Taming the meeting monster
Why companies are getting serious about reducing the time people spend sitting around the conference table.
ANYONE WHO’S ABSENT-MINDEDLY FIDDLED with an iPhone under the conference-room table has confronted the sinking feeling that meetings are eating up more and more of their workday. Turns out, they’re not wrong.
Time spent in business meetings has grown each year since 2008 and now takes up 15 percent of a typical company’s day, according to research from management consulting firm Bain & Co. At the managerial level, your garden-variety boss can spend 21 of her 47 working hours each week attending meetings with more than four people, Bain says. Throw in the 20 minutes or so before and after those meetings — spare chunks of time that aren’t large enough to complete other tasks — and the toll jumps yet again.
Help may be on the way. Management experts say companies are increasingly questioning the standard rules for meetings and experimenting with ways to reclaim the lost time.
Those tweaks can include limiting meetings to 30 minutes or removing chairs from the room to keep everyone from settling into place, says Neal Hartman, a senior lecturer at MIT’s Sloan School of Management. “We’re seeing in some places the concept of a walk-around or walkabout meeting, which typically is two or three people, and literally you walk outside of your building for 15 or 20 minutes and have a very focused discussion,” Hartman says.
Office workers love to gripe about time lost to meetings, and, in fact, meetings can hurt both individual and company performance. Time spent in group discussions is, obviously, time that can’t be spent on the actual day-to-day tasks of someone’s job. And academic research indicates that the social jockeying inherent in small-group interactions like meetings can temporarily stunt some people’s IQs.
Julia Fetherston, a behavioral economist with the Boston Consulting Group, encourages management teams to budget the number of meeting minutes they’re allowed each week, the same way they would any other expense. “Organizations have very rigorous financial controls, but no one asks managers to account for time,” she says. “If you bring twenty people together for a three-hour meeting, we’re not yet regularly asking the question ‘Did you really generate thousands of dollars of value for the organization in that meeting?’ ”
Companies can look to the technology industry for unconventional meeting templates. Apple chief executive Steve Jobs was a famous proponent of walk-and-talk meetings, and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg is said to favor the same approach, especially when recruiting. Amazon.com disdains slide presentations and often starts meetings with a half-hour of silent reading as attendees digest a six-page memo on the topic at hand.
Kayak Software Corp. cofounder Paul English was known to hang a hand-held people-counter outside a meeting room at the travel software company, a reminder of his axiom that meetings should be as small as possible. “I think no invention has ever happened with 10 people in the room,” says English, now chief executive of the startup Lola Travel Co. “I think invention happens with one person or two people. Maybe three people.”
The desire to cut back on meeting time isn’t limited to the tech world. Fetherston says it’s a topic of concern for leaders in all sectors, from sleek offices to old-school factories and government agencies. “Organizations are now much more complex. People in general have larger spans of control — they have more people reporting to them, they’re responsible for more things,” Fetherston says. “And the immediate solution to try and assert some control over that is to call a bunch of meetings where you exchange a bunch of information.”
Some companies are trying to build their own business by tapping into the drive for more efficient meetings. Boston’s Robin Powered Inc. sells subscriptions to software that lets office workers search for and book meeting rooms and gives managers data showing how and when people are using the space. Part of Robin’s sales pitch is the notion that finding the right environment can foster more efficient and productive meetings. But Robin’s operations chief, Apollo Sinkevicius, a veteran of tech startups, cautions that if you just flat-out hate meetings, all the tools and tricks in the world won’t help.
“Here’s the bottom line: Humans are social beings. We are like pack animals. The best decisions and the best products are not developed in solitude,” he says. “It ain’t about the meetings. It’s about you.”