The Science and Fiction of Meetings

Employees spend increasing amounts of time in meetings and love to complain about them. But privately they see meetings as a productivity tool — one that companies can learn to use better.

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Meetings are a central fact of organizational life. As a vehicle for communication, they can be extremely valuable, providing leaders with a mechanism to disseminate their vision, craft strategic plans and develop responses to the challenges and opportunities impacting their businesses. They can also be helpful for gathering ideas, brainstorming and generating higher levels of employee involvement. Yet as valuable and energizing as good meetings can be, too many meetings are seen as a waste of time — as a source of frustration rather than enlightenment.

Within organizations, meetings play a large role in employee socialization, relationship building and shaping of the culture. Beyond the subject matter at hand, they reinforce formal and informal reporting structures, and provide clues about organizational values and how power is distributed. In terms of cost, no meeting is free. The fully loaded cost of getting a chief executive officer and several vice presidents together for a couple of hours can run into the tens of thousands of dollars.

Ironically, there has been relatively little academic research on meetings in general and what makes the difference between a breakthrough meeting and one that becomes fodder for the comic strip “Dilbert.” So we set out to explore some basic questions: How much time do people really spend in meetings? Are employees burning out from meetings overload? To what extent do people consider their time in meetings unproductive? And how can companies better use the time in meetings? To answer these questions, we looked at a variety of sources: research and application literature; our own experiences working with clients; and data from two multinational studies of employees. Based on these inquiries, we developed insights into the world of meetings and how organizations can use them more effectively.

How Much Time Do People Spend in Meetings?

Each day, workers in the United States attend about 11 million meetings, according to a 1998 MCI Conferencing white paper. Conservatively, the average employee spends approximately six hours per week in scheduled meetings, with supervisors spending more time than non-supervisors. According to some estimates, senior managers attend nearly 23 hours of meetings every week, and people working for large organizations tend to have more meetings than those in smaller ones.

There are few signs that meeting activity is leveling off or waning. One study suggests that the number of meetings attended by the average executive doubled between the 1960s and the 1980s.


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