'Useful subtraction' | By axing meetings, Shopify sets a blueprint for reducing staff burnout

By axing meetings, Shopify sets a blueprint for reducing staff burnout

Shopify has axed thousands of meetings from employee schedules for the coming weeks, while also encouraging employees to turn down any meetings they see fit.

According to an internal memo, seen by the likes of Bloomberg and CNN, the Canada-based multinational e-commerce giant is to scrap previously scheduled recurring meetings involving three or more employees. Additionally, it will impose a minimum two week ban on reinstating any of these events back to work calendars.

COO Kaz Nejatian also said in the memo that one of Shopify’s previous initiatives, “meeting-free Wednesdays” will be reintroduced.

According to the company’s own calculations, these moves, described by Nejatian as “useful subtraction,” will remove up to 10,000 events from employee schedules, freeing up more than 76,500 hours.

Nejatian added that, after the two-week meeting ban, employees will be encouraged to cancel meetings that they deem unnecessary.

Meeting-free workdays gain traction as a way of boosting productivity and wellbeing

Shopify is not the first, nor will it be the last company to realise the benefits of vastly reducing the number of working hours taken up by meetings – chief among them being potential boosts to morale and productivity and a drop in burnout levels, with this latter issue being especially important at this time of year, when many employees are feeling recharged after a Christmas break and desperate to uphold that vigour.

In 2021, The Guardian reported that Jane Fraser, the Chief Executive of Citigroup, told staff that the last working day of the week would be known as “Zoom-free Fridays” to give staff members a break from the “relentlessness of the pandemic workday”.

In a memo to staff, Fraser said: “I know, from your feedback and my own experience, the blurring of lines between home and work and the relentlessness of the pandemic workday have taken a toll on our wellbeing. It’s simply not sustainable.”

She continued: “After listening to colleagues around the world, it became apparent that we need to combat the ‘Zoom fatigue’ that many of us feel, so I overcame my initial resistance to this idea,” she continued.

“We are a global company that operates across time zones, but when our work regularly spills over into nights, very early mornings and weekends, it can prevent us from recharging fully, and that isn’t good for you nor, ultimately, for Citi,” the investment bank’s CEO added.

That same year, Uber introduced 'meeting-free Mondays'. The taxi and food delivery company earmarked two Mondays of summer 2021 to be meeting-free, to give employees a break from back-to-back calls.

Uber’s Chief People Officer, Nikki Krishnamurthy, sent a company-wide email, detailing the plans which, it was hoped, would allow employees time to recharge.

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Krishnamurthy told colleagues: “We know it can be tiring to have back-to-back meetings with no time to focus.”

She added: “We thought it’d be a good opportunity to allow everyone to have focus time.

“You’ll see a block appearing on your calendars soon and encourage you to reschedule any meetings to other days.”

Back in 2019, media company TheSoul Publishing effectively decided to do away with internal meetings and moved towards an asynchronous communications policy. With an 80% remote-first workforce of over 2,700 employees spread across 70 countries, banning meetings forms a key part of this comms policy, which is a move away from communication that requires an immediate response.

Reduce meetings rather than scrap them entirely

Others, such as Founder and CEO of RemotePRJobs, Andrea Holland, see the concept of banning meetings altogether to be a little extreme, and instead opt to limit them to just two days out of the week. Taking to LinkedIn, she noted: “I’m a huge fan of blocking out days for NO meetings at all and instead a focus on deep work. Also, adjusting meetings to be 15 min touch base syncs is another great way to be productive.”

However, responding to Holland’s comments, Executive Coach Joshua Luna noted that the focus shouldn’t be on the frequency of meetings, but instead how effective they are at their goal. “Love the idea of meeting-free days, but they become pointless if they only shuffle more work to the other days of the week. At the end of the day, it comes down to being intentional with your time. At the very least, assess if the meetings you create or participate in need to be as long as they are and set firm boundaries if your calendar sways towards less impactful items,” he concluded.

Are we too reliant on meetings?

It’s an age-old question in business; are meetings truly a necessary part of working life, or do they simply clog up the working day with largely pointless conversations? You’d be hard-pressed to find an executive who doesn’t consider the inconceivable volume of meetings in their calendar to be at least a low-level annoyance, even if they deemed them necessary.

Yet, the fact is that the majority of the day for executives is overrun with wall-to-wall meetings; research by the University of Amsterdam found that meetings keep most senior managers from completing their work, with executives spending nearly 23 hours a week in them on average.

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Employees feel the same way too; even before the pandemic moved meetings to online, one survey of 1,945 workers by consulting firm Korn Ferry found that 67% of respondents felt that too many meetings harmed their impact at work, with 34% wasting up to five hours per week on pointless ones.

Yet now, as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, even more casual conversations across a desk or at the water cooler are now half-hour Zoom calls and meetings with likely multiple unnecessary attendants. In fact, analysis of employees' meeting invitations at 21,500 global companies by Harvard Business School, conducted in the throes of the pandemic, revealed that although meetings were an average of 12 minutes shorter in length versus pre-pandemic, people were attending 13% more of them, with the number of invitees rising by 14%.

Along with the annoyance and frustration that unnecessary meetings cause, being required to attend so many also pushes back important work, and therefore extends the working day. Inevitably, this puts many in danger of burnout, despite the fact that Cisco’s hybrid work index recently revealed that 52% of meeting attendees in August (out of 650M attendees) didn’t even say a word in a meeting, and were therefore likely an unnecessary complication to an already convoluted system.

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