The true cost of regular team meetings, and why we should care

True cost of regular team meetings

Time is money but few organisations treat it that way. A junior person who can’t sign off a £1000 invoice can schedule a regular meeting which costs twenty times that in management salaries, with no approval process at all. So says a well-researched piece in this month’s issue of Harvard Business Review (Reprint R1405D). A team from Bain used information from the online calendars of executives across more than a dozen large corporations to show how casually time is treated. There’s none of the scrutiny that is applied to other forms of expenditure. Oh sure, there’s time management, but it’s mostly personal. It’s about helping people cope, rather than using the company’s resources better. Time management programmes are about training individuals to behave differently – prioritise tasks, recognise the difference between important and urgent, all that sensible stuff. The trouble is, most of us don’t work in a vacuum, where we can choose how we spend our time. Their analysis shows that people in senior management roles spend almost half their time in meetings with three or more colleagues.
As technology has made it easier for people to communicate and to meet, in person or virtually, the amount of corporate time spent in meetings has grown year on year since 2008, and is now about 15% of organisational time. This does not mean more collaboration though, since most of it is within departments rather than being cross-functional or between businesses. The article sets out some approaches taken by major corporations to tackle the meeting culture and put a value on people’s time. One method is to have a zero-based time budget. Just as the capital and operating budgets can be built from scratch each year (though many simply build on last year’s budget), meetings and projects which use people’s time can be reappraised and reset each year based on their merits. Instead, many of us roll from one week and one month to the next with a comforting set of meetings in the calendar so we are never truly alone with our thoughts. Have you, like me, ever wondered whether it might be perfectly possible to avoid work altogether in a large corporation by getting invited to enough meetings?
Why should we care?

Marketing people should care about this even more than finance people tracking productivity or HR people worrying about employee satisfaction. Why? Because an organisation that doesn’t value time is bad for customers. It’s going to make bad decisions and create poor processes that waste people’s time, and nowadays that is a reason for people to switch. There are lots of businesses that make demands on their customers’ time but are barely aware of it. For example,  the ones that have a requirement to read you the terms and conditions every time (yes even you First Direct) and that crazy 17 pages on your iPhone every time Apple update their operating system. No one honestly thinks that is good for customers. They are fulfilling their own need, without a thought for the customer impact. Similarly, we’ve all seen customer complaints systems that put the onus on the customer to do all the work. In that case it may well be calculated to reduce complaints, and it may succeed, but there’s a consequence somewhere down the line. Once again, what gets measured gets the focus – even if fewer customer complaints leads to fewer customers.  
What can you do about it?

It’s hard to change the culture of an organisation, but as customer advocates we can check how things will work from the customer’s point of view, and help design processes that are quick and easy for the customer, rather than defaulting to those which are efficient for the organisation.
Meanwhile, just for fun, here’s a challenge. Think about meetings you’ve been in recently. Do any of these apply?

  1. It’s a standing meeting – it’s a regular slot in the diary and we nearly always have it.
  2. People often drift in and out of meetings, taking calls or checking emails.
  3. I attend meetings just to listen.
  4. There are meetings I go to because I’m expected to be there, to show support or respect.

If they do, maybe you can be the brave person who will check what outcome is expected from the meeting (the polite way to wonder whether the meeting needs to happen), or what input is required of you (i.e. whether you need to be there). Be careful – and good luck!

Read more from Fiona in our Clubhouse.