Are Meetings Worth Our Time and Effort?
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Well-run meetings have the ability solve problems and build relationships—but some meetings have the potential to waste time and money.
By Mike Elgan
We've all been to meetings that involve discussion about the maximization of return on investment (ROI) for one thing or another. But have you ever calculated the ROI for the meeting itself?
Meetings way too often create a waste of time and money. They gobble up staff resources, interrupt work and often result in little benefit to the company or its shareholders.
Generally, meetings are called as an act of procrastination. It's a way to "punt" on a decision or action. Someone is confronted with a question or problem while they're in the middle of some other task. And rather than stop and focus on something else, they "solve" their problem with a future meeting.
In other words: Most meetings should never take place.
What happens is that exhausted employees see meetings as a much-needed break. Unlike work, which can be tedious and mentally taxing, meetings are fun and easy for most participants.
People used to daydream or space out during long meetings. Now, it has become increasingly common and acceptable for everyone to be glued to a screen. Managers claim meetings are important because face-to-face communication is important. But in truth it's actually hard to hold attention during meetings.
Meetings also create a social arena for politics. Humans are political animals and can't help but use meeting time to boost their value to the group, cement alliances, disparage or defeat enemies and suck up to the boss. All this politics is usually done in subtle, pseudo-constructive, socially acceptable ways.
The biggest fallacy that makes meetings so bad is the common belief that ideas are worth anything. They rarely are. And yet the tossing off of ideas makes people feel smart and important but brings the company zero benefit. Expressing ideas makes people feel smart and important. But unless those ideas are good ones for the company at large (rather than for the person expressing them or their department) and are executed effectively and in a cost-efficient and timely manner, they're not worth anything at all.
All this R&R, politicking and grandstanding derails the effectiveness of meetings and wastes everybody's time. And time is money.
How much money? It's actually impossible to calculate. Yes, you could theoretically add up the hourly salary of each meeting participant and arrive at a figure.
In fact, a Dropbox engineer named Phillip Cohen created a Chrome extension based on a brilliant idea: It puts a "price tag" on your Google Calendar meeting based on the estimated collective hourly income of meeting participants. (The extension is in beta and there's a waitlist.)
By this reckoning alone, most meetings cost the company hundreds or thousands of dollars each.
But meetings do other damage. They theoretically extend the work day, which may actually reduce efficiency. Companies in Sweden have been experimenting, for example, with 6-hour workdays. Participating organizations have employees work three hours in the morning, take a one-hour lunch, then work three hours in the afternoon before going home. Most results are promising, with companies demonstrating increased productivity.
The catch is that employees are strongly encouraged to avoid social media or doing personal tasks or errands during work hours (something very common for people working 10+ hours per day).
The productivity-enhancing idea of Sweden's 6-hour workdays is that instead of making each workday an all-day forced march, which drives people to exhaustion, unhappiness and distraction, it's a sprint with all hands on deck and everybody on task. People take action instead of procrastinate. Business moves quicker.
The same can be said about meetings, which should be 10 minutes instead of an hour or 30 minutes instead of three hours.
An even more extreme idea is Tim Ferriss' 2007 book, "The Four Hour Workweek." Of course, working just four hours a week is an unrealistic pipe dream. But the book is packed with compelling ideas for eliminating common wastes of time.
As an adjunct to his book, Ferriss offers a list of 9 things you should never do. Among these are nuggets of gold, such as "Do not agree to meetings or calls with no clear agenda or end time," "no meeting or call should last more than 30 minutes" and "do not let people ramble."
Meetings disrupt other work, too. They delay other actions—for example, instead of phone calls being answered and dealt with, messages are left and inefficient phone tag ensues. They cause arbitrary breaks in "flow" or "deep work," to borrow a phrase from Cal Newport. They create space for trivial office chatter before and after the meetings. They waste time for people who have to spend a few minutes walking or even driving to and from the meeting.
How to Fix Your Meetings
The problem with meetings is that they're often an ungovernable free-for-all, and that's the opposite of what they should be. Meetings should be a tightly regulated, rule-governed and formal event.
Your specific requirements may vary based on industry, company culture and other factors, but my advice is to firmly impose the following rules on meetings.
1. Every meeting has an "owner" responsible for minimizing the waste of time and money and maximizing return on the huge investment inherent in every meeting.
2. Every meeting exists for only one of two reasons: To make a decision or decisions, or to take specific action that produces tangible results.
3. Every meeting must be justified on three counts. First, the ROI must be addressed. The benefits to the company must exceed the cost. Second, the specific objectives of the meeting must be spelled out. And third, the meeting "owner" must explain why the objectives can't be met using Slack or email or by means other than a costly meeting. If the meeting is unjustifiable, then it doesn't take place.
4. Every meeting has a hard start and hard stop. Meetings are like a gas, and expand to fill their temporal container. Keep them short, and usually no more than 30 minutes.
5. Every word spoken in the meeting must be moving the group toward the stated objective of the meeting. Any drift or wandering or tangents must be cut off by the meeting "owner" and the conversation redirected to the task at hand.
6. No screens, unless used specifically to gather data necessary for the conversation or for teleconferencing in remote participants.
7. Every item on the agenda must result in a specific decision or the assignment of a specific action item to a specific person due at a specific deadline. (Note the repeated word "specific.")
Meetings are treated at most companies as an inevitable part of work, a harmless activity or an opportunity for relaxation, self-promotion or team communication. But in reality, meetings are time-wasting and by default costly and harmful. So the best advice I can give you is minimize the number of meetings, minimize the length of meetings and make them rigidly rule governed.