Research Brief

The Makeup of Your Team Should Dictate How and When You Have Meetings

Team size and how staffer productivity varies are crucial considerations

By one count, companies fritter away an estimated $25,000 per employee each year on unnecessary meetings — that’s $125 million for a company with 5,000 workers.

Yes, collaborative meetings are certainly necessary at times to keep a team on track and avoid team members either doing unnecessary work or waiting on other members to deliver a key component. And the default for most organizations is a series of weekly meetings. But a fixed schedule doesn’t necessarily adapt to knowledge-based work, like software development, research or product engineering, where uninterrupted solo work is the key to productivity. 

In the end there’s a trade-off between meeting to ensure that everyone is working at full capacity and a department’s productivity dropping to zero every time the entire staff meets.

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In a paper forthcoming in Management Science, INSEAD’s Guillaume Roels and UCLA Anderson’s Charles J. Corbett employ game theory to explore the balance between teams’ need to coordinate and their productivity, taking into account team size and who calls the meeting. They find that different team dynamics can influence the ideal meeting strategy.

To maximize productivity, team members should be able to work uninterrupted as long as possible until a meeting is necessary. Getting this timing right can catapult a team’s efficiency. But a meeting that is deemed unnecessary by one worker may be considered critical by another. The larger the team, the more likely there is to be one laggard constantly needing help from colleagues, and thus seeking a meeting.

Meet or Work

The topic of meetings, of course, is the source of constant workplace complaining, a sentiment buttressed by some prior research, Roels and Corbett note. “Drucker (1967) observed that ‘one either meets or one works. One cannot do both at the same time.’ Cross et al. (2016) warn that the benefits of collaboration are clear but the costs are often ignored.”

Research is surprisingly less abundant, however, on how often and under what circumstances teams should gather. Bloggers take up the topic, Roels and Corbett report, opining on the optimal cadence, on letting the needs of workers dictate schedules and the balance between an organization that meets too frequently and one that suffers from a lack of communication.

Roels and Corbett consider a team in a knowledge-intensive industry — think software programmers — in which work is divided into largely independent tasks but requires periodic coordination for team members to align their efforts.

Defining Meeting Terms

Some meeting rules can be based on workers’ preferences. For instance, an open-door policy allows any team member to interrupt another to request a meeting at any time. Conversely, a closed-door policy allows any team member to decline a request for a meeting if they wish. Other meeting rules can be based only on time elapsed, such as fixed weekly meetings. Meeting rules can also be hybrids, for instance requiring a minimum amount of time to pass between meetings or that a meeting occur after a maximum time from the last meeting.

Using a theoretical model, the researchers find that the optimal coordination strategy depends on the team’s size and how much its members’ collaboration needs and productivity levels are alike. A small team in which members have similar needs and output might thrive under the more flexible, worker-driven rules. Larger teams with more diverse needs and productivity levels could benefit from structured schedules and time-based controls.

For optimal scheduling:

  • In small teams, especially when members have similar production and meeting needs, a worker-driven approach works well. It allows for flexible, “as-needed” meeting scheduling. However, in teams with varying productivity and coordination needs, this method begins to fall apart and teams become less efficient, and time-based rules can work better.
  • For medium-sized teams, hybrid scheduling — where one designated worker decides when coordination occurs — is effective. But open-door and closed-door policies with time constraints between meetings can be even more effective, the researchers surmise, more beneficial in ensuring that all team members’ needs were met.
  • In larger teams, a fixed-interval rule (such as the old weekly meeting) is generally efficient, assuming the interval is chosen reasonably appropriately. However, when there is significant variance in meeting needs and productivity, a voting-based scheme or open-door and closed-door policies with time constraints between meetings can be more effective. This suggests that there is a benefit to customizing meeting strategies even for large teams.

Roels and Corbett’s research prescribes a change in how we approach meetings, advocating for adaptable strategies tailored to team size and diversity. They view their findings as only a starting point for research into the complex dynamics of scheduling meetings rather than a rigid set of rules to be followed.

Featured Faculty

  • Guillaume Roels

    Associate Professor of Decisions, Operations, and Technology Management

  • Charles J. Corbett

    Professor of Operations Management and Sustainability; IBM Chair in Management

About the Research

Roels, G., & Corbett, C. J. (2023). Too many meetings? Scheduling rules for team coordination. Management Science.

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