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Fewer Meetings Can Boost Employee and Organization Productivity
Experts suggest cost analysis; fewer, shorter, more efficient meetings

By Dana Wilkie   9/11/2013
 
Your morning meeting wraps at 10 a.m., just in time for the budget review with department directors, followed by the luncheon to discuss clients, the 2 p.m. with editorial and the 4 p.m. on new hires. Around quitting time, you’re just turning to the day’s e-mails.

Meetings: those time-sucking, maddeningly mundane interruptions that seem to prevent you from getting real work done. Are all of them really necessary?

Research by meetings experts Steven Rogelberg and Larissa Barber suggests the answer is no. And data reveal that not only do too many meetings waste company money but fewer meetings would actually boost employee and organizational productivity.

In some organizations horrible meetings have become an accepted way of life that is not challenged,” said Rogelberg, a professor and director of organizational science at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. “There is a belief that the cost of doing business is bad meetings. [That is] flat out wrong. A good leader is a good steward of others’ time.”

Most organizations devote 7 percent to 15 percent of their personnel budgets to meetings, wrote Rogelberg and colleagues in “Wasted Time and Money in Meetings: Increasing Return on Investment,” a paper published online in December 2011.

The paper points to one 1995 estimate that Xerox’s 24,000-employee manufacturing and development unit spent $100.4 million a year on meetings. The cost was based on the length of meetings and on employee salaries.

For their 2011 paper, Rogelberg and colleagues conducted an informal survey of dozens of HR leaders in Fortune 500 firms and discovered that “shockingly, organizations do little or nothing to assess the return on this meeting investment or to take substantive steps to assure the investment is a good one.”

This, even though the authors pointed to a 1991 sample of managers that found more than one-third considered time in meetings unproductive and two-thirds said meetings failed to achieve their stated goals.

Wasted time in meetings, Rogelberg and colleagues wrote, costs companies in many ways: the direct costs of salaries and benefits associated with participants’ time, the time lost that could be used for more productive activities, employee stress and fatigue, and job dissatisfaction and less organizational commitment.

Moreover, meetings experts cite the concept of “meeting recovery syndrome,” which refers to the time employees spend cooling off because they’re frustrated by meetings, and the time they spend reflecting on what did or didn’t transpire at these gatherings. Sometimes this reflection takes the form of complaining to others about the forum.

The costs of bad meetings are extensive,” Rogelberg said in an e-mail interview. “Given the amount of time and money that organizations spend on meetings and their impact on employees, improving their effectiveness should be an important, critical goal.”  

So why do some organizations rely on so many meetings?

One reason is that these forums tend to make supervisors feel they’re in control, said Barber, an assistant professor in the psychology department at Northern Illinois University.

“There’s this centralized power aspect to” meetings, she said. “Someone calls the meeting and runs it. It makes you feel like a good manager. It’s a focus on the process of things, rather than the outcomes.”

Rogelberg’s research has found that managers are reluctant to break their habit of calling frequent meetings, largely because they are poor judges of their capabilities.

“I have found consistently in my research that leaders are poor perceivers of their true abilities to lead meetings,” he said. “They meet for meeting’s sake, rather than a strategic agenda. This blind spot leads to complacency and inaction on the part of organizations to seek change.”  

Another reason meetings persist is that employees often feel guilty about missing them, Barber said.

“We do so much by technology, and we have all these great policies for work-life balance; but we find people don’t feel like they can use them because it will have negative career consequences,” she said. “There’s a stigma around [not having] face time. People still say, ‘Oh, so and so is always leaving early or late or is never at meetings.’ We still seem to value seeing people at work, rather than their actual [productivity].”

The result for employees, both experts said, is stress that’s counterproductive. Barber said much of this stress owes to people feeling that they’re being prevented from getting work done. Those who tend to feel this stress the most, she said, are “goal-oriented high achievers, because [meetings] get in the way of feeling they’re actually doing work.”

“People who are more social, not as self-structured, they like this time to catch up and talk with colleagues,” she added. “Of course, this frustrates others because [workers] go on and on about one issue and no one guides the conversation, and what happens? We have to schedule another meeting to get to the other items.”

How to trim meeting time

Rogelberg suggested that computer scheduling tools, such as Microsoft Outlook, be tweaked to offer smaller windows for meetings. Many such calendars are fixed in 30-minute or 60-minute scheduling blocks. As a result, he said, “meetings magically take 60 minutes. These can be shorter intervals.”

Managers, he said, can schedule meeting-free periods during the week so employees have uninterrupted blocks of time for deep thought and innovation.

He also encourages companies to quantify the cost of these gatherings.

“The financial cost of meetings and the ROI can be ascertained,” he said. “It creates amazing insights.”   

Rogelberg’s 2011 paper suggests that managers ask employees to document the number of meetings they attend—and the time they spend in them—during a week. Coupling this information with salary data can produce return-on-investment statistics by person, unit, division or the entire organization.

Barber proposes fixed times for discussing each agenda item; “otherwise you can debate something to death.” She also advocates trimming the list of meeting participants by asking, “Do you have to invite everyone?”

“The worst is when you have to sit through a meeting and it’s nothing you had to have input on,” she said. “Instead, you might have certain people come only at certain times for the issue” that’s pertinent to them.

Managers can also try a concept that Rogelberg calls “leading the meeting from behind.”

“This idea of ‘leading a meeting from behind’ is the Holy Grail of meeting effectiveness,” he said. “It means that my job as meeting leader is to promote engagement, facilitate interactions and manage time. I focus on those roles, rather than trying to actively insert myself into the discussion. I certainly speak at times at key junctures, but that is not my primary role. My job is to make sure the meeting is productive, active and successful.”

Dana Wilkie is an online editor/manager for SHRM.

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