To Meet, or Not to Meet: Why All Meetings Should Be Optional
November 1st, 2012 | Jody Thompson
Meetings. They look like work. They feel like work. They smell like work. There’s nothing like getting the team around a conference table, batting around random thoughts to make sure everyone is on the same page. And, you never know when a good topic or idea will mightily rise up out of conference table dust!
A study by career site Salary.com on workplace time drains found that “Too many meetings” was the No. 1 time-waster at the office, cited by 47% of 3,164 workers, up from 42% in 2008.
I once worked at a large corporation where our team had a full-day, recurring mandatory meeting every month. Everyone on the team was expected to attend. It was meant to get everyone motivated and on the same page, and was a meeting that a consultant suggested would help us collaborate, build closer relationships and share pertinent updated information. It was a way for leadership to be visible to inspire, guide and motivate us. And not attending the meeting created so much guilt, you’d never even think of skipping out.
Recurring meetings can be — and often are — huge time wasters. They create a block of time that you and your colleagues must then fill, in some way.
For the two days preceding the big mandatory meeting, everyone was either 1) running around like crazy trying to prepare what they had to present, pinging off all other team members like a pinball machine on steroids interrupting the real work or 2) dreading the upcoming mandatory meeting and beginning to fake ‘coming down with a cold’ so that if they didn’t attend, they could pull the ‘I was ill’ card.
Wait. How can it be mandatory if you can use certain excuses to get out of it?
I took notice of who didn’t attend one of these meetings. I knew that these people were ‘in the office’, but for some reason weren’t present in that room. What gives, I wondered? I thought it was mandatory. So I boldly asked a couple of these suspiciously absent people why they didn’t attend (my bad – since they were my superiors). They answered by informing me that they had to attend to customer needs. Really? So did a lot of the rest of us in the mandatory meeting who didn’t have the hierarchical weight to use that excuse.
Two acceptable excuses for missing a mandatory meeting:
- I’m sick (called in sick or at workstation sick, and don’t want to pass germs to everyone in the meeting . . . cough, cough)
- I’m taking care of business (i.e., important enough to get a free pass)
The two days after the mandatory meeting there was a flurry of complaining, lamenting and teeth-gnashing about how much time we wasted in it – and the lack of value it added to our work. We contemplated how we could get out of the next one. But whether we were spending time in the meeting or just complaining about it, the one thing we weren’t doing was working.
So there were basically five days where we experienced a serious loss of productivity: two days before while we scrambled to get ready, one day to meet, and two days to complain. Let’s do the math*. There were approximately 200 people invited to the mandatory full-day meeting monthly, with an average salary of $50,000. If all 200 attended, the salary cost for one day was $38,461. Now do that each month for 12 months and the salary cost is a whopping$461,532.
And this math didn’t account for the productivity loss both during and the four days surrounding the meeting. It didn’t represent the cost for the room, continental breakfast, mid-morning snacks, boxed lunches, mid-afternoon snacks and continuously flowing beverages.
Now that’s just one meeting per month with 200 people. Think of all the meetings going on day after day, hour after hour with resources who agree that 30 – 80% is wasted time – er, money. And no amount of meeting effectiveness trainings or lists of meeting protocols has fixed it. In decades.
Some organizations have tried to fix the overwhelming amount of meetings by designating a period of time where no meetings should take place, say ‘No Meeting Thursdays’. The challenge is that the culture still believes that meetings are necessary to get work done, collaborate, communicate, etcetera. So these organizations simply hold more meetings on the remaining four days; or, people have forbidden, “secret meetings” on no-meetings day. A no meeting day is a technical fix to a deeper problem.
Yet it’s possible to remedy this broken relic from the days of yore once and for all. All you have do is:
Make every meeting optional.
Even the mandatory ones, or those where the organizer is the VP, manager, or some other hierarchically important person. Status update meetings are optional. Stand-up morning meetings are optional (yes, we’ve worked with clients that are also working with the Agile methodology). Staff meetings are, too.
The problem is poor planning, believing all the stuff we believe about meetings that isn’t true, and accepting meeting mediocrity. It’s politics, posturing and positioning — and it’s a big fat waste of time. It gives the person scheduling the meeting ultimate control. Besides, it’s not polite to decline a meeting we think is going to be a colossal waste of time, right?
Think about meeting math again. It’s our job to do our jobs. And part of that is–or should be–utilizing resources effectively and not wasting them. The task of having a productive meeting falls first in the hands of the person calling it.
Before scheduling a meeting, every meeting organizer should answer the following:
- What do I need exactly?
- Is what I need relevant to the outcome I or the people I’m working with are trying to achieve?
- Is having a meeting (IM, SKYPE, on-line meeting, conference call, in-person meeting) the best way to get what I need?
- Is there a more effective way to get what I need that uses everyone’s time more effectively?
- Who is an integral part of helping me get what I need?
If you determine that yes — the best way to get what you need is by holding some sort of meeting — then it’s up to you to convince the people/person you are inviting that it’s a good use of their time, too. They’re not just going to blindly accept your meetings anymore.
Meetings are one thing: a tool to get to results. If the tool is not doing the job of getting you to results, you’re using the wrong tool — over and over and over. It’s just like using a screwdriver when it’s a hammer you need. Using a screwdriver for a hammer’s job will get you suboptimal–or worse, no–results in addition to wasting time and creating frustration. Forcing people through a strong-arm management style (that meeting is mandatory!) to use the wrong tool to get the job done is poor management of the work.
Originally posted on ROWE on Monday, October 29, 2012. Reprinted with permission.
About the Author: Jody Thompson is one of the Founders of CultureRx and one of the creators of the Results-Only Work Environment (ROWE). Her first book, Why Work Sucks and How to Fix It, co-written with Cali Ressler, was named “The Year’s Best Book on Work-Life Balance” by Business Week. They have been featured on the covers of BusinessWeek, Workforce Management Magazine, HR Magazine, Hybrid Mom Magazine, as well as in the New York Times, TIME Magazine, USA Today, and on Good Morning America, CNBC and CNN.