Managing time in meetings

As research shows that managers spend 15% of their time in meetings, here’s how to better manage meeting time in your organisation

Three hours. This was the average time of the weekly management meeting in one of the organisations I worked for. Every Sunday at 9am, 15 executives gathered around a boardroom table with a spread of pastries and soft drinks. In the original invite we received, the meeting time was set for 9am to 10.30am, but in practice and without exception, the meetings lasted until 12pm.

In these situations, I had trouble concentrating. My thoughts regularly wandered to cost-benefit calculations. The math is simple: 15 managers, an average salary of NIS 25,000 (£5,571), which works out at NIS 137 per work hour (£31). If we multiply the number of participants by the number of hours plus the employer’s cost, we would find that the meeting wasted NIS 8,323 (around £1,855) of company money. If we think about the total output that each manager could produce for the company within the same amount of time, the cost per meeting would be even higher. This realisation left me with a feeling of severe frustration.

Size does not matter

Recent research shows that executives spend 15% of collective company time in meetings – a percentage that has increased every year since 2008. The figure is not surprising: meetings are help deliver vision, build work plans and create solutions to business and professional challenges. When well-run, meetings are a great means of gathering ideas and prompting employees into greater engagement. However, in most organisations, there is a widespread phenomenon of multiple, long and ineffective meetings that do more harm than good.

Expensive organisational disease

Wasting time is considered a serious organisational disease that carries a heavy price – first and foremost in the context of financial cost. A four-year survey by Proudfoot Consulting found that failing business management in the UK was estimated at a loss of £80 billion per year. Another longitudinal study found that the number of hours managers spend in meetings increased from 10 weekly hours in the 60s to 23 weekly hours nowadays. If you connect these two facts, it would appear that the multitude of meetings is a major factor in an organisation’s ‘time disease’.

Damage to corporate morale

In addition to the financial loss, wasting time in meetings damages the corporation in other ways too. Researchers Rogelberg, Scott and Kello found a connection between the effectiveness of meetings and the satisfaction of participants. Results showed that as meetings lengthened, the negative feelings among participants increased. The more employees were forced to stay in poorly managed meetings, the greater their dissatisfaction with their work, and the higher the tendency of them leaving the workplace. Patrick Lencioni, author of Death by Meeting, argues that participants of poorly managed meetings also develop torments such as anger, fatigue, cynicism, and even decreased self-esteem.

Zero-sum game

In life in general and in organisations in particular, the time component is a zero-sum game: every minute an employee spends on ineffective meetings causes a valuable loss of time to perform personal tasks, which are equally important for promoting creativity and efficiency. An unreasonable number of meetings can even prevent the employee from ‘deep work’ – a term coined by Georgetown University professor Cal Newport to describe the ability to focus on a demanding assignment without distractions. As a result, many employees tend to get to work early, stay in the office until late or work weekends to concentrate on completing tasks. In light of all this, and for the health of the employees, it is advisable to take a more strategic approach to meetings.

How to manage meeting times in your organisation

1. Plan a lean meeting time

Write down the topics you want to discuss in advance and the maximum time you will allocate to each topic. Then, lower the total time limit by 15 minutes. This will help ensure you manage the time correctly instead of time managing you.

2. Build a neat agenda

Decide in advance who it is essential attends the meeting and avoid unnecessary duplicates. When sending invites, update each participant on the topic within their responsibility and instruct them on the relevant materials they should prepare in advance and present at the meeting. At the end of the meeting set action items and a timeframe for them, put them in writing and track performance.

3. Lead with a culture of respect for time

Be sure to start and finish meetings on time. The expectation for proper time management must be communicated both when sending the agenda and when opening the meeting. If you provide a personal example with time, even workers who are chronically late will internalise the culture and align themselves.

4. Conduct morning meetings standing up

There is no justification for having a morning meeting or status updates relating to daily tasks on the agenda that lasts for more than 5-10 minutes. To keep up with this schedule, conduct it standing or in a break room. When conducting meetings in such a way, there is a strong statement from leadership about the importance of time management. In addition, when compared to a sitting position, standing up invigorates participants and encourages them to behave more effectively.

5. Give up pastries

Beyond the fact that empty carbohydrates are harmful to health, a work session is designed to promote business, not culinary appetites. Therefore, lunch will be held outside the discussion table. While meeting, pitchers of water and fruit plates certainly convey a message of efficiency.

6. Allow your employees to lead

After successfully leading a number of time-oriented meetings, let each participant lead a session in that same spirit. Not only will this experience ingrain a time-efficient organisational culture, it will also reinforce employee engagement, a sense of belonging, and mutual responsibility.

Ravit Oren is an organisational leadership expert, an academic lecturer and researcher, a corporate HR executive, a public representative of the Israeli Labor Court and a board member in public and governmental companies