Dear Omar

How to Calculate All the Money You’re Wasting on Meetings

And what to do about it

Welcome to Dear Omar, a weekly Debugger column from tech expert Omar L. Gallaga. If you have questions for Omar, send them to debugger@medium.com with the subject line “Dear Omar.”

A little over 10 years ago, when I worked as an entertainment editor at a newspaper, I learned firsthand the feeling of futility that meetings can create. I was in a conference room with a yellow legal pad and pen with a few other staffers, ready for a meeting to begin to discuss our coverage of South by Southwest.

The meeting began, and after some initial small talk about our weekends and some fumbling with email printouts… nothing happened. The conversation dried up. Someone may have coughed.

We realized, with a mixture of horror and “You gotta be shitting me!” bemusement, that the person who called the meeting weeks before no longer worked with us. And on top of that, we had no real agenda or tangible ground to cover; it was still too early to do any significant planning for this festival and we all had other work that was far more pressing.

The meeting was adjourned early, we had a laugh, but I wish I could say this was the only meeting in my long office career that didn’t need to happen. This particular meeting, like so many others, wasn’t just a waste of our time; it also cost our company money. Even journalists, who aren’t known for their high pay, have a set of skills that makes their time valuable. The time we spent huddled in an unproductive meeting was time we could have each spent working on daily assignments and long-term projects.

Before Covid-19 shifted nearly all work meetings for many people to webcam-based virtual gatherings, meetings usually worked like this: someone, typically a manager, decided that an upcoming project or topic was important enough to gather over. Either that person sends out an email or calendar invite telling people to meet at a location, time, and date, or a whole process began of “What’s a good time everyone can meet for this important discussion?” Even with tools such as Doodle or WhenToMeet to pick an optimal gathering time, that process can drag on and delay important discussions.

Then, with the meeting scheduled, staffers defer other work or meetings to make way for this upcoming one that’s scheduled. And then the fun begins. It can take employees as long as 30 minutes to gear up for an upcoming meeting, which can involve stopping whatever they’re doing and gathering materials or doing whatever prep work is necessary to show up prepared. In what Clockwise blogger Alex Moser elegantly calls the “blast radius” of a meeting, the same happens after a meeting, as employees have to get back into the work groove, or “Focus Time,” they were in before the interruption. She writes, “Getting real work done often requires long, uninterrupted blocks of time, and meetings are one of the biggest reasons why those blocks are so rare.”

Inc. reports that $25 million is wasted per day on unproductive meetings in the U.S., which doesn’t seem so staggering until you hear that annually, $37 billion is being wasted.

The idea of needing periods of real focus at work (as opposed to frequent watercooler breaks) has been a buzzy topic in the last few years, in no small part due to Cal Newport’s book Deep Work.

You can actually calculate the productivity cost of all of this. The web is full of tickers and calculators that can help you figure it out.

One of my favorites is the simplest: The GitHub project “Meeting Ticker” only asks for the number of meeting attendees, the average hourly rate each person makes (it asks to consider benefits and facility overhead, but really it just wants a ballpark figure, say $100 an hour salary), and what time the meeting started. The running dollar-figure tally is fast and alarming, like watching dollar bills dropped into an open flame.

Harvard Business Review has a more elegant version of the same idea. Its Meeting Cost tool, which is available on the web or as a mobile app, allows you to enter individual salary estimates for each meeting attendee and to share the figures it comes up with. For a 90 minute meeting with six people of various salaries, from around $50,000 a year to $80,000 a year, for instance, the tool came up with a cost estimate of $451 total. (That doesn’t include the cost of coffee or prep time.)

The point of these calculators is to show that these costs, which may seem insubstantial in the moment, really do add up. Inc. reports that $25 million is wasted per day on unproductive meetings in the U.S., which doesn’t seem so staggering until you hear that annually, $37 billion is being wasted.

In an infographic that pulls together information from sources including Atlassian and Forbes, ReadyTalk reports that most employees attend 62 meetings a month, about a third of their time, at an average of 90 minutes per meeting.

While most everyone can agree that too many meetings, especially unproductive meetings, are a problem, it can be tough to figure out what to do about it short of eliminating unnecessary meetings, which is a good first step. Here are some other ideas:

Adjourn early: Maybe the meeting is scheduled for an hour, but the main points are tackled in 30 minutes. Don’t be tempted to use those extra 30 minutes to go off track. Cut the meeting short if business has been handled.

Prioritize attendance: It’s nice to make staff members feel included, but not everybody needs to be in on every discussion. Keep the number of attendees of work meetings low unless the meeting involves critical information everyone needs to know. You can send a follow-up email or Slack message filling in team members on the main points without making them sit for an entire meeting, especially if only part of the meeting is relevant to their job.

Virtual problems: Virtual meetings present their own set of time-wasting problems, often technical. Expect to spend the first five to 10 minutes of any Zoom meeting ensuring everyone has audio and the people show up. For this reason, very short Zoom meetings don’t always make sense; a discussion over messaging or some other kind of electronic communication might be better.

Have an agenda: Even for nonformal meetings, a quick bullet list or a few keywords can help keep things on track. Don’t go in completely unprepared, especially if you’re leading the meeting.

Have a goal: What’s this meeting for? What are you trying to accomplish? If you don’t know, you should probably cancel the meeting.

Assign action items: A good way to wrap up any meeting is to recap what everyone’s next steps are and what needs to happen before any follow-up meetings are held. Send out that list of action items after the meeting to everyone who attended if you’re the meeting leader.

Meetings can suck morale from an office and make people wish they were somewhere else, but you can minimize these problems by being smart about when to have them and how to get the most out of those unavoidable work meetings.

Tech culture writer and podcaster, now freelancing in Texas. Bylines: Washington Post, WSJ, CNN, NPR, Texas Monthly. Here for all your wordy needs.

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