When I used to work for a large consulting company, one of our clients loved meetings. Almost too much.

We had a mandatory 90-minute meeting every single morning at 8 am. Yes, every day, five days a week, at 8 am. There were 25 people in that meeting. The company held these meetings so "everyone was on the same page," but they had the exact opposite effect.

No one listened to anything; they only waited for their turn to talk. Since this was an in-person meeting, we couldn't really multi-task without someone getting upset.

Unsurprisingly, the project failed miserably. I've never seen so many people so happy to see something fail. We were all stuck in useless meetings and couldn't get real work done.

Microsoft conducted an internal study to discover the major differentiator between happy and unhappy employees, as the New York Times reported. They discovered the answer in meetings like the ones I used to go to. Here's how they solved the problem. 

Microsoft thought unhappy employees were working too many hours. They weren't.

Microsoft's researchers expected they would find that the unhappy employees in their study were working longer hours than their satisfied peers. The study team thought it was a work-life balance problem, and the solution might include curtailing excess time spent in the office. But that turned out not to be the issue. 

The problem first showed up when the researchers realized the unhappy employees were spending an average of 27 hours per week in meetings. While that wasn't an unreasonable number for Microsoft, these meetings typically included 20-30 people in the room. Only two or three of those people were actually talking and sharing ideas. Most employees would rather fly to China or take late-night phone calls, the researchers learned, than sit through another one of those meetings.

Great employees appreciate the chance to focus.

No star employee ever wanted to work for your company so she could sit through more meetings. The people who can make your company a profitable, flourishing business love solving problems, not talking about them. To do that, these employees need uninterrupted time to think, create solutions, and analyze their ideas. Without focused solitude, your brain trust isn't going to produce its best work--and your best employees will start to look elsewhere.

The Microsoft researchers realized that their company's unhappy employees were putting in hours on Saturdays and Sundays that weren't showing up in the records. These off-site hours had no digital exhaust trail or recorded time on a log because the employees were specifically avoiding those administrative tasks so they could focus. 

Eliminate your team's distractions--including 27 hours of bloated meetings--and watch your members produce their best work yet.

Make meeting time productive.

Every organization needs to hold meetings. You can't run a company and never get together. But you can learn to make meetings productive. Start with a meeting audit to discover which sessions are essential.

Once you've determined the meetings you can live without, encourage participants to spend that time doing focused, solitary work instead. Microsoft found that having employees block out time on the calendar for such work caused their colleagues to hesitate about scheduling meetings for those hours.

When you do need to hold meetings, keep them lean. Limit the number of people in the room, stick to an agenda, and meet only when needed--not just because it's Tuesday and that's meeting day. 

Sometimes holding one-on-one meetings with your direct reports can take less time and be more effective than group-wide meetings. One-on-ones require managers to do a lot of learning and coaching, which tends to improve everyone's performance over time. No matter how your meetings are structured, though, each one needs to lead to a decision. Otherwise, your team is just talking...and the longer you talk, the unhappier your best people get.

The takeaway from Microsoft's self-study about happy versus unhappy employees? Track your employees' meeting time. Find out how many hours a week each person is spending in bloated meetings.

Ask yourself: Is having these people sit in meetings really the best return on your investment in them? If not, search for fresh ways to plug your team members into engaging work so they'll stick with you and help your company flourish over the long term.

Published on: Aug 26, 2019
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.