During a recent interview, someone asked me the following questions: “You say to make every meeting optional. That’s provocative, but is it practical? How would that work? Does anyone do that?”
In my research into meeting practices at high-performing organizations, I found they had a lot in common. Some methods showed up everywhere, like using a clear process to run meetings and taking good notes. Other ideas only showed up in a handful of places, but when they did, they were game changers—big ideas that lead everyone to step up their meeting game.
Andy Kaufman, the host of the People and Projects podcast who asked me those questions, picked up on the game changer that leaders find most implausible: Make meetings optional.
It sounds like a radical policy, but when you look more closely, you’ll see that it’s a no-brainer. Here are six reasons why:
1. Making meetings optional eliminates excuses
You’ve probably been in a pointless meeting before and wished that you were somewhere else doing something productive. The thing is, no one likes wasting time in an unnecessary meeting. A lot of people also don’t like sitting next to someone who’s checking their email, rolling their eyes, and vampire-sucking all the energy out of the room.
The reality is, we are all adults, and no one can force you to attend a meeting you believe to be a waste of time. All meetings are already optional, but it often doesn’t feel that way. When there’s a formal policy that states all meetings are optional, you eliminate the excuses. People either skip it to do the work that is more important, or if they choose to attend, they have to be present and can’t do any other work.
2. Making meetings optional forces leaders to get clear on the value
But it’s not just about keeping employees accountable. If you’re a meeting organizer, you lose your excuses for holding lousy meetings too. When no one has to attend your meeting, and when anyone can leave if they realize it’s not a good use of their time, you need to think critically about why you need to hold that meeting. It also forces you to think about who would get value out of participating, what the results should be, and then you have to make that clear to prospective attendees.
Busy leaders often skip this work when they know folks will show up anyway. Remove the assumption that other people will participate in a lousy meeting, and you remove the horrible meetings.
3. Making meetings optional supports your core values
In our company, we value excellent service and well-being. Our team knows that the company expects them to help our customers and take care of themselves first. If that means arriving late or missing a meeting altogether, then so be it.
By making meetings optional, organizations make it clear that attending meetings isn’t the point. This policy tells employees that if it’s a choice between living your values or a meeting, you want your values to win every time.
4. Making meetings optional makes meeting performance integral to job performance
An optional meetings policy doesn’t imply that meetings have no value. On the contrary, meetings are one of the most powerful tools we have for setting direction, creating alignment, solving problems, and driving momentum.
This policy makes every individual responsible for making meeting time worthwhile. If leaders fail to run valuable meetings, and their teams choose not to attend, that will impact performance. If a team member decides to opt out of all meetings, and fails to contribute ideas, solutions, and information to the group, then their value to the organization decreases dramatically.
Both kinds of performance failure are common in companies without this policy. Leaders regularly fail to make meetings valuable, and employees repeatedly fail to contribute, but we accept this because we assume “meetings suck.” When you make meetings optional, you now have a clear way to talk about (and expect) performance that creates value from everyone.
5. Making meetings optional encourages excellent record keeping
Recently I worked with a company struggling to balance their desire to be inclusive with their need for productive meetings.
The leaders desperately wanted more focused meetings so they could make decisions, but they didn’t want to turn anyone away. Employees wanted to stay informed but felt frustrated when they found themselves in meetings that didn’t impact their work.
Making meetings explicitly optional was the first step in changing this culture. That let employees who felt obligated to attend meetings they didn’t value off the hook. The second step was making sure every meeting had a clearly stated purpose in advance, so employees could see which ones were directly relevant to them.
Most critically, there were notes published for every meeting. This way, everyone could see the key points, the decisions made, and the next steps they needed to take to get there.
It took time, but it worked. Everyone in the company can now see in advance which meetings matter to them and only attend those where they have an active role to play. Knowing they’ll see the notes afterward, people can also skip meetings if they need to and still stay informed.
6. Making meetings optional means you’ll get smaller, better meetings, and fewer of them
Put it all together, and organizations get a dramatic impact from this simple policy. Of course, with any new system, leaders need to repeat it many times and opt out of meetings themselves before others follow.
As a business leader, I know that by making meetings optional, we’re making it easier for our employees to make good choices about when (and how) they meet. A policy like this isn’t provocative. It’s just good business.
Elise Keith is the cofounder of Lucid Meetings and the author of Where the Action Is: The Meetings That Make or Break Your Organization.