The Problem With Meetings? They Cost More Than They’re Really Worth

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How much is it costing?

We just spent over $5,000 for a half-hour meeting,” one of the senior executives said. The meeting was to decide the scheduled lunch hour, and this was the second meeting.

As I heard this, I could almost see an old-fashioned time clock at the conference room door that punched time in and time out. Taking that a step further, we could envision, at the end of the “month,” the exact cost for each one of these important meetings. It would be a sobering report if all of our meeting hours were calculated as such.

How much is it costing?

What if every meeting objective could be measured by the cost of the process? That number would be sobering, to say the least.

Meetings are the bane of corporate existence. Whether it is a conference call or a physical meeting, these are part of our process of doing business, and for the most part, they are not going away.

If it is a conference call, it is palatable (at least) because we can mute our lives away, continue our work, or scan the Internet. Yes, we have been there and done that.

We have all read articles about some creative ways to cut meetings short, like a stand-up meeting, or no PowerPoint slides, etc. However, the clock is still running.

Let’s face it — most meetings are a drain and a waste of time. How many times have we sat there and realized that the meeting had turned into something else, and the discussion is like talking to an aged uncle where it starts in one direction and ends someplace else.

Drifting away

Sometimes during a meeting, I watch people’s faces and you can tell from their expression that they are not mentally in the room. If a collection of those thoughts could be published, you would undoubtedly have a best seller on your hands.

My magic bullet is to not have them in the meeting in the first place. In seven (7) months in my new role, I have called two all-hands-on-deck meetings. I had one to introduce myself, and one more to discuss how we would move ahead with our processes. I will probably have one more before the end of the year to lay out my HR plan and walk them all through it.

A total of three meetings in six months sound like a winner to me. I am, however, known for pulling up a chair in the work area and having an impromptu “discussion” on an issue.

Is your concept clear?

So this isn’t about three, or five, or 10 ways to meetings nirvana. This is my simple suggestion that we need to avoid having a meeting at all costs.

I seem to have figured out that when a meeting is called, there is trouble ahead if the concept is not clear. So, if I can make the concept clear by conversation, email or better yet, a face-to-face discussion, I’m ahead of the curve.

Our days are precious and we all know that when we arrive at work, we have our list of things to accomplish that day. I look at any intrusion on that as limiting my mission for completing all I need to complete that day. I try to live by my To-Do list, and even use an app [Evernote] that which allows me to make notes throughout the day and even on the way home.

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There is no one size fit all to the meeting problem. Any good solution has a lot of factors that have to be considered — the kind of work we do, the culture, and the work environment. When New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg took office, it made news that he arranged people as opposed to offices to keep the conversations alive and ongoing.

Some things are out of our control

It is not like a late night TV commercial, where everything can be solved or a solution reached. This is one that we will have to figure out on our own.

Unlike other factors of corporate life, the dynamics of a meeting are sometimes out of our control. But if we manage ourselves properly in running our own area, we are going a long way to help set the tone for our people. Let them learn from the way that you conduct yourselves.

What has always amazed me was how initially, companies would lock down the Internet and/or block social sites because they considered them time wasters. However, pull out the time clock and measure the amount of money that is sitting around the conference room during an overlong meeting and the true time waster will pop up.

I heard of a company that banned access to outside mail [Gmail, Yahoo, etc]. From 12-1:30 pm, and then again from 4-5 pm however, they opened it up for full access. I found this laughable and a good example of how sometimes in organizations we can get side-tracked.

Outside email was perceived as a time waster, but the three  hour meeting was not. I also thought of this organization worrying about email being a time waster, they may have a point because those resumes for your workers looking for new jobs are now scheduled to be emailed out.

Find the real time wasters

So if you must have a meeting please do the following:

  • If you are the meeting chairperson, don’t be weak because you are the conductor. If it is bad it is because of YOU.
  • Have a clear agenda. What, pray tell, are you trying to solve?
  • At the end of the meeting, what decision should be made?
  • Think — How much time do you really need to arrive at a decision?
  • Always — always! — think about that meter that is running in the background.

Remember: you do not want a consensus at the end of your meeting that everyone agrees that your meeting was a complete waste of time.

Ron Thomas is Managing Director, Strategy Focused Group DWC LLC, based in Dubai. He is also a senior faculty member and representative of the Human Capital Institute covering the MENA/Asia Pacific region.

He was formerly CEO of Great Place to Work-Gulf and former CHRO based in Riyadh. He holds certifications from the Human Capital Institute as Global Human Capital Strategist, Master Human Capital Strategist, and Strategic Workforce Planner.

He's been cited by CIPD as one of the top 5 HR Thinkers in the Middle East. He received the Outstanding Leadership Award for Global HR Excellence at the World Human Resources Development Congress in Mumbai, and was named as one of the 50 Most Talented Global HR Leaders in Asia

Ron's prior roles included senior HR positions with Xerox HR services, IBM, and Martha Stewart Living.

Board memberships include the Harvard Business Review Advisory Council, McKinsey Quarterly's Executive Online Panel, and HCI's Expert Advisory Council on Talent Management Strategy.

His work has been featured in the Wall Street Journal, Inc. Magazine, Workforce Management and numerous international HR magazines covering Africa, India and the Middle East.

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