Meetings are (Usually) a Waste of Time

Here’s something a bit lighter for your Friday morning:  Scott Rasmussen’s Number of the Day series on Ballotpedia from 23 January 2019 claims that, in a 40-hour workweek, Americans spend an average of 11.8 hours of that time in meetings.  That’s over two hours a day, and over 25% of the entire week!

Despite all that time in meetings, Rasmussen writes that “just 54% of workers leave most meetings with a clear idea of what to do next.”  That’s not a ringing endorsement for meetings.

Every fiber of my being is anathema to lengthy, tedious meetings, of any kind.  My time is precious (and valuable—it comes at ~$50/hour for private lessons), and I rarely need someone telling me out loud what could have been sent in an e-mail.  With rare exceptions, I almost always believe that time spent in a meeting could be spent more efficiently working on my own.

Apparently I’m not alone.  From Rasmussen:

The biggest problem workers have with meetings is that many of them are unnecessary. Seventy-six percent (76%) of workers have experienced that frustration. Also high on the list are meetings that don’t stay on topic (59%) and repetition of things that have already been said (58%).

The precise cost of ineffective meetings is impossible to quantify, but estimates range from $70 billion to $283 billion each year.

So not only are meetings ineffective, unnecessary, repetitious, and frequently off-topic, they’re potentially expensive in terms of productivity.

Of course, these numbers coming from a poll, it could be that workers merely perceive meetings to be ineffective and unclear—and they feel it’s okay to admit as such to a pollster—but this data rings true.

There are those who thrive in meetings, either in the roles of leaders or attendees.  Some enjoy preening in front of a group—the busybody types who seek out power, the narcissists who want some fluorescently-accented limelight—and some who like to use meetings as a forum to demonstrate their own cleverness.  For a small few, they need the opportunity to ask questions, either out of a genuine need for additional information, or because they want to virtue-signal to their colleagues.

In recent years, I’ve come to suspect that a large chunk of our workforce consists of people who essentially have meetings and push paper for a living.  With an average of 11.8 hours of meetings per week, this suspicion seems to be gaining concrete support:  that’s an awful lot of time in which to justify your position’s existence.  I imagine public sector bureaucrats at the federal level inflate that number, and not insubstantially (remember that the next time a conservative seeks to cut funding to some government program, and progressives wail—they’re crying about the lost make-work job, not the people who allegedly benefit from the program).  Regardless, just as the bureaucracy expands for the sake of its own self-preservation, it seems that meetings expand to justify their hosts’ jobs.

When dealing with specific technical questions or getting a quote on some expensive piece of equipment or installation, yes, meetings are important and necessary.  Long-term strategy planning requires regular meetings, and a weekly administrative meeting to set goals for the week and to review what’s coming up on the calendar is a prudent idea.  But rambling, two-hour meetings stretch to the point of ineffectiveness—no one can focus, people need to use the bathroom, and the original thread is probably long-since lost down a rabbit hole of objections and side topics.

So, here are my practical guidelines for effective meetings:

  • No more than one hour for infrequent or monthly meetings, but ideally, thirty minutes in length, tops.
  • Have a clear-cut agenda with maybe two or three items; don’t have ten agenda items that you know you won’t be able to cover adequately
  • Be willing to table important items that are not time-sensitive, with a plan to revisit them later.
  • Explain as much as possible via e-mail in advance.  In my experience, if you send a good e-mail in advance, you can wrap up a meeting in fifteen minutes—you’re mainly meeting at that point to confirm that everyone knows what’s going on, and to address any lingering questions and to clarify certain points.

I generally follow these guidelines when I’m required to hold a department meeting, and they make for smooth, quick, efficient meetings.

As a rather solitary worker, I tend to forget that some people want or need more direction—my whole career I’ve just figured stuff out as it’s come up—so I understand the necessary evil of meetings.  That said, I also value other people’s time.

So, the next time you schedule a meeting, make it quick.  People have real work to do.

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