Remember when meetings were useful? No, we don’t either.
Apparently, they used to be good for getting the right people together, communicating key ideas and hashing out solutions to problems.
Now, it’s easier to see them as a barrier to work, a distraction that you have to go through with. And it turns out that all these meetings cost businesses a lot of money.
How much do meetings cost your business?
The exact cost to a business depends on the size of the company, the number of employees involved in a meeting, and the number of meetings attended each year. To estimate the cost of meetings to your business, you can use the Harvard Business Review Meeting Cost Calculator – try it out below.
All you need to do is insert the duration of the meeting, the number of employees attending and the rough salary of each employee (NB – this tool works in USD rather than GBP, so here’s a currency converter if you need).
Once other costs are accounted for – catering for a lunch time meeting, or travel expenses for staff – the costs can quickly stack up. And while there is the financial cost of meetings, and there is also the cost of lost productivity to consider.
The cost of lost productivity
Productivity is measured in economic output per hours worked. This is, essentially, measuring the volume of production over a set period.
Productivity in the UK has been low since the economic downturn in 2008. Regardless of the reasons why (no-one really knows, not even the economists), statistics from both the Office of National Statistics and the OECD show that productivity is demonstrably lower in the UK than in many neighbouring European countries and other members of the G7.
While it may be a stretch to assume that the productivity gap is solely down to unproductive meetings, it might not be far from the truth. With a handful of meetings to attend and a constant stream of notifications pouring in, it’s not difficult to see how productivity could fall.
This is the detrimental effect on productivity not just at the macro scale, but at the micro scale, too.
Overstimulation in the form of meetings and excessive demands on our attention can prevent us from engaging with tasks in a deep and meaningful way. Our inability to multitask – the actual capacity of our neurology to simultaneously manage multiple tasks efficiently – is a big part of this.
“Deep work” is a term coined by Cal Newport, an American professor. When studying for his degree, Newport blogged (and later published a book) about how to focus in the digital era while we are peppered with notifications and distractions.
Newport advocates “deep work” as a method to engage with tasks in a productive, meaningful and focused way. The way to achieve this concentrated state is to ignore distractions – phones, emails, and unnecessary meetings.
Carving out time in a schedule for this – by avoiding unnecessary, unproductive meetings – can help you to engage with work tasks more fully, helping to make up the productivity gap.
How to keep your meetings on track
While productivity outside of meetings can be increased by “deep working” methods, meetings are also an area with plenty of room for improvement. Below are a few tips to improve efficiency and reduce the cost of meetings.
– Before you start – or before you arrange the meeting – try to define the aim that you want to achieve. What is the purpose of the meeting? Who, realistically, needs to be there and who doesn’t?
– Next up, you should set an agenda. Try to create a logical flow to the points so that it’s clear what you want to cover in moving from one point to the next.
– When you arrange the meeting, be sure to only invite the necessary people, because meeting costs increase per attendee. If you’re invited to an unnecessary meeting, don’t be afraid to swerve it – just give the organiser a heads up; it’s only polite.
– When your meeting is due to start, just start; don’t wait for latecomers. Getting underway promptly indicates a respect for those who have arrived on time and prevents too much wasted time.
– If you want to ensure concentration, take some tips from Cal Newport – don’t allow phones or laptops in to meetings. They’re a source of distraction and not conducive to productive meetings.
If you had to use a single word to describe this plan, the best one would probably be minimise: minimise distractions, minimise attendees, minimise meandering conversation.
Meetings should be a forum for decision making rather than an ineffective and time-draining distraction. The HBR also cites “dysfunctional meeting behaviour” as detrimental. Sending emails during a meeting, for example, or working on something else is counterproductive.
If meetings really are out of hand, you may need to consider making systemic change. If attendees are sat in meetings sending emails or typing away at a laptop, then it’s time for drastic action.
To enact change, it’s important to understand how meetings can interrupt individual and group time, and the subsequent impact of that interruption.
By inviting individuals to meetings, you interrupt their personal work. This impact is multiplied across groups. The frequency of meetings and their occurrence on a given day can impact with schedules, too, and may inhibit the ability of workers to find time for “deep work”.
Need some inspiration from movers and shakers? Jeff Bezos from Amazon refuses to call or attend a meeting where two pizzas aren’t enough to feed the attendees. Similarly, Elon Musk advocates leaving a meeting or call as soon as you’ve made your contribution or the discussion goes beyond your area.
By recognising how meetings impact on schedules and work output, and reducing the frequency, occurrence and structure of meetings, you can move to a more successful model for meetings.
Recalibrating workplace culture can be a difficult task, but it’s an important step to take to reduce costs and improve productivity.