Meetings are the black hole of productivity. I’m not saying this just to be dramatic. There is plenty of evidence coming your way. Keep reading!
I have been attending corporate meetings since my early days in the industry, so we’re talking about two decades now. However, things have recently gotten worse. During the pandemic, the number of meetings we all had to attend sharply increased. A Microsoft Study highlighted a 250% increase in meetings compared with what employees had to deal with before the pandemic.
Those who know me know exactly how I feel about meetings. When I get stuck on a long call, I catch myself internally chanting “This Meeting Could Have Been an Email” over and over like a monk. Meetings waste valuable time that I could be using to do actual work, like reviewing analytics, rates, content and strategy. You know, the stuff I enjoy and am getting paid to do.
Meetings are endemic to corporate environments. However, a cure is possible. It involves having leadership say no to unnecessary meetings. I think the “Anti-Meeting” movement can gain ground if more owners and senior leaders understand the huge negative impact that meetings can have on their bottom line.
There is also the fact that meetings are making you stupid, which should not come as a surprise to anyone who has been in the corporate workforce. But for now, let’s focus on the dollars.
A Very Expensive Hobby
What if I told you that meetings are really, really expensive? I wish it was mandatory for all meeting hours to be accounted for in the company P&L as a “cost of business” line item. I think if these numbers were released, there would be a quick change in how we manage our collective time.
How can you calculate the real cost of a meeting? Well, there is this simple formula:
Total Cost of Meeting = # of People Attending x Their Hourly Rate x Meeting Duration*
*Trigger warning: The numbers you will arrive at are staggering.
Let’s run a scenario for a small group of company managers. If five people in your organization with annual salaries of $100,000 per person spend 15 hours per week in meetings (three hours a day)… those meetings are costing you $3,846 per week. Keep up this pace, and these meetings end up costing your organization $200,000 per year! Here is a 2 min 35s montage of Owen Wilson saying “wow” to help you cope with this shocking reality.
What about larger/branded hotels? Larger organizations take this bad habit to a whole new level. Just peek into any big brand’s “FDD” (Franchise Disclosure Agreement). Every major hotel brand uses it to define services they will offer to their franchisees. You can access these hotel FDDs on the internets. Guess what item is included as a “service” that hotels must pay the brand for? Answer: “Revenue Meetings.”
Your average revenue department managing several branded hotels likely spends a whopping 56+ “person-hours” per week on meetings alone! That’s approximately 2,912 hours per year of hours that ultimately get billed to hotel franchise owners as part of their fees. Even at a base rate of $50/hour, hotels are seeing $145,600 worth of time wasted on meetings. This time should have been spent on making your hotel more money.
Senior management is very likely spending up to 80% of their time on meetings. This is corporate sanctioned madness.
The reality is that meetings are a cost item that is entirely ours in the making. Meeting lovers are causing significant financial damage to your organization.
A (Long) Wrinkle in Time
Meetings do not only kill productivity. They also add another blow to everyone’s mental focus and health. If you have successfully stopped everyone from doing their day-to-day work, then you’d better wrap up quickly!
How long should a meeting be? My magic number: 30 Minutes Max. Going over 30 minutes indicates that either one or more of the following has happened:
- Meeting agenda was not planned.
- Pre-meeting prep was skipped.
- Longer meeting time is being mistaken for “collaboration.”
- Longer meeting time is being mistaken for “brainstorming.”
- Someone really likes the sound of their voice and won’t stop talking.
Rarely, a slightly longer meeting is needed. However, the default one-hour meeting invite, that some folks just love to send out for every meeting, is not helping. First step toward change: email back requesting a shorter meeting. Offer to review items in advance… unless they were going to reveal the location of the Holy Grail to you… which we all know has to be done face to face with no advance notice or reading materials to prep.
Second step: encourage colleagues to change their default meeting invite setting to 30 minutes. It only takes a few seconds to save hundreds of future meeting hours.
A New Approach to Brainstorming
Just like meditation, clear thinking requires alone time. New ideas come from within and they can happen anywhere. Ideas cannot be scheduled and magically appear in a meeting room setting under fluorescent lights (or in front of a fake Zoom background).
Next time the senior managers get the “brainstorming” itch, try this instead:
- Share the topic/problem with the team via email in advance.
- Ask everyone on the team to email back their individual/independent ideas.
- Post all ideas in one place.
- Have attendees vote on the best ones.
- Schedule the meeting.
Ok, you now have 30 mins to discuss and finalize best ideas. Good luck, we are all counting on you!
Stop Trying to Be “Synchronous” in a Remote Work Economy
Remote work is here to stay. Expecting everyone on your team to stop doing everything else to be “present together” at a designated time will keep getting harder. Meetings throw a massive wrench in the way we work asynchronously in real life. Teams work on different schedules across various time zones, reviewing files, data and statistics, and performing daily tasks that need to be done. Bringing everyone’s productivity to a grinding halt is a colossal waste of time and money. If you are calling an all hands on deck meeting, you’d better have something really important to share. Something that has to be shared synchronously…you know…like the exact location of the Holy Grail.
Don’t Confuse Meetings With Work
The theme from Severance starts playing in my head when I think of the massive number of hours I have spent in meetings (that could have been an email). Meetings are corporate-approved black holes of productivity that hide in plain sight because they get absorbed as “work” hours.
True collaboration and brainstorming will never be confined to meetings. Employees or contractors whose calendars are filled with meetings are not really working for you; they are working for their calendar and running on a hamster wheel to nowhere. Real work happens when you stop talking and focus on the task at hand. Emails, Slack, G-chat, texts, and short 1:1 calls can resolve most of the issues in your day-to-day work life. We can collaborate without interrupting everyone’s workday to herd them into a meeting room.
Steven Rogelberg (Professor of Organizational Science, Management and Psychology at UNC Charlotte) conducted research on meetings and their impact on work. Here is a snapshot of the results:
“We surveyed 182 senior managers in a range of industries:
- 65% said meetings keep them from completing their own work.
- 71% said meetings are unproductive and inefficient.
- 64% said meetings come at the expense of deep thinking.
- 62% said meetings miss opportunities to bring the team closer together.”
These are striking numbers, yet they should not come a surprise to anyone working in our industry. We are simply meeting ourselves to death.
A Few Good Meetings
If you can handle the truth…then yes, it is actually possible to have good meetings. This is my secret formula for how to make good meetings happen at your organization:
- Limit meeting time to 30 mins, no exceptions.
- No sitting whenever possible.
- No news, weather or sports-related talk.
- No tea, coffee (not even for the closers), or food. Only water.
- No open laptops. Notebooks only.
- Phones face down, on silent.
- Email in advance: agenda, reports, videos, slides, etc.
- Observe meeting-free days of the week (eg, Monday, Wednesday, Friday).
- Slide reading is always strictly prohibited. Summaries and discussions only.
- Have attendees anonymously rate every meeting on a scale of 1-10, and share results with the team.
I am not saying all meetings must die. However, most meetings can and should be avoided or shortened. Be the leader in your company who starts declining useless meetings. I’m not saying you can decline all invites from your boss; this trend must start from the top. (I’m talking to you, leaders and managers.)
Instead of reading cliche management books, advance your management career by boosting your team’s productivity and your company’s revenue. Useless meetings are crushing your team’s morale, making them dumber and less productive. Give the people what they want, and get better results from them in return. You can be a hero!
Despite your best efforts, if you still find yourself in a terrible meeting, do not lose heart. Find a meditative chant that works for you, or borrow mine: “This meeting could have been an email.”