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Is That Meeting Really Necessary?

Topics: Work Culture

Is there anything more painful than sitting through a meeting that’s headed nowhere — and that you don’t need to be in? I’m talking about the kind with no appointed leader, no agenda, and no set end time. Essentially little more than a glorified moan-fest, meetings of this nature are ubiquitous in office culture, and are known for sucking the life out of productivity.

According to the Atlassian, employees waste 31 hours per month in meetings.

That’s nearly an entire week of work.

That’s like only working three out of four weeks per month.

And if you work for a company whose billable hourly rate exceeds $100 per hour, that’s at least $37,000 per year, per employee.

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Think of all the things you could purchase for the office with that money. Think of all the extra staff your employer could hire, or the raise you could get, if they decided to hand out that cash to hardworking employees instead. Think of all the work you could get done to earn that raise, if you weren’t sitting in meetings all day.

Thus, I’m hoping everyone (everyone) reading this will hear/read my fervent plea: can we please, once and for all, put an end to pointless meetings? The answer is, YES, WE CAN. But not without making some adjustments.

The next time you’re about to send a calendar invite for a meeting with little to no context or preparation, ask yourself: is that meeting really necessary?

Answer: It Might Be

Before I get too deep into my tirade against meetings, I want to acknowledge that some meetings really, truly (and madly, and deeply) are necessary.

I also want to acknowledge that there’s a lot of good to be mined from a productive meeting. Stepping out of a good meeting can feel like stepping over a new horizon altogether. It can be the jump-start you need to reinvest at work, the spark to finally reignite a creative streak gone cold, the clarity you need to stick with a company, or the resolution you need to cement a partnership and move forward with a client on good terms.

In many cases, the face-time of an in-person meeting makes a statement that has no substitute. If you’re pitching business halfway across the country and take the time to book a flight and deliver the pitch in person, I think that says something. If two colleagues aren’t working well together and it takes an out-of-office happy hour to get the olive branch into both hands, I’d thank the meeting for its effectiveness. Meetings, though tricky, are not all bad.

Still, as a culture, we have a meeting problem. We’re over-scheduled, under-managed, and ever evolving our capabilities and capacities for work and innovation. So why can’t we crack the code on meetings?

A wonderful company I used to work for (full of smart, talented, creative people, I might add) once launched a crusade against unnecessary meetings — and not just because we were all tired of them,  but because the company’s profitability depended on it.

In calculating the hours worked on several projects, we learned that we’d lost over 100 hours of billable time on a single project, all thanks to meetings that did seemingly nothing for the bottom line, or the finished product. Too often, these “brainstorms” would turn into marathon tangents of people volleying complaints or pithy jokes back and forth to one another across the table, while the others in the room sat around mindlessly scrolling through emails and research. We were almost never fully present, and therefore, our meetings were almost never fully functional.

The Causes of Unproductive Meetings

When the partners started to investigate why everyone and their dog were wasting company money on meetings we didn’t need to have, we started to notice a few trends:

1) There was no specific goal for the meeting. “Kickoff meetings” were a huge thing in our office. At the start of a new project, we’d get everyone together to discuss what was happening. Then in a few days, we’d have another meeting to discuss what had happened since then, and what would start happening in the future. Then we’d have a few smaller team meetings, and then we’d have another big kickoff meeting — the briefing.

It didn’t take a data analyst crunching numbers like hard candy to identify that many of our meetings were premature. After all, if you don’t even know what you’re trying to accomplish, or the parameters you’ll use to gauge success, why the heck would you have a meeting? Seems like some partner work, solo work time, and online correspondence could accomplish that.

2) There was no specific end time set, either. We’d step into these meetings with a seemingly infinite amount of time to play with. The only endpoint was dictated by whoever had the next meeting, meaning meetings would sometimes run on for over two hours, or bleed into other meetings. Many employees spent their. entire. days. sitting in meetings. Let me be clear: it’s very difficult to keep a conversation productive beyond the hour mark; anything beyond that is a really great date or just killing time.

3) No one was holding us to the two aforementioned (albeit non-exist) things. Perhaps our biggest mistake was not designating a leader of the meeting. We’d trickle into the conference room, fiddle with the technology until someone could figure out how to get our deck pulled up and our remote employees phoned in, and after those 15 minutes of fumbling, we’d all stare at each other and wait for someone to start the meeting. If you want to have more productive meetings, the first thing you should do is designate someone to run them. It doesn’t have to be the smartest person in the room, or even the project lead. It just needs to be someone comfortable with holding other people accountable and keeping the meeting on task. And yes, part of that means herding cats to make sure the right people are in the meeting.

4) And on that note, the right people were rarely in the right meetings. We either couldn’t find time on the right people’s schedule and had to move forward without them (big mistake), or had way too many bodies in the room. The truth was, everyone felt more critical to the situation than they really were — a crummy reality considering that nobody wants to be expendable on a big project. But more than that, we simply hadn’t figured out how to get input, direction, and buy-in from the right people without tying up their calendars for an hour. We didn’t have checkpoints or filters in place to make sure projects were flowing smoothly. Had we instated these, we probably wouldn’t have needed so many meetings.

5) We were making decisions by committee. Afraid of skipping over someone’s input, we’d invite the whole fam-damily to the concept session, then all of a sudden, we’d have used up $1,000 of the project budget on a single 45-minute meeting. And guess what? You can’t in good conscience make a client pay for your poor planning. At that point, you’re looking at little more than lost profit.

In another role, I once sat through a meeting where six (SIX!!!!!!) different people helped write and edit social media copy by voice and vote. To this day, I’ve never experienced a greater professional waste of time. You know what they say: there goes another meeting that should’ve been an email.

6) We were calling meetings to schedule more meetings. Seriously. We’d have a meeting with the team to discuss an appropriate timeline — a mind-boggling, stupid fact when you consider what a smart bunch of people we were. Thanks to the advent of Google Calendars, When Is Good, and a host of other project management software solutions, meetings to schedule meetings should really never be a thing. They were our normal.

7) Roles, responsibilities, and expectations weren’t clearly defined. And it doesn’t take an expert in productivity to figure out that when roles are nebulous, nothing gets done. If it’s everyone’s responsibility, it’s nobody’s responsibility. We were leaving hour and a half-long meetings with plenty of great ideas, but no clear next steps, and no systems in place for checking in on them.

Why You Should Meet Mindfully

Needless to say, meetings had gotten out of hand. So, we made some drastic changes. Meetings had a hard stop of one hour, max. Each meeting had a designated leader who was responsible for sending out the agenda (with clearly outlined deliverables) ahead of the meeting. Computers were left behind, and we started limiting the number of people in the meetings. The change was bumpy at first, and slowly but surely, things turned around.

There are plenty of ways to skin a cat, and plenty of ways to get people together to talk about a project. But perhaps the piece we’re missing is that meetings shouldn’t be for talking about a project: they should be for working on a project. Ask yourself how much time you’re spending on both, and you might be surprised by the proportions. And if you find that your meeting approach is all talk, no action, maybe that meeting isn’t really necessary.

Tell Us What You Think

Meetings, yea or nay? We want to hear from you. Tell us your opinion in the comments or join the conversation on Twitter.

Megan Shepherd
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