Meetings are a staple of office culture. Offices exist so that employees have the ability to collaborate, speak face-to-face, and communicate effectively on projects and tasks that affect multiple individuals. On the surface, meetings may seem like a productive office tactic; led by a manager or supervisor, these periods of communication are designed to get everybody up to speed and keep progress moving forward.
However, there’s a serious problem with the frequency and type of meetings that are being held on a daily basis in the United States. By some estimates, larger companies can lose up to $75 million every year because of unproductive meetings, and those losses often go unnoticed because they’re practically invisible.
If you’re confused as to how something so simple and so ingrained in our workplace culture can contribute to such a massive loss, here are seven ways they do so:
1. They Waste Accumulated Time. There’s a misconception that an hour-long meeting is only an hour-long meeting. This isn’t the case; consider an hour-long meeting with seven different people attending. If each of those people spends an hour in the meeting, that means the company is spending seven hours of time and money to hold that meeting — the equivalent of one person’s full workday. In effect, the cost of every meeting you hold is amplified by the number of people attending, making them powerful time wasters if the meeting is not held productively or efficiently; in fact, the accumulated time we spend in meetings has increased every year since 2008, now amounting to 15 percent of our total time spent at work.
2. They’re Tying Up Unnecessary Resources. Sometimes, the benefits of meetings are worth the extra costs. They serve as a perfect time to get a team together to solve a difficult problem or make a collective decision. However, more often, meetings are composed of people who don’t need to be there. In Outlook and other scheduling products, adding people to the meeting is as easy as a click of a button, making it tempting to invite more people than are actually necessary. Some people add more people simply for the sake of adding artificial weight or importance to the meeting. This practice ties up resources that could be much better spent dedicating work to their areas of expertise. To combat this, Open Space Technology recommends employing the Law of Two Feet; if you attend a meeting, you must either be learning or be contributing. If you aren’t doing one of those two things, it’s your job to get up leave, and go somewhere you can do one of those things.
3. Active Participation Is Rare. We’ve all been caught in a meeting not paying attention. Maybe you spent the time daydreaming, maybe you spent it doodling, or maybe you spent it on your phone trying to catch up on other work. Whatever the case, you weren’t actively engaged in the subject matter, and therefore, you were wasting company time. Don’t feel guilty — everybody does this. Active participation in meetings for all participants is incredibly rare, and unless that participation is there, the meeting is at least somewhat wasted. This is usually an unfortunate symptom of including unnecessary parties or holding a meeting for a non-essential subject.
4. They Interrupt Creative Trains of Thought. Even non-creative positions must spend a great deal of time thinking creatively to solve abstract problems or come up with critical new strategies. As you’re undoubtedly aware, preserving the momentum of your creative thinking is essential to seeing the problem through. Your focus, if unbroken, allows you to get “in the zone” and get more work done while finding new, lateral solutions. Stopping that train of thought just to go to a meeting can derail the entire process, leaving you without a solution and starting from scratch the next time you jump back into things. On top of that, some studies indicate it takes up to 25 minutes to rebuild your focus on a task after getting distracted.
5. Few Meetings Are Held for the Sake of Progression. Think about how many meetings of the past week were centered on trying to advance the company in some way — whether that’s working together on a project or hammering out a new strategy. Chances are, most of your meetings were not held for these reasons. Instead, they were likely recaps, updates, or other conversations that open a dialogue but don’t really get anything done. For example, one anonymized high-earning company recently found out it was spending 300,000 hours a year on a weekly meeting that didn’t really accomplish anything — and the company quickly called the meeting off. Because these meetings don’t actually accomplish any work, they’re costing more money than they’re making.
6. Few Meetings Are Formally Organized. This is the biggest problem facing meetings today, and it can lead to many of the other problems on this list. Few meeting organizers take the time to establish the purpose for a meeting and to make a specific agenda. When formally planned, a meeting can stay on topic, it’s easier to find the right participants for a meeting, and more people are able to prepare and participate. Without that formal planning, meetings tend to wander, aimless and purposeless. This is especially apparent in recurring meetings, such as daily or weekly sit-downs, which explicitly have no purpose other than for people to come together and talk. One easy solution for this is to set a strict maximum time limit for your meetings; Bain and Company once studied a manufacturer that saved the equivalent of 200 jobs just by cutting meetings down to 30 minutes.
7. Most Meetings Can Be Replaced With Other Forms of Communication. Communication formats are diverse, and today’s technology makes them even more diverse. There’s no reason to have a meeting if another form of communication will suffice. For example, you can send an email if you’re just trying to update the group on the latest company developments. You can send an IM if you’re having a problem and need help. You can have a face-to-face conversation with an individual or two it you’re trying to settle some confusion. Meetings are often the default form of communication within a company, and there’s no reason for them to be.
Abandoning meetings altogether would be a bold and unnecessary move, though some companies (like Project eMT) have taken this step. In most mid- to large-sized businesses, such a drastic change to office culture would be nearly impossible to initiate, and it would also eliminate the minority of highly productive meetings, which do drive the business forward.
Instead, focus on making small yet meaningful changes. If you’re considering calling a meeting, think critically about whether you really need one and whether you can replace that meeting with an alternate form of communication. If a meeting is required, only call parties to that meeting if they’re absolutely necessary, and create an agenda in advance that is concise, to-the-point, and clear enough that your participants can prepare.
On the other side of things, don’t be afraid to decline meeting invitations if you feel you have nothing to add. Ask questions, and prompt the meeting organizers to send out a specific agenda before the meeting is held. Over time, you can help to reshape the meeting culture of your workplace, and spend more time focusing on productive work.