On the Clock

Meetings: The Ultimate Time Suck

How to make meetings work better—and even eliminate the need for them entirely

5 min read

It was a typical day at the office for Janice: six back-to-back, half-hour to one-hour conference calls, starting at 7:30 in the morning. Perhaps most noteworthy was one hour-long meeting that didn’t relate to any of the many projects that Janice, an executive at a New York City-area consulting firm, was working on. “This happens almost all the time,” she says. “I often wonder how I’m going to get any of my real work done.”

It’s likely that you too spend a significant portion of your work days in meetings. Research has shown that middle managers devote about 35% of their time to meetings; for upper management, it’s 50%. Worse, other studies—and probably your own personal experience—show the gatherings usually don’t amount to much. “It’s a fact of life: People spend a lot of time in meetings that often aren’t productive,” says Al Pittampalli, author of Read This Before Our Next Meeting: The Modern Meeting Standard for Successful Organizations. What’s more, that lack of productivity can have real consequences.

“Research shows too many meetings can lead to lower levels of market share and employee retention.”

Researchers from Technische Universität Braunschweig and the University of Amsterdam found that waste-of-time meetings were associated with lower levels of market share, innovation, and employee retention. As more meetings are held via conference calls and WebEx, a new host of problems have proliferated, from poor connections to accidentally sharing your screen when Facebook is popped up instead of the sales PowerPoint presentation. And with universal dial-ins, some people think the more the merrier, in terms of brainpower. But what really can get done in 30 minutes when 20 people are on the phone—and several join late, signaled with an obnoxious beep, and say hi right in the middle of another person speaking?

Still, nearly as much research and corporate effort has gone into trying to rewrite the rules of meetings to make them successful. Here are some that our experts say are helpful.

Ask the right person if you can be excused.

In some cases, you can eliminate the need to meet altogether by politely inquiring if you really need to participate. Janice, for example, has on occasion privately asked a co-worker if they can just email each other so she doesn’t have to attend a formal meeting. But tread carefully. “It’s easier with someone at your level,” she says.

Outline your thoughts.

If it’s just one or two people, propose that you write down your relevant thoughts first, then get the other person’s reaction. “Sometimes I can stave off a meeting by taking it upon myself to distill my thoughts and questions,” says Kathy Robinson, who heads TurningPoint, a Boston career-coaching firm. “Then, after the other person answers, they may very likely discover we don’t have to take it any further.” Of course, some people prefer face-to-face interactions or phone calls and they aren’t likely to take the bait.

Get the numbers right.

If you can’t eliminate the need for a meeting, it’s important to make sure the optimal number of people are attending. the most productive meetings contain only five to eight participants. In addition, different types of meetings call for specific numbers of attendees. For problem solving, the advice is to keep it small, inviting the minimum number of people with the necessary expertise. For brainstorming, on the other hand, 10 to 20 people would be better, since a successful outcome can require a critical mass of diverse perspectives.

Have a real leader—and don’t wing it.

This may sound obvious, but often there isn’t one leader and people don’t prep. It’s especially a problem on conference calls where you can’t see any of the other participants. In that case, the conversation can turn into a free-for-all, with people jumping in willy-nilly. If you’re the leader, ensure you’re on time and have an agenda. Jot down your thoughts, and turn the conversation back when necessary.

It’s the objective, stupid.

If everyone isn’t clear about what the meeting is supposed to accomplish, you’re in trouble. Janice, the New York City executive, points to a recent conference call involving two departments. Each had a different objective because no one had bothered to clarify the matter beforehand. The result: One group of colleagues raced through their update, only to be taken by surprise when their colleagues in the other department started peppering them with unexpected questions. “We wanted to accomplish something completely different from what they wanted to accomplish,” she says. To avoid this, don’t assume the very act of attending a meeting will help you make a decision. “People have a sense that a decision has to be made, but they’re not clear about what the problem is they should be addressing,” Pittampalli says. “They think that if they just get in the room with some other colleagues, they’ll figure it out.” He calls it “being in the haze.” The better course: Pinpoint the problems that need to be solved and the best forum for solving them—which may, after all, not be a meeting. Solved and the best forum for solving them—which may, after all, not be a meeting.