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Scientific study finds meetings at work decrease employee well-being, but not for everyone


How are things going at work? While there has plenty written on a wide variety of factors affecting employee well-being – on everything from management style and organizational structure to the effects of ergonomic furniture and natural lighting – the "elephant in the room" in our workplaces is something that almost everyone complains about but no one has studied: how much time we spend in meetings.

In the average workplace, there are lots of meetings. Reports indicate that the average number of meetings at work more than doubled in the second half of the 20th Century and time spent in meetings keeps growing. While the importance of this change has been largely unnoticed, a new study on the effects of meetings on worker well-being reveals some surprising dynamics behind modern meeting mania, with broad implications for the effects on morale and productivity.

The report, written by a team of researchers led by industrial and organizational psychologist Steven G. Rogelberg from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, appears in the March issue of the Journal of Applied Psychology. It describes the first international scientific study ever performed on the effects of meeting time on employee well-being, based on the responses of 980 employees to two work surveys.

One of the report’s findings was that more people actually view meetings as a positive part of the workday than they will admit publicly.

"When speaking publicly, people generally claim that they hate meetings," said Rogelberg, "but in the surveys you see a different story – some people’s private sentiments are much more positive.

"It’s an interesting finding because it really helps to explain why we have all these meetings. And, though they are typically publicly negative, overwhelmingly people say that they want the day to have at least one meeting. They have to feel like they are accomplishing something positive in their meetings to produce this response," he said.

The two surveys tested the impact of meetings on employees in two different contexts – at the end of a specific day and in general, by examining the number of meetings employees had in a typical week.

The study finds that for some individuals meetings function as interruptions and for others they are welcome events. The effects of meetings on worker well-being is "moderated" by three different factors – by whether jobs specifically require group work, by whether the meetings were efficiently run, and, perhaps critically, by where the worker falls on the personality scale of her/his "accomplishment striving."

"People differ on this accomplishment striving personality scale," Rogelberg explained. "In general, you can think of people who are high in accomplishment striving are those individuals who are very task-focused, who are very goal-focused, who have goals and objectives for the day that they want to get accomplished. People who have low accomplishment striving are not slackers, though -- they are just individuals with a much more flexible orientation to work and like to allow the agenda for the day to emerge much more naturally."

The study finds that people who are high in accomplishment striving are predictably and negatively impacted by meetings, particularly when they are frequent. Numerous short meetings have a greater impact on their well-being than a few long meetings taking the same amount of time.

However, survey participants who scored low in accomplishment striving were positively impacted by meetings. They appeared to be welcome events rather than interruptions. More time in meetings was associated with a greater sense of well-being.

"People who are high in accomplishment striving look at meetings more from the perspective of seeing them as barriers to getting real work done," Rogelberg said. "But the others may view meetings as a way to structure their day or a way to network and socialize. As a result, these people see meetings as a good thing."

Rogelberg notes that there are some curious social paradigms operating that disguise the dynamic.

"It is socially unacceptable to talk about liking meetings, unless someone else starts talking about it," he said, explaining why the low accomplishment striving folks do not go public with their preference for meeting. "And it is also interesting that the people who are high on accomplishment striving are not complaining more the others. The toll that meetings take seems to be much more subtle. If you ask these individuals if they are more dissatisfied with the meetings, they don’t report anything different from those who enjoy meetings," he said.

Steven Rogelberg is Associate Professor of Psychology at UNC Charlotte, where he is director of the Industrial and Organizational Psychology and Organizational Science graduate programs as well as the Organizational Science Consulting and Research Unit. He also affiliated with UNC Charlotte’s Department of Management .

James Hathaway | EurekAlert!
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