Stop throwing money away with unneeded meetings

Two businessmen sitting at a clock table
Two businessmen sitting at a clock table
Photograph by Robert Daly — Getty Images/OJO Images RF

The math isn’t complicated, but the results are startling. Start with a company that has 20,000 salaried employees, many of them highly skilled. Then figure that their average total compensation per person is $100,000 annually. Let’s say each one spends a very conservative 15% of his or her time every year in unproductive meetings. Total annual cost to the company of the time lost: $300 million.

That’s what researchers at analytics firm VoloMetrix found when they studied how meetings are managed at more than two dozen big U.S. companies. In one typical organization, senior management meetings alone ate up about 300,000 hours, or the equivalent of one executive working full-time for 144 years.

It’s hard to gauge exactly what gets accomplished in most of those confabs, of course, but VoloMetrix did look at how much multitasking goes on. “One way to measure productivity is to count how many emails each attendee sends,” notes CEO Ryan Fuller, since emailing and texting are “an indication that people aren’t 100% engaged in the discussion, perhaps because they don’t really need to be there.” The average participant now sends at least three emails for every 30 minutes of meeting time, the Volometrix data show—not counting the incoming messages that he or she is reading.

“People often don’t think that each hour of someone’s time has a dollar value, and that there is a real cost to every meeting,” Fuller observes. “Companies could be much more productive and profitable if everyone were just a bit more aware and intentional about it.” He suggests four ways to cut meetings down to size.

Limit redundant managers. “If there are more than two levels of management from the same department or function, it’s a sign that some people are just listening,” Fuller notes. “They’re not part of the decision-making process. So do they really need to drop what they’re doing to be there?” He notes that, in many companies, someone sends out a detailed memo afterward about what happened in the meeting anyway, “even to the people who were present,” and “anyone who just needs to stay informed can read that when they have a minute.”

Establish a meeting time budget. “Add up the total number of hours that you and your team spend in meetings every week, and then aim to reduce that time by 10% or 20%,” Fuller suggests. “It forces you to really think about which meetings you could cut out altogether.” Some VoloMetrix clients have taken what Fuller calls “extreme measures” to enforce time limits, like using conference lines that cut off at a preset time, or conference room doors that lock at the precise moment a meeting begins, so that latecomers are shut out. “You usually don’t need to go that far” to keep the time suck to a minimum, he says. “Just keep reminding people who stretch the limits that they need to do better next time.”

Avoid time fragmentation. At lots of companies, meetings are scheduled with 30 or 60-minute blocks of time between them, but Fuller points to reams of research showing that it takes people at least 15 minutes to regain focus after an interruption, and “it’s difficult to be productive when you have less than an hour until your next meeting.” Whenever possible, he suggests, schedule meetings back-to-back, so that everyone gets a big block of uninterrupted time each day to concentrate on their actual work.

Require authorization. “Time spent in meetings really gets out of control because, in most companies, no one is counting,” Fuller says. “There’s no one deciding how much meeting time is really necessary.” To fix that, some VoloMetrix clients have made time budgeting part of financial budgets. “At the start of each new product-development cycle or other kind of project, the person in charge sets a meeting budget as part of the total cost,” Fuller says. “And it has to go through the same approval process.” He adds that some managers resist this at first—until they do the math. At one large biotech company, the chief financial officer “was expecting his large staff of highly paid people to spend a total of 60,000 hours a year in meetings, and he got annoyed at being told he had to cut that down,” Fuller says. “Then he saw the figures on what all those hours actually cost the company in dollars, and he changed his mind.”

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