Learning why bad meetings are so costly

One of the most common frustrations of the modern workplace (pre-Covid-19) was the feeling of disappointment that followed a bad meeting that was far too long and accomplished far too little. We’ve all had those experiences but one thing that has only recently started to be discussed is the dollars and cents costs of all meetings, and how wasteful poorly run meetings can be.

What was an occasional annoyance prior to the moves to remote and now hybrid work has become a persistent problem that business leaders have identified as a priority that needs to be addressed. It’s easy to see why.

Our total number of meetings have increased under hybrid work because workers can’t informally meet in offices as much. With technical and other issues around planning often interfering with the quality of online meetings, the levels of frustration go up and productivity goes down. And that means sometimes dozens of well-paid knowledge workers have wasted an hour or more of their time, and are likely to have a lingering lag on their productivity.

This is why Joe Allen, professor of industrial and organizational psychology at the University of Utah, is adamant in his belief that bad meetings are expensive and need to be addressed for hybrid work to continue as the dominant workplace scenario. With more than 55 million meetings taking place every week prior to the pandemic and the shift to hybrid work – and that number substantially increased in the time since – Allen said the six meetings per week that most office workers now face can become a significant obstacle for success.

“More than half of our meetings are rated as poor, not just okay, not so so, but poor. What that means is that there’s a lot of room for improvement, even when you think that your meetings are good, you yourself, you probably have areas where you can improve,” he said. “And we know we’ve all been in meetings where we walk out and thinking, I’m never going to get that hour of my life back.”

Allen said there needs to be some radical rethinking of the “why” and “how” around meetings in the hybrid work era, starting with asking ourselves the hard question of whether a given meeting is truly necessary.

“The primary purpose of having a meeting should be that I need to collaborate with other people, or I need input from them or We need to make a decision,” he said. “It should be something that cannot simply be done via email or a voicemail message or instant messaging back and forth a little bit.”

Key questions to end bad meetings

The two-part question of whether a meeting has purpose and if it requires collaboration or participation from everyone involved can help to significantly decrease the number of low-value meetings that are likely to breed the most frustration.

That was true before the pandemic, Allen said, and he notes that recent research around behaviors during hybrid work show around 90 percent of the best practices recommended beforehand still apply today.

That means the pre-planning steps of lowering meeting attendance to only relevant and important participants is a smart move, as is making summaries widely available afterward for those who weren’t involved.

And with Allen’s research showing it takes three good meetings to make up the damage from one bad one, the savings and increased productivity benefits are obvious.

“Figure out how to make your meeting better, and you’ll avoid three meetings. Your calendar might actually simply improve just by answering those two questions before you schedule them if you’re in the leadership role in the organizer role,” he said.

“We want to invite more people because we think I feel included. But more often than not, our data is saying from an inclusion and perception perspective, people actually would prefer that they be told, don’t show up. It’s okay. We’ll just meet here and then we’ll send you the minutes and then they can focus on the other things. So people aren’t usually offended when you say here’s an hour back from your life to work on other things.”

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Chad Swiatecki

Chad Swiatecki is a business writer and journalist whose work has appeared in Rolling Stone, Billboard, New York Daily News, Austin Business Journal, Austin American-Statesman and many other print and online publications. He lives in Austin, Texas and is a graduate of Michigan State University. Find him online on LinkedIn.