Are Extreme Policies Like Shopify’s Meetings Ban Actually Good for Productivity?

Removing meetings? Bringing in beds? More companies are enforcing policies in hopes of improving worker output
(illustration: iStock)

A new year is bringing in some new rules at Shopify. According to a leaked internal memo, the Canadian e-commerce giant told its employees last week that it is implementing measures to address meeting overload and to seemingly increase productivity. The company, which laid off about 10 per cent of its staff in 2022 amid widespread industry tightening, said all previously scheduled recurring meetings involving three or more people—nearly 10,000 events—were being deleted from its scheduling system, and for the next two weeks there will be a “cooling-off period” before any of those meetings can be added back to calendars. Any meeting with more than 50 people may only be held on Thursdays, and the company reupped its meeting-free Wednesdays rule. Leaders also discouraged using Slack, saying that the app is “bloated, noisy and distracting,” and urged employees to leave any large chat groups. 

Shopify is the latest company to implement extreme restrictions in an effort to boost productivity. During the pandemic, several companies were terrified that working from home would mean workers got less done so they went full Big Brother, installing tracking software on employee computers to monitor how they spent every second of every workday. More recently, in December, Twitter employees reportedly arrived to the San Francisco location to find bedrooms with mattresses set up should they need to work deep into the night. These severe moves, however, are often not effective, according to workplace experts. They do not address the root issues causing productivity problems, and often don’t take into account real employee input, resulting in policies that actually end up making them less productive, not more. And likely very, very annoyed.

“Meetings in and of themselves are not inherently bad”

Take the Shopify meeting ban, for example. Rodney Schmaltz, an associate professor in the department of psychology at MacEwan University, says: “Meetings in and of themselves are not inherently bad; the problem is that often meetings are not conducted as effectively as they could be.” Research shows that poorly run meetings—think too long with too many people—can hurt productivity, whereas clear agendas and concise messaging can make gatherings effective. Blanket-cancelling meetings is ineffective because gatherings are opportunities to share key decisions and project updates, or ask for wider company feedback. Giving employees the tools to run more effective meetings is what can help increase productivity. Schmaltz uses PowerPoint as an example. Companies like Amazon banned PowerPoint presentations to avoid the tedium of listening to someone recite list after bulleted list from their slides. “But PowerPoint can be used effectively if the slides are created to highlight graphical data or images,” Schmaltz says. “It would be more effective to train employees on how to present information effectively.”

Twitter CEO Elon Musk telling employees in November that they should accept long hours or quit is a good example of what most companies should not do, according to Greg Chung-Yan, an associate professor in industrial-organizational psychology at the University of Windsor. “He made the decision (apparently) unilaterally, without consultation, with it coming as a surprise to everyone,” Chung-Yan says. “Even people who agreed with him might have left just because of the way he chose to communicate to employees.” He adds that any change needs to take into account specific organizational practices and be accompanied by good communication and transparency so employees understand why the changes are happening. 

The need for employee input to increase productivity

Most importantly, employees should be consulted about any extreme policy changes, Chung-Yan says: “Ultimately, it is the people who actually do the jobs that know what can and can’t be changed, what would increase efficiency or impede it. The success of organizational change has as much to do with implementation as it does with the change itself.”

For example, some businesses segued to a hybrid hot-desk set-up when they welcomed staff back to the office, only to find that their creature-of-habit employees sit in the exact-same spot every day, anyway, causing workers to erupt into a white-hot fury when they discover that some stranger from another department took “their” spot. So many things in modern workplaces are seemingly done for the worker’s benefit, but in reality only upset or disrupt them.

Sweeping reforms uninformed by employee wishes or input can also unbalance workflows and structure. “We have to take into account the socio-technical system any time an intervention is introduced,” says Tom O’Neill, a professor of industrial and organizational psychology at the University of Calgary. “How well do the policies interact with the employee’s job duties, communication and collaboration requirements, tools and technology and social context?”

Over at Shopify, for example, the next two weeks of no meetings will most likely see employees suffocating in an avalanche of Teams pings and emails until they rebel and resort to clandestine gatherings by the coffee machine to sort out the details of that TPS report. “I think guiding principles rather than rigid one-size-fits-all rules and regulations is the way to go,” O’Neill says.

How to better increase productivity 

If workplaces are going to try to help employees be more productive, then the most important thing they can do is ask them how they can support them. So, they should create a survey to poll the masses, host a town hall (Uh-oh, another meeting!) or run workshops to gather feedback. Organizational consultant Graham Lowe, a professor emeritus of sociology at the University of Alberta and author of Creating Healthier Organizations, suggests that workplaces consider the retention, recruitment and engagement implications of any policy changes. “I note the increased focus on ‘quiet quitting’ in the business media, which should be a concern to Shopify,” he says.

“What is most consistently observed as having a positive impact on productivity, satisfaction and balance is the flexibility an employer is able to offer”

Lowe recently conducted a survey, Shaping the Future of Work in Canada, and says the findings emphasize that employers need to give all employees a meaningful say into post-pandemic work arrangements—including potential productivity enhancements. “These two-way consultations could easily tap into employee’s suggestions for how, based on their experiences during the pandemic, they could be more productive. The result will be a more committed workforce,” he says.

However, only half of home-based workers surveyed had been asked about their future work arrangements—and fewer than half were satisfied with their level of input. This is unfortunate, considering that Lowe says that their results also “clearly show that when employers involve their workforce in meaningful consultations about future work arrangements, they will be rewarded much higher job satisfaction, lower turnover, and greater loyalty.”

Too busy for surveys? There’s a more popular “extreme” workplace policy companies could try implementing: true flexibility. “What is most consistently observed as having a positive impact on productivity, satisfaction and balance is the flexibility an employer is able to offer,” says Marie-Helene Pelletier, a Vancouver-based work psychologist and expert in resilience and workplace mental health. “The more control and influence can be shared, the better.” The productivity breakdown employers feared would come during the pandemic never really materialized—because working from home was (and is) something many employees wanted. It was generally business as usual, with the nice perk of many more contented employees, blissfully unstressed by commuting or missing a childcare pick-up. 

So instead of things like bans or beds in the office, what about a four-day workweek—which is shown to have positive impacts on productivity? Unlimited sick leave and mental-health days? Better childcare support? The freedom to WFH—or in office—whenever you want? A happy employee is a productive employee. If workers don’t resent their company for overworking them or forcing them to meet in the coffee room about the TPS report, they’ll be more likely to churn out those deliverables with a smile.

Plus, in the current brawl for talent, having things like paid volunteer days, subsidized learning opportunities or free meals should help make employers a lot more attractive to potential candidates than extreme, ill-informed policies like blanket meeting bans. The more employers institute flexibility-forward, employee-friendly perks, the more employees will be motivated to do a good job—no extreme productivity policies required.