While there will always be a place for in-person group communication, too often work meetings can feel frustrating, disruptive and needlessly time-consuming. Anyone who’s ever worked in an office knows how painful it can be to get an email asking for a “quick catch-up meeting” – particularly when in the middle of important work. But that pain goes deeper than you might think and has real, lasting consequences for people, teams and organizations. Here’s what meetings are really doing to your productivity.
An expensive habit
Meetings are easily one of our most expensive forms of synchronous communication, absorbing about 15.5 hours of the average employee’s weekly schedule. Over the past half century meetings haven’t only become significantly more regular, but longer, too. Research shows that in the 1960s managers only spent around 10 hours a week in meetings; today, it’s around 23 hours. And that isn’t even counting all those spur-of-the-moment get-togethers that aren’t accounted for – all those times someone calls you into the breakout room for “a quick chat”.
That doesn’t necessarily mean we’re actually doing more with this expanded contact time. In fact, a lot of our efforts are completely pointless. According to online scheduling service Doodle – who studied 6,500+ people in the US, UK and Germany, and analyzed 19 million meetings – the cost of inefficient meetings in 2019 was $399 billion in the US, and $58 billion in the UK. For just two countries, the combined cost of unnecessary meetings is nearly half a trillion dollars!
Given that around 15% of an organization’s time is spent on meetings – and the US economy alone wastes $25 million per day on ones that are completely unnecessary – meetings can be extremely wasteful. But beyond the financial impact, how else can meetings negatively impact businesses?
Calculating the productive cost of meetings
Sitting in meetings does more than just rinse the budget, steal our time and drain our mental focus. When looking at the real price of meetings, we need to look beyond the meetings themselves.
Meeting recovery syndrome (MRS) is a term that’s been specifically coined to describe the time needed to cool off and refocus after a purposeless meeting. Most of us have come out of meetings we neither wanted nor needed to be in and felt strangely tired and drained after: this is the effect of MRS. Sitting in useless meetings saps our energy, brain power and stamina, and when we come out of them, we need time to recover. But of course, this just chips away at our productivity even more.
From a psychological point of view, time spent in pointless meetings can be harmful. Sitting in a meeting we don’t want to be in, where we have nothing to contribute, can make us feel like we’re superfluous ourselves. When you factor in that most of us have far more important things to do at work, it’s easy to feel resentful and frustrated – not emotions that aid productivity.
Then there’s the time bleed around meetings – because a “just a quick meeting” is never really “just a quick meeting”. Once you factor in all the post- and pre-meeting work, the space meetings occupy expands well beyond the time slot of the meeting itself. There are often meeting notes to write, follow-up emails to send, updates to add on Slack. Often meetings end with the promise of another meeting, “just to see how things progressed.” It’s a never-ending cycle.
Badly scheduled meetings can wreak havoc with your wider productivity. When you have one meeting that finishes at 11:00 and another that starts at 11:30, what can you really do with that time? The time trapped between consecutive meetings is rarely long enough to get stuck into any real work – and deep work is totally out of the question. According to Doodle’s 2019 survey, 44% of participants said poorly scheduled meetings mean they don't have enough time to do their actual work.
To fill these inter-meeting gaps, many of us start context switching – jumping unproductively between small tasks in the vain hope we’ll get something done. But this is hugely counterproductive – it builds up an attention residue, where we continue to process a task even once we’ve moved onto another. Since it’s impossible for our brains to perform two mentally challenging tasks at one time, our focus becomes fractured and we don’t give any single task our full cognitive attention. This has a knock-on effect on engagement; we can become deflated because we feel we’ve achieved nothing despite being constantly busy.
Physical meetings require space and a prearranged time and date, so this means spending often inordinate amounts of time scheduling and coordinating, finding a room, and managing email back-and-forth. Thankfully, meeting scheduling apps now exist which can curb this inefficiency, but they only fix part of the problem.
To keep meetings productive and useful, we need to fundamentally change the way we approach them. Having a clear agenda, for example, matters little if the meeting you’re calling itself isn’t necessary. Before requesting a meeting, we should seriously consider what we want from it. Who really needs to be there? What outcome do we want? What impact should the meeting have? Could this problem be solved by a less intensive form of communication, or added to the agenda of another which has already been scheduled? There will always be a time and a place for meetings, but we can only maximize their strengths by keeping their limitations in mind.