Should it be a Meeting? The difference between “3 hours of work” and “3 hours at work”

Dan Shalem

It’s midday on Monday. Just past 12.10. I’m sat at my desk, staring at my inbox and wondering if I should open the latest batch of unread mails or cut my losses and take an early lunch. Where did the morning go? I definitely clocked in at 08.45, and I remember grabbing a coffee shortly after, but it feels like I’ve not yet accomplished anything at all. What happened since the coffee?

The answer is depressingly familiar. Three back-to-back meetings, at 9am, 10am and 11am. How much value did I get from sitting in those three meetings? Precious little. There would be some consolation if at least one of the meeting hosts had moved a process forward, made an important decision, or harnessed the brainpower of those other poor souls sitting in the room, but sadly – I found no evidence of any of the above. On paper it was “3 hours of work”. A more accurate description though, would be “3 hours at work”.  Sounds familiar? You are not alone.

During my career in high-tech, I had many such mornings. Research suggests that organizations spend roughly 15% of their time on meetings and surveys show that 71% of those meetings are considered unproductive by employees. Translate all that wasted time into money and the losses are staggering. The same research estimated that in North America alone, up to $37 billion is lost per year to unproductive meetings[i].

Apparently Elon Musk encourages Tesla employees to walk out of meetings if they feel they are not adding value[ii]. That won’t work for me. Having grown up in the UK, a deep-rooted cultural glitch means that I’d rather bore myself stupid for an hour than risk being perceived as rude. Does it really have to be like this? Let’s revisit my three back-to-back Monday morning meetings and see if there was some way to accomplish the same, or more, without wasting all that time. What could have been done differently?

9.00am. The “STATUS UPDATE” Meeting

FrameworkA 1hr-long weekly recurring meeting, hosted by a Product Manager
Participants12 (Representatives from Operations, R&D, Support & Marketing)
ObjectiveNot stated, but it’s usually about the status of a software release
What Happened?An hour of dialog between PM and Marketing about marketing collaterals required for the release. No-one else was involved.
What Could Have Been Done Differently?Could have been an email!

TIP for Weekly Status Meeting Hosts. Be flexible! When hosting status meetings, we don’t need to automatically invite the same people each week. Invite only those whose input is needed for the particular issues on the agenda, and if there are invitees who only need to be informed of the outcome, a summary email will usually suffice.

10.00am. The “INFO GATHERING” Meeting

FrameworkA 1-hr long, one-off meeting, called by VP Quality
Participants4 stakeholders, each involved in a recently completed project
ObjectiveTo gather information in preparation for a “lessons learnt” presentation to management
What Happened?Each person gave inputs one after the other. My inputs took 10 mins.
What Could Have Been Done Differently?Separate phone-calls with each stakeholder would have sufficed!

TIP for Info-Gathering Meeting Hosts. Ask yourself – do all these people need to be here to discuss the issues at the same time? If they do, then great. If not, maybe this doesn’t need to be a meeting. A quick series of calls with each stakeholder in person could be a much more efficient way to gather the information you need, without wasting everyone’s time.

11.00am. The “DECISION-MAKING” meeting

FrameworkA 1-hr long, one-off meeting, called by a mid-level manager
Participants3, all of whom had past experience using different software tools
ObjectiveNot stated, but probably “to select a software tool to purchase”
What Happened?We talked around the subject for an hour, argued a bit, didn’t reach any conclusion and arranged a follow-up meeting for next week…
What Could Have Been Done Differently?A clear articulation of the desired goal at the outset of the meeting would have focused the participants. We would have been much more likely to make a decision within the timeframe without the need for any follow-on meetings.

TIP for Decision-Making Meetings. Define a clear objective for the meeting, and state the desired outcome at the outset. E.g: “The aim of this meeting is to select a new Software Management Tool. By the end of this meeting, we need to have selected one recommended tool to purchase from the 3 tools on our list.” By stating the desired outcome at the outset, we ensure everyone is in sync. It also gives us full legitimacy to re-focus the debate, should things go off track – e.g: “I want to remind you all that our aim is to come away from here with a decision. As we only have 20 minutes left, I suggest we get back on track and focus on selecting the preferred tool.”

Our new, workshop – “High Impact Meetings” is packed with practical tips to help you plan and host truly productive meetings. We identify the most common mistakes hosts make when running meetings, outline a checklist for success with 5 essential questions to ask before every meeting and share key facilitation skills to keep control and drive your meetings to success. The best practice we share can ensure that, unlike the dreary Monday morning I outlined above, the meetings we run are both necessary, productive and drive meaningful outcomes.

[i] Zippia.com, The Career Expert. Meeting Research Summary, 2023

[ii] Walk out of a meeting: Elon Musk’s six rules for staff resurfaces (Independent, 28-04-21)

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