Meetings put time management on the agenda
Research indicates a large percentage of workers consider many of their work meetings a waste of time
A survey carried out by Viking in Ireland found half of employees said up to 30 minutes of every team meeting were wasted. A UK survey found office workers believed more than a third of all meetings they attended were pointless.
Are meetings a necessary evil or a huge waste of time? When you’re caught up in them day after day it can easily feel like the latter.
In theory, the chance to gather with colleagues or existing and potential clients is a good thing. You meet, you discuss, you form plans and then carry them out. But all too often little or nothing gets achieved at such get-togethers and employees find themselves drifting from one pointless meeting to another with little real reward, except the joy of having to attend to their real work afterwards.
According to a recent survey conducted on behalf of the software firm Citrix, UK office workers believed that more than a third of all meetings they attended were pointless. Given the study found respondents were spending an average of 3.3 hours attending meetings each day, it’s not exactly surprising that few felt they got much out of being at them.
A second study, carried out by headset manufacturer Sennheiser and published in April, showed the average British worker will sit through 6,239 meetings in their career. As with the Citrix study, most of those surveyed felt most meetings were a waste of time. In fact, as many as 70 per cent of respondents admitted to zoning out during them, while 20 per cent said they had dozed off while at one.
If you’ve found yourself dreading going to work because of the many meetings that lie ahead that day, then you are certainly not alone. The Dutch even have a specific word to describe the phenomenon: “Vergaderziekte”, which translates as “meeting sickness”.
Co Wicklow-based business psychologist Anna Connolly warns that as well as being incredibly frustrating, unproductive meetings are also costly. She cites a study carried out by Bain & Company in the United States which found that one weekly executive meeting for 11 people was costing one firm some 300,000 hours across the company each year, once all the preparatory meetings undertaken by subordinates were added in.
“We often forget that an unsuccessful meeting does not just cost a company one hour of unproductive downtime but that times the number of people present. For example, a one-hour meeting of eight people equates to one day of unproductive downtime, not to mention the cost of demotivating employees,” said Ms Connolly.
“I often hear employees from both public and private sector complain about the amount of time spent in meetings that do not achieve anything, but how widespread this is in Ireland is hard to quantify. This seems to be more of a problem in larger companies and particularly in those that have employees in more than one location,” she added.
While unproductive meetings with clients certainly occur, internal team meetings tend to be worse as there is no outside force to ensure attendees keep to set agendas. Moreover, with staff not necessarily having to be on their best behaviour, rivalries can come to the fore and meetings become little more than a battle between warring factions.
A survey carried out by office supplier Viking in Ireland earlier this year found 70 per cent of workers felt most team meetings were not productive. In addition, 50 per cent of employees said that up to half an hour of every team meeting was a waste of time.
The Viking research also found that half of all Irish companies scheduled internal meetings once a month; 29 per cent arranged meetings once a week; 14 per cent had twice-weekly meetings; and 7 per cent met two to three times a week.
Michael Walby, Viking’s director in Ireland, said meetings need not be a waste of time.
“Team meetings are a vital way of exchanging information, spurring ideas and ensuring all members of a team are kept up to date with what is happening. For that reason, companies should promote meetings for discussion, brainstorming and team collaboration within the office environs but establish best company practice when it comes to time and efficiency in the meeting space,” he said.
All very well and good, but a problem is that in many organisations little consideration is given to what the meeting is about.
“The question that is usually neglected centres on what you want the meeting to achieve,” said Ms Connolly.
“The key characteristics of those meetings that do not succeed are ones that are called with no purpose or agenda, for which there has been no preparation and in which there is no leader to keep discussions on tracks. Usually there are no actions or outcomes from these meeting and no follow-up either,” she added.
Dublin-based organisational psychologist and consultant Seán Ruth agrees.
He believes a key problem with meetings is that people often don’t know why they are gathering and, because they won’t listen to each other, have no way of finding out.
“The difficulty with meetings is that they aren’t usually run very well. Time tends to get wasted with people talking at cross-purposes so that people can end up disagreeing on things they don’t even need to reach agreement on. In addition, meetings can often be dominated by one or two people arguing back and forth, which stops any consensus being reached, because you don’t get to hear what everyone thinks,” he said.
“For meetings to succeed, there needs to be clear guidelines on the reason why it is being held. Is it to reach an agreement or simply to share ideas? Also, I believe it is better not to have any discussion until everyone has made their contribution so that you get to hear from everyone rather than just those who are most vocal,” he added.
While having a clear agenda is one solution, others have called for more drastic action, such as time limits for meetings.
“Setting an hour for a meeting is making a statement that you are allowing that amount of time for the meeting even though you may not need it. You can make very effective use of half an hour or even 15 minutes if you plan it and manage it effectively,” said Gearóid Hardy, a management consultant and an adjunct lecturer in the UCD Michael Smurfit Graduate Business School.
Another alternative is to have stand-up meetings, which tend to encourage attendees to cut to the chase quickly, or virtual ones, although research indicates that these can often be less effective than face- to-face gatherings.
One thing on which most of the experts agree is that while they can be frustrating, meetings serve many purposes and as a consequence are unlikely to disappear anytime soon.
“Meetings provide social interaction and provide us with an opportunity to build relationships and network with colleagues. They keep us in the loop on what is going on in our organisations, enable leaders to communicate their vision and have been shown to be effective in evaluating and combining ideas to create something better than the sum of the parts,” said Ms Connolly.
“Attendance at certain leadership meetings, committees or project get-togethers can also indicate power and status within organisations and these unconscious drivers can over-ride rational consideration such as whether a meeting is actually necessary,” she added.
Previously published in The Irish Times.
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