Are meetings a waste of time?

“We have too many meetings” is a frequent complaint in business. Publications such as The New York Times and Forbes give some quick remedies to our suspicions that not all meetings are necessary.  These with other articles recycle solutions such as:

  • Halving the time of your meetings
  • Chair your meeting standing up
  • Avoiding holding a meeting unless you know what you wish to accomplish

… and so on.

A new article from the Harvard Business Review has gone a step further to quantify the problem, with some simple steps to remedying.

Executives now spend an average of nearly 23 hours in meetings; 10 hours more than back in the 1960s. This does not include the impromptu gatherings that don’t make it onto the official calendar.

Are meetings an efficient use of our time?

HBR 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.

While there’s no denying that meetings provide real benefits such as enabling collaboration, creativity, and innovation some can be counterproductive. In a recent survey conducted by HBR only 17% of senior executives reported that their meetings are usually productive and a good use of group and individual time.

What type of meetings are counterproductive?

Meetings that waste group time

Some companies have few meetings but run them poorly.

The main reasons for a poorly run meeting are:

  • The time and/or location changes at the last minute
  • No objectives are set prior to the meeting
  • The next steps are not made clear which leads to secondary meetings

In this instance, employees have a sufficient amount of time for solo work and deep thinking however they miss out on colleague collaboration and group productivity.

Meetings that waste individual time

Some companies have high quality meetings but they’re also high in quantity. This amounts to employees having less time to complete solo work and their deep thinking becomes interrupted by poorly scheduled meetings.

The downfalls to having lots of meetings include:

  • Interruption of workflow
  • Takes away from critical solo work
  • Can lead to burnout and turnover

While meetings that seem to be ‘getting stuff done’ are in theory an efficient use of time this will undoubtedly encroach on solo working time. Research conducted by HBR has shown that this has a knock-on effect as increasingly people are using their personal time to complete individual tasks. This ultimately leads to people burning out and their heads more easily swayed.

Meetings that waste both individual and group time

Many companies are guilty of conducting meetings that are both a waste of group and individual time. These triple-threat meetings are too frequent, poorly timed and badly run. This leads to a loss of productivity, collaboration as well as insufficient solo working time. HBR’s survey showed that an astonishing 54% of executives would put their meetings in this category.

How to strike a happy medium

As many people in a company are involved in scheduling and running meetings, it takes a group effort to make changes.

Although it can be difficult altering your meeting patterns it is not impossible and can contribute to significant improvements in the well-being of both groups and individuals.

How to escape the meeting trap

1. Ask questions
To find out how meetings affect your team you can conduct surveys to gain a better insight. We suggest doing these anonymously initially to encourage people to speak freely and honestly about the matter.

2. Collate the information
Once this information is collated come together as a team and go through all individual comments. These comments should lead to further open discussions and establish buy-in from individuals which will be required for the remaining steps.

3. Agree on a goal as a collective
Coming up with a solution is undoubtedly the most difficult part however this can be made easier if individuals independently benefit from the group initiative. Designating blocks of times in the day as meeting-free zones will allow individuals more time for solo working and deep thinking. Being given a limited amount of meeting-acceptable time also encourages people to consider if a meeting is necessary before scheduling. Furthermore, these large blocks of meeting-free time inevitably lead to increased individual productivity and limits the risk of burnout.

4. Monitor progress
Once changes have been made be persistent and make sure they are being adhered to by everyone. To ensure people don’t slip into old habits monitor progress and keep track of measurable progress such as the number of hours saved from inefficient meetings. Ensure you celebrate the little wins along the way.

5. There’s always room for improvement
Regularly check in with people to see how they feel about attending meetings. If people are becoming frustrated it’s time to review your processes and see what can be improved. Changing bad habits is no mean feat but the rewards can be significant.

HBR also provides a handy calculator to quantify how much all those unnecessary meetings are really costing.

How does your team feel about meetings? Have you managed to strike the right balance? Tweet us your ideas and insights at @mytalentworks