The Blog of Miter

Is this Meeting Worth It?

One of the biggest complaints in today’s work environment is the proliferation of meetings on people’s calendars. It’s not uncommon for the typical pandemic-bound worker to spend 8 solid hours (or more!) in back-to-back Zoom meetings. The pattern of increasing time spent in meetings is not new — it’s been happening since 2000 — but it is rapidly reaching a breaking point

Direct Costs

Before we talk about the causes of and solutions to this problem, it’s helpful to consider the magnitude of the issue. In 2014 an estimated $1.4 trillion worth of meetings took place in the US alone.

How does this shake out at the company level? If you aren’t in a capital-intensive industry (e.g., manufacturing or utilities), chances are that employee salaries and overhead costs are your biggest expense. When Infosys Founder N.R. Narayana Murthy said, “Our assets walk out of the door each evening. We have to make sure that they come back the next morning,” he wasn’t just speaking metaphorically; as a consulting firm, Infosys spends roughly ten times as much on its employees as it does on office space or laptops.

These costs are fairly straightforward to tally up. Let’s say that you decide to schedule an hour-long weekly meeting with five attendees. If the average fully-loaded rate of the team is $50/hr (or $100,000 per year), you’ve just spent:

5 attendees x 1 hour x 50 working weeks/year x $50/hr  = $12,500/yr

with a few clicks of the trackpad. Many meeting leaders routinely rack up much larger bills with just as little thought.

As an instructive comparison, imagine how much more difficult it would be to move that same dollar amount through your company’s purchasing process. There would be at least one level of approval, a look at the budget, maybe even a formal process for evaluating vendors. Now, look at your calendar and tally up the number of recurring meetings. How likely is it that those meetings would meet an approval standard? 

While scheduling a recurring meeting, it is easy (and common) to imagine that the time will be well spent and that it can always be “given back” if there are no topics to discuss or if busy is concluded early. However, a more accurate mental model is that the amount of time booked on the calendar serves as a minimum rather than a maximum: 

  • Calendared meetings almost always take place with most of the attendees present whether or not they are necessary to the proceedings
  • If recurring meetings are canceled, it is most often due to attendee conflicts or holidays rather than lack of topics for any given occurrence
  • Meetings will naturally expand to fill the allotted time (if not more)

Indirect Costs

The indirect costs of a meeting can be harder to track down since they aren’t directly accounted for on the calendar. However, much of the emotional toll, particularly of bad meetings, needs to be accounted for as an indirect cost, as well as potential productivity hits both before and after the meeting. 

Recovery time

People need time to recover from a meeting, especially a bad one. Researchers have dubbed this phenomenon Meeting Recovery Syndrome. It takes about 15 minutes after a good meeting to be ready for individual work while a bad meeting can take 45 minutes or more. Unfortunately, with today’s calendars, this recovery time often takes place during another meeting, creating a cascade of ineffective or disengaged attendance throughout the day. 

Flow state

Flow is the state of mind when a person becomes fully immersed in what they are doing. Many types of work require an extended period of focused time for optimal productivity. Coding, page design, blog writing, and prospecting are all activities that can be difficult to start or resume. 

Flow often takes 30 minutes to attain and, once disrupted, needs the same amount of time to re-establish (or may even be unavailable until the start of a new workday). The disruption from even a decent meeting means the process has to start all over again while the recovery time from a bad meeting delays the process even further. 

Morale

Bad meetings reduce job satisfaction and chip away at an employee’s sense of accomplishment. Surveys routinely find high dissatisfaction with meetings. Clarizen found that 46% of employees would rather go to the DMV than attend a status meeting and The Muse reports that executives estimate that 67% of meetings are failures. These are almost certainly exaggerated by self-reporting bias—for one thing, the status meeting is physically a lot closer than the DMV (and there’s probably better coffee on offer as well). Yet, it speaks to the deeper point - the combined emotional toll of bad meetings is extremely salient for those who are forced to attend them. 



When Meetings Aren’t Worth It

Lack of Purpose

Most meetings do not have an explicit, specific outcome ahead of time. The closest most people get is specifying a title or subject, e.g. Go Live Discussion or Sales / Marketing Sync. These are basically traps - in most B2B organizations, Sales and Marketing are never in sync so it feels like a fertile ground for discussion; yet, the underlying issue is usually misaligned incentives, exactly the type of structural problem that is going to be glossed over during a “sync”. Conversely, you would have to work pretty hard to completely avoid discussing Go Live during Go Live Discussion, so in one sense you are guaranteed success; at the same time, unless you are explicit about the things you actually need to nail down to effectively go live (date, time, pre work, fallback measures, post mortem, etc)  - chances are those will spin out into follow on meetings as well. 

Recurring meetings are particularly interesting in this regard. Two meetings titled Weekly Status Meeting might start out having vastly different implicit purposes: Promote team cohesion and talk about stuff that needs talking about vs Serve as a forcing function to make sure each individual is doing their work this week, for example. Yet, over time they tend to be overtaken by another, more insidious purpose: Have the Weekly Status Meeting. There are often times when having the weekly meeting doesn’t support the primary purpose of the meeting, say in the middle of a sprint when everyone is heads down or the first week of the quarter when half of the sales team is on vacation. Look no further than the plaintive Slack or email messages along the lines of “hey, does anyone have any topics for the weekly meeting?” and you can see this problem rearing its ugly head. Cancelling the meeting no longer feels possible because having the meeting has supplanted the original purpose! 

Meeting FOMO

Meeting attendance is often driven by political concerns. Looking busy or getting face time can be critical to maintaining or improving standing within the organization. Also, there is a strong emotional need to feel included and/or important. If you ever want to gauge the strength of these drivers in your own organization, just try uninviting a few folks from one of your meetings (Editor’s Note: Do not actually try this.)

Practically speaking, there can be an informational advantage to attendance as well. Most meetings are poorly documented. If the invitees are afraid of being left in the dark unless they are in the room, then meetings will be full of scavengers - folks who are sitting in on the meeting in hopes of picking up one or two bits of intel while attempting to multitask with their other work. 

Make Your Own Meetings Count

Now, think about the meetings you routinely organize:  

  • Do they have an explicit purpose? 
  • Is it the same purpose as when you first booked them? 
  • Have they become bloated over time? 
  • What are the ways in which you can start to reduce your own meeting costs? 

Here are a few ways to get started: 

  • Schedule shorter meetings. They tend to be more productive, anyway. 
  • When possible, decompose large group meetings that are actually just smaller meetings glued together.
  • The best time to limit meeting size is when you first create your meeting. It is usually difficult and politically expensive to disinvite people; just cancel the meeting and then rebook under a more specific title with fewer attendees. 
  • For recurring meetings, remind yourself of the original purpose. Don’t be afraid to cancel/shorten instances of recurring meetings if pulling people away from their individual work won’t serve a purpose outside of Have this meeting.  
  • Don’t go over your allotted time! It just delays everyone else’s next meetings. Even if a more senior individual is derailing the schedule, don’t be afraid to wield your power as the meeting organizer to keep things on track; you’ll be quite pleasantly surprised at how grateful everyone will be when you end on time. 

Even if they hate a given meeting, it is generally not politically acceptable for attendees to indicate that they don’t want to attend or that they think the meeting should be canceled. Keep yourself honest: make it a habit to ask yourself whether your meeting has a purpose and if it is achieving that purpose. Repurpose or cancel as needed. Your colleagues will thank you. 


What about your meetings? Where is your time spent? We’d love to hear about it. Drop us a line.