It’s official – most meetings are a waste of time and money

According to research in 2018*, the average SME employee attended 207 meetings every year, of which 139 (67 per cent) were considered a waste of time as they didn’t achieve the goal set. The same research suggests that this could cost a business employing 250 people around £1M year.

The implications for organisations are broader than costs. This isn’t just about wasting time in meetings, it’s about how people feel about the work they’re doing, how they engage with the business, and ultimately how they (and the business) performs.

A quick poll I ran over the last few days on LinkedIn indicated that at least 60% of meetings that respondents had had in the previous week had unclear aims, didn’t make it clear why respondents had been invited, or didn’t in some way add value to their work.

Let’s face it, there’s a lot of room for improvement where meetings are concerned.

There’s a huge amount of advice out there and some great new practices to try if you want to make meetings work a bit better. For example, there are some great techniques for more inclusive meetings at Liberating Structures. So that’s incremental change covered, but taking a more radical approach can pay much higher dividends and have a greater impact on your organisation’s culture.

The benefits of making all meetings optional

Advocated by Ressler and Thompson, following their work with Better Buy and the development of the Results Only Work Environment (ROWE) model, making all meetings optional is a concept that can stimulate culture change.
One of the reasons it’s so powerful is that, by making all meetings optional, managers are sending out 2 important messages very clearly:

  1. Employees are responsible for how they spend their day and how they work, and
  2. Good meetings add value for all those involved in them

When working with organisations, we often find leaders frustrated because employees aren’t taking responsibility and aren’t as engaged with the aims of the business as they want them to be. Rather than being an individual performance issue, this is almost always a systemic and a cultural one.

We know that the standard model of running a business (hierarchical, controlling, compliance-focused) actively discourages people from fully engaging and taking responsibility. The reason? They weren’t the outcomes that were required when that standard model was developed, but work has really changed and the way we do it needs to change too.

If we want different results, we need to do things differently. Making all meetings optional can be the catalyst for real change.


Why do people waste time going to meetings that are ineffective?

It can be difficult to turn down meetings, or even to question why you’re being invited in many organisations, especially if it’s someone senior that’s invited you. Then there are those regular meetings which maybe once had a useful purpose but have become a habit, rather than a deliberate act. Think about all of the meetings you regularly attend. People pitch up to meetings even when they know it will be a waste of time, they don’t do the pre-reading and they don’t engage fully in the meeting when they get there (checking emails while in Zoom meetings anyone?).

Our time is a precious resource, and meetings should be a deliberate coming together to achieve something that we can’t achieve individually.

By explicitly giving people the freedom to choose whether to attend any meeting, things change. Giving people the power to turn down a meeting invitation if they can’t see how it will add value, engages them with the aims of the business, helps them better understand their part in it and gives them the responsibility to make the decision about what to spend time on.

Notes on implementing this change

There are some important things to note here. First of all, make all meetings optional; if you don’t, you’re not really giving people the responsibility to choose.

Secondly, organisers need to be really clear on 3 things when inviting people to a meeting:

• what the outcomes of the meeting will be

• why they are inviting the people they are

• what the role of those attendees will be in the meeting

This enables those invited to make an informed decision about whether to attend.

“But what if no one comes to my important meeting?” I hear you ask. In the unlikely event that happens, you need to find out why. Did you get the invite wrong? Did the people you invite understand its purpose? The reality is that it’s more likely (at least initially) that people will continue to come along to your meeting because you invited them. If you think that people haven’t made a conscious decision to be there, check in with attendees and remind them of the purpose of the meeting and why they’re there at the start of every meeting, highlighting that attendees can step away at any point if they aren’t getting value from it. And mean it.

Finally, you may find that people need to be actively encouraged to ask for more detail about meetings at first, if they don’t get what they should from an invite. In order to assess the value that the meeting will add, invitees need to understand how it will contribute to the aims of the business and the stuff they are working on.

Culture change

Making all meetings optional is an impactful way to change the way a team or even a whole organisation works. It sends a clear message, can have a significant impact on the way people feel about their work, the responsibility they take and, ultimately, how the business performs. Try it for a month and share what happens.

*By STL Microsoft Training (see https://smallbusiness.co.uk/unproductive-meetings-cost-smes-2542090/)