$100 Million Worth of Useless Meetings

Two years of remote work has brought more meetings, but no solutions to making them more effective. A new study reveals the eye-opening costs.

Nearly everyone who has ever held a job has sat through a mind-numbing meeting, fuming that it was costing them an entire hour of their time. But a new survey says the cost may be even greater—that unproductive meetings could collectively drain more than $100 million a year from a single big organization.

Coming amid the need to increase efficiency and warning signs of a recession, the figures are a loud wakeup call vis-a-vis the importance of running more effective meetings. Experts say companies generally made little effort to confirm the usefulness of meetings before and during the pandemic, and continue to make little effort now. “Meeting organizers and participants alike need to be much more thoughtful about who attends, what is discussed, and how the meeting is conducted,” says Miriam Nelson, Korn Ferry senior client partner in the firm’s Assessment and Succession Solutions business.

The survey, conducted this summer and released this month, asked 632 employees across 20 industries to calculate how much time they spend in meetings each week, as well as how much they get out of them. On average, the employees spent 18 hours per week—nearly half a normal US workweek—in virtual or in-person meetings. Managers (defined as people with four or more direct reports) spent 22 hours in meetings, while non-managers spent about 14 hours.

Employees said that one-third of that meeting time, about 6 hours, could have been skipped, as long as they got the same information in some other way. Using that figure and applying some assumptions about the level and salaries of employees attending meetings, study author and organizational psychologist Steven Rogelberg calculated a metric he calls “wasted investment”—defined as the dollars sacrificed when an employee participates in a meeting they could have skipped.

On average, there was $25,000 annually per employee in “wasted investment.” (The amount was $42,000 per year for managers.) At a 5,000-person organization, where managers make up about one-quarter of the employee base, that’s more than $100 million worth of employee time. The study was put together by the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, where Rogelberg is a professor, and by meeting-software firm Otter.ai.

Many organizations have a culture of keeping everyone in the loop—which often requires lots of meetings. Effective meetings convey information, spark innovation, and engage employees. “It might look useless from the outside, but internally it’s really important,” says Juan Pablo González , sector leader for Korn Ferry’s Professional Services practice.

This spring, Microsoft found that the number of meetings per week had increased by 153% globally for the average Microsoft Teams user since the start of the pandemic and wasn’t slowing even as many returned to the office. There is no doubt that with the surge in remote work, the number of meetings has exploded. “There’s no barrier to having another meeting,” says David Vied, global sector leader for Korn Ferry’s Medical Devices and Diagnostics practice.

Experts say that the bad habits of organizers are often the cause of unproductive meetings. Organizers can schedule meetings to go on for too long, then stuff them with presentations to justify their length. They may invite people who have nothing to contribute to the topic; they may also leave out next steps or deadlines.

One easy fix: cut down on scheduled meeting lengths, says Kristi Drew, global account leader for Korn Ferry’s Financial Services Practice. She has multiple clients who have capped meeting times at 25 minutes. “Making a meeting last 25 minutes or less forces the organizer and participants to focus on what has to be accomplished,” she says. After the meeting, a summary of key decisions, dates, and responsibilities can be sent to participants.

Some managers have declared “no-meeting Fridays” as a way to free up employee time. Others just try to wrap up meetings early. “Earlier in COVID, people were desperate to connect and speak with others,” says Dan Kaplan, a Korn Ferry senior client partner who specializes in human resources. “Now they’re thrilled when they get time back.”