Meeting Size Matters

Let’s talk about meeting size! Nearly everyone in corporate life has been a participant in a meeting that just had too many people. Intuitively, we know that often large meetings are only effective for certain categories of meetings (e.g., announcements). We also intuitively know that a meeting with, say, one hundred participants, is not going to be collaborative in the same way that a meeting is with three to five participants.

Research backs this intuition up. As meetings grow larger, they become less effective and more expensive. This is especially true of remote meetings (video or audio calls). “More expensive” here is not limited to the hourly cost of each employee in the meeting. Ineffective meetings have long-lasting consequences on employee engagement, motivation, and productivity.

As a company grows the average meeting size often tends to creep up. Part of this is the natural consequence of adding more people to the team. However, there are other factors that perhaps encourage meeting organizers to include more people than they ought to.

  • A “CYA”1 culture may lead to people including others in meetings “just for their awareness” and implicit approval. If Sally is in a meeting where a decision is made and she later objects, then other participants can respond, “But, Sally, we were all in the meeting when we made this decision and you didn’t object!”
  • Fear of missing out on critical information may lead to some people asking to be included in some meetings where they are not necessary.

Why are large meetings less effective? There are a couple of reasons that are offered up in a paper by Joseph A. Allen, Jiajin Tong, and Nicole Landowski2.

  • As the paper puts it, “communication becomes more difficult as the group’s size increases.” If a meeting is twenty minutes long and includes twenty people, only a handful of people will be able to actively participate. Passive observers are much less engaged.
  • Some participants may be reluctant to raise their voice in a larger crowd, which leads to lower overall participation and engagement.
  • Large group meetings often suffer from a higher dead-time ratio: issues with connectivity, microphones, audio, accidental unmutes, distracting chat conversations, etc. All of this contributes to less engagement with the agenda at-hand.

How might we attempt to fight against the trend of larger meetings? One effective strategy is to encourage better agendas and meeting notes. A good agenda indicates the type of meeting and clearly sets the goals of the meeting. If we know the goals of the meeting, we can evaluate who should be included and narrow down that list where possible. Once we have meeting notes, we can build a short summary (decisions made, next steps) that can be distributed to others for a quick read rather than inviting them to an hour-long discussion.

“Measure What Matters” is both a mantra and the title of a book that has been influential amongst the management cognoscenti. Keeping an eye on metrics that are indicative of the health of a business is just good management practice.

If one agrees that meeting size (and number of meetings, length of meetings, and more) is an important health metric, then it stands to reason that it should be made observable and monitored over time. This is where Calendaristic comes in with an organization-wide meeting health dashboard. Our landing page shows two important metrics that can be further filtered down by department:

  • Average meeting size for internal-only meetings. This is important to differentiate from meetings that include external participants (e.g., sales demos).
  • Average meeting size for external meetings.

sample chart

Both of these can be trended over time for a quick glimpse into trends. Further, companies can opt in to comparisons against other similar companies in the same industry. Another feature still in the pipeline is to monitor thresholds; if you want to be alerted once your average meeting size passes a certain point, we can do that.

If you’d like to give this a spin, try it out now (you can even use your Gmail account!).