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.
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:
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:
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.
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 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.
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.
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 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.
Now, think about the meetings you routinely organize:
Here are a few ways to get started:
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.