TBT: Meetings are (Usually) a Waste of Time

It’s no secret—I do not like meetings.  It’s somewhat humorous, then, that I ran for an office that pretty much requires me to attend at least one meeting a month.  But at least in a Town Council meeting we cover relevant information necessary to the functioning of the town, and occasionally discuss or debate useful topics pertaining to the interests of our residents.

But in professional settings, I typically find anything longer than an occasional half-hour meeting to be a tedious waste of time.  I can never shake the sensation that most meetings are opportunities for Karens and busybodies to peacock, fanning their feathers to signal their virtue.

This piece, which is actually one of my favorites I’ve ever written, details that we waste 11.8 hours a week in meetings—over 25% of our workweek.  I wonder if remote working has increased or decreased the amount of time spent in meetings; my hope is that it is the latter.  At least with Zoom meetings, you can always switch off your camera and do something productive while the social justice commissars in your human resources department drone on about their latest fad.

Well, let’s hope your week is wrapping up without any more tedious meetings on the horizon.  Here is 25 January 2019’s “Meetings are (Usually) a Waste of Time“:

Here’s something a bit lighter for your Friday morning:  Scott Rasmussen’s Number of the Day series on Ballotpedia from 23 January 2019 claims that, in a 40-hour workweek, Americans spend an average of 11.8 hours of that time in meetings.  That’s over two hours a day, and over 25% of the entire week!

Despite all that time in meetings, Rasmussen writes that “just 54% of workers leave most meetings with a clear idea of what to do next.”  That’s not a ringing endorsement for meetings.

Every fiber of my being is anathema to lengthy, tedious meetings, of any kind.  My time is precious (and valuable—it comes at ~$50/hour for private lessons), and I rarely need someone telling me out loud what could have been sent in an e-mail.  With rare exceptions, I almost always believe that time spent in a meeting could be spent more efficiently working on my own.

Apparently I’m not alone.  From Rasmussen:

The biggest problem workers have with meetings is that many of them are unnecessary. Seventy-six percent (76%) of workers have experienced that frustration. Also high on the list are meetings that don’t stay on topic (59%) and repetition of things that have already been said (58%).

The precise cost of ineffective meetings is impossible to quantify, but estimates range from $70 billion to $283 billion each year.

So not only are meetings ineffective, unnecessary, repetitious, and frequently off-topic, they’re potentially expensive in terms of productivity.

Of course, these numbers coming from a poll, it could be that workers merely perceive meetings to be ineffective and unclear—and they feel it’s okay to admit as such to a pollster—but this data rings true.

There are those who thrive in meetings, either in the roles of leaders or attendees.  Some enjoy preening in front of a group—the busybody types who seek out power, the narcissists who want some fluorescently-accented limelight—and some who like to use meetings as a forum to demonstrate their own cleverness.  For a small few, they need the opportunity to ask questions, either out of a genuine need for additional information, or because they want to virtue-signal to their colleagues.

In recent years, I’ve come to suspect that a large chunk of our workforce consists of people who essentially have meetings and push paper for a living.  With an average of 11.8 hours of meetings per week, this suspicion seems to be gaining concrete support:  that’s an awful lot of time in which to justify your position’s existence.  I imagine public sector bureaucrats at the federal level inflate that number, and not insubstantially (remember that the next time a conservative seeks to cut funding to some government program, and progressives wail—they’re crying about the lost make-work job, not the people who allegedly benefit from the program).  Regardless, just as the bureaucracy expands for the sake of its own self-preservation, it seems that meetings expand to justify their hosts’ jobs.

When dealing with specific technical questions or getting a quote on some expensive piece of equipment or installation, yes, meetings are important and necessary.  Long-term strategy planning requires regular meetings, and a weekly administrative meeting to set goals for the week and to review what’s coming up on the calendar is a prudent idea.  But rambling, two-hour meetings stretch to the point of ineffectiveness—no one can focus, people need to use the bathroom, and the original thread is probably long-since lost down a rabbit hole of objections and side topics.

So, here are my practical guidelines for effective meetings:

  • No more than one hour for infrequent or monthly meetings, but ideally, thirty minutes in length, tops.
  • Have a clear-cut agenda with maybe two or three items; don’t have ten agenda items that you know you won’t be able to cover adequately
  • Be willing to table important items that are not time-sensitive, with a plan to revisit them later.
  • Explain as much as possible via e-mail in advance.  In my experience, if you send a good e-mail in advance, you can wrap up a meeting in fifteen minutes—you’re mainly meeting at that point to confirm that everyone knows what’s going on, and to address any lingering questions and to clarify certain points.

I generally follow these guidelines when I’m required to hold a department meeting, and they make for smooth, quick, efficient meetings.

As a rather solitary worker, I tend to forget that some people want or need more direction—my whole career I’ve just figured stuff out as it’s come up—so I understand the necessary evil of meetings.  That said, I also value other people’s time.

So, the next time you schedule a meeting, make it quick.  People have real work to do.

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