Three-quarters of researchers say yes to meeting-free weeks

Respondents to a Nature poll largely agree that such a measure would be practical, and reveal how much time it would save them.

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Almost three-quarters of researchers are keen to introduce regular meeting-free weeks, a Nature poll has found.

So far, 488 scientists have chosen to respond to the online poll, which began last month, and 72.1% have said that it would “definitely be practical” for their laboratory or research group to adopt the measure. All figures reported in this story were accurate on 4 February 2020.

The poll was inspired by Heidi Rehm’s World View article in Nature calling for one meeting-free week per quarter as a New Year’s resolution. Of those surveyed, 6.8% said that the proposal would not be practical, arguing that meetings are a valuable part of their work. And 21.2% answered “maybe”, but were unsure whether it would be possible to achieve such a goal (see ‘Meeting-free weeks’).

Rehm, chief genomics officer at Massachusetts General Hospital, Boston, and medical director at the Broad Institute’s Clinical Research Sequencing Platform in Cambridge, calculated that she spent about eight and a half hours a day in meetings in the last quarter of 2019 — a schedule that she was able to sustain only because she starts her day at 6 a.m. and spends evenings, weekends and flights working.

This pie chart shows 72% of people could give up meetings at work.

She wrote: “Four weeks per year is a paltry amount of time for people whose job it is, essentially, to be innovative. Researchers, research groups and work places need to brainstorm their own systems to prevent meetings from degrading productivity, rigour and innovation.

“Some people carve out one day per week without meetings, others a period of time each day. Some companies arrange company-wide protected time. I encourage every person and programme to find a system that works for them and stick to it.”

A separate survey embedded in Rehm’s article asked researchers their career stage and the amount of time they spent in meetings each week. Of the 494 respondents who identified as an early career-researcher, 50.2% reported spending up to 20% of their working week in meetings. Among senior researchers, 40.8% said they spent more than 80% of their working week in meeting rooms (see ‘Meet in the middle’).

The survey also collected respondents’ thoughts on the amount of time that meetings should take up, and whether meeting-free weeks are possible or a useful suggestion.

“In an ideal world, I’d love to take advantage of such a novel idea,” wrote one researcher, but “unfortunately, we are crisis driven so at least half my meetings are emergencies and unscheduled. Attending meetings is equated with accountability.”

Others were more keen. “Brilliant idea,” wrote one. “Science does require deep thinking and time to absorb diverse types of information in order to give rise to innovative ideas. We need to put down some of that busy work in order to do high-value, meaningful thinking!”

This bar chart shows as researchers progress in their careers, they can expect to spend more and more time in meeting rooms.

Eileen Parkes launched a cancer-research lab in Oxford University, UK, last September, after a year as a lab leader at Queen’s University Belfast, also in the UK. Since becoming a principal investigator (PI), she has noticed that the time she spends in meetings has been creeping upwards. She says that protecting working time from too many meetings is essential. “A PI’s time is for thinking, not for being in meetings,” she says. “We get paid for thinking and addressing scientific problems.”

Just say no

Parkes advises scientists hoping to cut down on time spent in meetings to learn to say no to attractive, but non-essential, opportunities. “If you’re asked to sit on a conference committee or edit a journal, for instance,” she says, “that might be flattering and a lovely thing to do, but you need to be selfish and make sure it fits in with your career goals over the next six months. If it doesn’t fit in with those goals, then say no.”

Often, this feels easier said than done, so Parkes advises new PIs to practise being gracious in declining opportunities: “Just saying, ‘I appreciate the opportunity and would love to come next year,’ to a conference organizer, for example, is a much gentler way of saying no,” she says.

Some optimistic respondents to the Nature poll wanted to take the idea of meeting-free weeks still further, with one saying: “I like it! Can we also do it with e-mail?”

doi: 10.1038/d41586-020-00326-8

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