind of out of control since COVID. In one study, Microsoft found the amount of time workers spend in meetings has more than tripled.

ANDREA HSU, BYLINE: That's a lot of meetings.

VANEK SMITH: Yes.

HSU: But I can see it. Here at NPR, there are a lot of things I could be going to. There is the weekly all-staff.

(SOUNDBITE OF NOTIFICATIONS CHIMING)

VANEK SMITH: There are two weekly pitch meetings.

(SOUNDBITE OF NOTIFICATIONS CHIMING)

HSU: A training session - actually, two of those.

(SOUNDBITE OF NOTIFICATIONS CHIMING)

VANEK SMITH: There's the audience insights meeting.

(SOUNDBITE OF NOTIFICATIONS CHIMING)

VANEK SMITH: And then there are the extracurricular fun meetings like trivia night. Of course, I do love trivia.

HSU: Still, it's easy to see how a lot of us hit peak meeting misery over the past few years. The idea of deleting all those meetings seems so refreshing.

VANEK SMITH: And radical.

HSU: We have been wondering, how are things going at Shopify a month in?

VANEK SMITH: Yes. So we got in a Zoom with Shopify's chief operating officer, Kaz Nejatian.

HSU: He's the one who wrote the memo about purging meetings. It turns out he is as hardcore as he sounds.

KAZ NEJATIAN: All meetings are bad meetings.

VANEK SMITH: Andrea, he's a true believer.

NEJATIAN: We deleted 322,000 hours of meetings.

VANEK SMITH: That is in a company of about 10,000 employees. And they actually wrote code to do this. There is a bot that went into everyone's calendars and purged all recurring meetings with three or more people.

HSU: Now, after two weeks, people were allowed to add things back if they really needed to.

VANEK SMITH: But not on Wednesdays. They have No Meetings Wednesdays, and if you violate that...

NEJATIAN: You get a Slack bot telling you, you booked a meeting at a time you're not allowed to book a meeting. Are you sure you want to do this?

HSU: Nejatian told us most Shopify employees are following the rules. And they're so much happier.

NEJATIAN: I had an intern tell me for the first time in a very long time they got to write code all day.

VANEK SMITH: Apparently, this is what engineers want - just to code in peace.

HSU: (Laughter).

VANEK SMITH: But mostly, he says this moment for Shopify was this big reset. Now people feel empowered to say no to meeting invitations, even when those invitations come from really senior people.

NEJATIAN: People have been saying no to meetings from me, and I'm a COO at a company. And that's great.

HSU: OK, but to be fair, Stacey, in putting this story together, you and I did have a bunch of meetings.

VANEK SMITH: Yes.

HSU: And I thought they were pretty useful.

VANEK SMITH: Yeah. I mean, we tossed ideas back and forth. We roped in our editors. We planned out what we would report.

HSU: It was way better than just Slacking endlessly. But when we asked Kaz Nejatian about this, about collaboration, well, here's what he said.

NEJATIAN: I think collaboration is a wonderful thing. But the largest collaborative things in the world happen without meetings. Every open-source project - open-source software project in the world is created with no meetings. People just collaborate in code.

HSU: And at that point in the conversation, I was kind of lost. I mean, I don't know how to write code. Do you, Stacey?

VANEK SMITH: I do not. Maybe we're doomed to go to meetings, Andrea.

HSU: Yeah. I mean, we've all been in meetings that have gone on way too long, where the conversation has gone off the rails. I get that. But how much we need or don't need meetings - maybe that's not so universal.

VANEK SMITH: Yes. I mean, at Shopify, for instance, everyone is remote. Kaz Nejatian was in the Bahamas when we talked to him. Also, you know, their main product is this digital platform. Maybe they're fine with very few meetings.

HSU: And I get why companies want fewer meetings. For one thing, meetings are expensive. Steven Rogelberg at UNC Charlotte has studied this. He says companies waste tens of millions of dollars forcing people to attend unnecessary meetings.

STEVEN ROGELBERG: I hate meetings. I hate meetings, but...

VANEK SMITH: But, he says, good meetings are critical to a company's success. He says that's how people can be heard. And virtual meetings, he thinks, are actually helping to make meetings better.

ROGELBERG: Inherently, virtual meetings are set up to be much more democratic, right? There's no head of table effects. Everyone is on equal standing around the virtual table.

VANEK SMITH: He loves that people have the option to just drop something into the chat box if they don't want to speak up.

HSU: What's more, he says studies show companies that run excellent meetings are more profitable because their employees are more engaged. They do a better job. On the flipside, disengaged workers end up quiet quitting or actually quitting. We've seen a lot of that lately.

VANEK SMITH: We have. And, you know, Andrea, even if good meetings have value, no one's going to, like, really say they love meetings.

ROGELBERG: That is not socially acceptable, right? But the utterances about how much you hate meetings is completely on brand and universal.

HSU: Now, Rogelberg does see a silver lining here. All of our collective rage about meetings since the pandemic - well, companies are finally paying attention.

ROGELBERG: I mean, I am talking to organizations all the time. And I am just finding the appetite for solutions the highest it's ever been.

VANEK SMITH: In fact, Andrea, just days after Shopify's announcement, we got a memo.

HSU: Yeah. Here at NPR, the hunt for unnecessary meetings is on.

VANEK SMITH: Just as long as they don't cut trivia night.

HSU: Andrea Hsu.

VANEK SMITH: Stacey Vanek Smith, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Andrea Hsu is NPR's labor and workplace correspondent.
Stacey Vanek Smith is the co-host of NPR's The Indicator from Planet Money. She's also a correspondent for Planet Money, where she covers business and economics. In this role, Smith has followed economic stories down the muddy back roads of Oklahoma to buy 100 barrels of oil; she's traveled to Pune, India, to track down the man who pitched the country's dramatic currency devaluation to the prime minister; and she's spoken with a North Korean woman who made a small fortune smuggling artificial sweetener in from China.