Study: Meetings with agendas are less wanted, but they work

Meetings can be time-sucking vortexes that steal our attention and energy. The formality of forced participation and setting an agenda can seem like a needless hassle when you can just communicate what you want over a quick email. But here’s some bad news for those of us who hate meetings — they actually work.

In a study that compared the formal communication of meetings with the informal communication of emails and phone calls in industrial companies, formal communication came out on top. Across 73 manufacturing plants in 18 countries, meetings, with their standard protocols of timing and set participation, were better at preventing operational glitches that held up supply chains and delayed deliveries than informal emails and phone calls.

“The relatively inexpensive formal system of periodic cross-functional meetings turned out to be the only effective channel to communicate and mitigate the impact of internal and customer glitches,” business professors Antti Tenhiälä and Fabrizio Salvador wrote in their paper for Decision Sciences.

Meetings remove questions about whose job it is to do what

If you prefer emails and calls over meetings, you are not alone. Humans naturally prefer the spontaneity of a phone call and email over the coercive, “artificial organization-specific protocols” of meetings, researchers found, citing previous research. But this preference of communication did not translate to effectiveness. Overall, the researchers found that the formal process of a meeting was more effective at removing the ambiguity of who was going to address a glitch and how it was going to be resolved.

“According to our interviewees, formal interpersonal channels are particularly apt at enabling such interactive cross-functional communications,” the researchers wrote. “They ensure reciprocity while simultaneously enforcing formal protocols, guaranteeing that the relevant parties receive, understand, and act upon the exception messages.”

Good meetings with agendas and the right participants hold us accountable to what we say we are going to do. That’s not to say that getting on the phone and calling someone is useless in a company. The researchers suggested that when unexpected events happen, informal communication is useful, but less useful when it comes to day-to-day operations.

“[Emails] turned out to be the most popular channel in this study … yet they only had a complementary role in the mitigation of glitches,” the researchers concluded. “All this suggests that the formal communication channels may have a worse reputation than they deserve.”