The true cost of big staff meetings (and how to break your team’s addiction to them)

“Oh My God What’s Wrong With Your Calendar!?!?”

Several months ago, while meeting with a marketing team at a large corporation I caught a glimpse of the weekly calendar of the guy sitting next to me. It was terrifying. Every day of the week was a horror show of triple-booked, wall-to-wall staff meetings that I assumed must have been some hilarious recurring scheduling error.

So–because I’m not good at small talk–I chuckled and asked him what went wrong. The ensuing awkwardness told me what I should have guessed right away.

Nothing was wrong with his calendar.

All that stuff on there was real and that’s how it normally looked.

I quickly changed the subject, but for the rest of the day I kept asking myself how someone ends up with a schedule like that?

Excessive staff meetings can be a frustrating part of the culture in large companies and I often hear from our users that sprawling, unproductive meetings are near the top of the ‘necessary evils’ they put up with in their jobs.

Too many meetings break up time for focused work. They often lack a well thought-out agenda, leaving it unclear how people are expected to contribute. And even though there are a lot of very good-sounding reasons for having meetings, all too often they end up being a trainwreck, full of half-engaged people who aren’t sure why they’re there in the first place. And that’s no good for anyone.

It’s a pervasive problem, but one that seems like it’s worth the effort to solve.

Before we dive in… Whether you work from home or in a noisy, crowded office, chances are you’re fighting distraction on a daily basis. Learn how to fight back with our free Guide To Finding Focus and Overcoming Distractions.

Why do bad meetings happen?

I’ll admit it. As a CEO and team leader, I’ve roped people into some absolute stinkers of meetings. The problem is, they all felt like great ideas at the time.

Building consensus and getting feedback from talented, intelligent people seems smart; weekly check-ins help keep everyone focused; and people on the team will feel good that I thought to include them!

However, those good intentions rarely match what happens in reality. Diverse viewpoints can get crowded out by a few loud voices. Collaboration turns into design-by-committee, leaving everyone feeling fine-but-not-excited about the outcome. And those extra people that got pulled in aren’t quite sure why they’re there and end up checking out and working on other things most of the time.

Worst of all, the final outcome is rarely a clear action plan. Often, the only thing we accomplish is scheduling yet another meeting to follow up!

Let’s be clear, meetings don’t inherently suck.

It’s good to share ideas and communicate goals so everyone knows what they should be working on. But staff meetings are tragically easy to over-schedule and lean on as a crutch when the next steps aren’t obvious.

To help put it in perspective, I came across an analogy in Psychology Today that frames the meeting problem really well:

Imagine you’re the driver of a car. Your goal is to get from New York to the sunny city of Los Angeles as quickly as possible. Meetings are like the pit stops you make along the way, to refuel, tune up, get directions.

It doesn’t take long, however, to realize the pit stops are dreadfully drawn-out, inexplicably inefficient, and there are, frankly, way too damn many of them.

    Sign up for our newsletter to get our latest blog posts in your inbox every week.

    How do we curb unproductive meetings?

    I don’t think we should abolish meetings (because, who really thinks that’s going to happen?) but maybe we can reduce the meaningless, unproductive ones a bit. Let’s take a look at a few ways to approach your meetings in a more sane way.

    If you’re organizing a meeting

    Writing on meeting board

    If you’re going to set up a meeting, start by acknowledging that it’s important and it deserves the effort to make it worthwhile for everyone involved.

    Do the prep work to make the meeting valuable before scheduling it. It’s not hard, but so many people skip over this stuff.

    • Make an agenda
    • Think through the outcomes you want
    • Seriously consider who really needs to be there and how you expect them to participate

    This up-front thinking makes you work through a lot of the problems you would have otherwise stumbled through in the meeting. And it gives you a clear direction to communicate to the people who are there. If you’re lucky, you might figure out you don’t even need the meeting. And at the very least you’ll be in good shape to move it along more quickly.

    For me, a useful side effect of preparing like this is that I’m a lot more invested in the meeting being a good one.

    It’s a pain in the ass to do all that work and then have a bad meeting. It raises the mental cost of the meeting and I’m more likely to pause and think about whether it’s worth having in the first place.

    Imagine how you would solve this problem if your company banned meetings altogether

    It’s a bit of a thought experiment, but it might also be a good idea to consider how you’d move forward if having a staff meeting simply wasn’t an option.

    It’s almost too easy to call a meeting these days. There’s no friction to it. You send out calendar invites and block off time on other people’s calendars in a way that’s awkward for them to opt-out of.

    What would happen if meetings were harder? How would you proceed? Could this all be handled over email? Slack? A couple of quick one-on-ones?

    Think about the (true) cost of the meeting

    One powerful way to break you out of the habit of calling unimportant meetings is to look at the true cost of bringing this group of people together. In one study of time budgeting at large corporations, Bain & Company found that a single weekly meeting of mid-level managers was costing one organization $15M a year!

    Payroll is easily our largest expense, so a bad or unnecessary meeting is a costly mistake. It’s interesting how hard it is to keep that in mind. If I’m deciding on buying software that costs $500 per month, I’ll think REALLY hard about it. Hell, I might even call a meeting with some folks to discuss whether we need it or not! But when it comes to a meeting that costs that much, or more, I don’t have the same reaction.

    It’s like I need a view like this to keep it in perspective:

    If you’re invited to a meeting

    Even if you’re not the organizer, you can take some steps to protect your time, get more out of your staff meetings, and be an example for other people on your team.

    Remember, your time is valuable

    Don’t be shy about asking questions before accepting a meeting invite. Get a clear agenda, and ask the organizer how you can best contribute. If it seems like the meeting isn’t the best use of your valuable time, consider whether or not you should attend. It’s hard for someone in leadership to deny that you want to spend your time more productively rather than twiddle your thumbs in a meeting you don’t need to be a part of.

    Be proactive about deciding when you can join meetings

    If you want to be even more proactive in making sure your days don’t get crowded out with meetings start each week by blocking off hours that you want to spend on focused work. That ensures you’ll get the amount of maker time you need, and will force people to come talk to you if they need to get some of your time.

    If the meeting is essential, and your attendance makes sense, do whatever you can to make it run smoothly. Do your research and come prepared to answer any questions that might come up. The in-person aspect of meetings can help you come up with more creative solutions to the problem at hand, as long as everyone comes in prepared to work on it.

    A little moderation is key

    Obviously, good communication is vital to your team’s ability to do meaningful work. That’s especially true if your team is distributed all over like ours is. But it’s important to have a good perspective on how meetings impact your business, and use them wisely.

    Sometimes, a big meeting is totally worth it, even if it’s unstructured. We have a weekly all-hands meeting that we use as an opportunity for everyone to see each other’s faces and hear about the exciting things we’re all working towards. Those meetings help us feel connected and build empathy with each other.

    Even though an all hands meeting is one of the most expensive ways we could possibly spend an hour, it feels like a good use of the time. So meetings aren’t all bad.

    The upside of swimming against the current of heavy meeting culture is huge.

    Think about it: By freeing up the time and brainpower that’s usually being spent in big meetings, you’re defending your team’s attention and giving them room to do more meaningful, impactful work.

    So before you book that meeting, take a step back and think if you really need to or if it’s just a bad habit you’ve picked up. A little restraint can go a long way in keeping your team happier, more productive, and less stressed.

    Photos by Benjamin Child, The Climate Reality Project, and Jonathan Velasquez

    Leave a comment