Work

The Scourge of Meetings

Everyone agrees that meetings are terrible. Why must we sit through so many of them?

Bored people in a meeting.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Getty Images Plus.

Few people are as knee-deep in our work-related anxieties and sticky office politics as Alison Green, who has been fielding workplace questions for a decade now on her website Ask a Manager. In Direct Report, she spotlights themes from her inbox that help explain the modern workplace and how we could be navigating it better.

Chances are high that you’ll be spending a lot of time sitting in meetings at work this week—and you’re probably not happy about it. Is there any other single work activity people are so universally united in loathing?

The animus makes sense: Poorly run meetings are far more common than the elusive productive meeting, and meetings frequently last too long, veer off track, and feel like enormous wastes of time. It’s maddening to be stuck in a meeting where nothing is getting accomplished while actual work with deadlines waits for you back at your desk.

It’s not that meetings are never useful! Sometimes we really do need to sit down with colleagues to brainstorm, problem-solve, or hash something out. But an astonishing amount of time is spent in meetings where little gets achieved. This account I received from a reader is pretty typical of the complaints I hear:

My organization is suffering from a severe case of meeting overload. We don’t have that many meetings—maybe 4 or 5 per week—but the ones that we do have are horrible … agenda-less info dumps that often last 3 to 4 hours each. …

I’m a relatively new manager, and I’m in charge of one of the largest departments in my organization. I have a lot on my plate, and attending all these pointless meetings is killing my productivity. However, I seem to be the only one bothered by all the meetings. Some of the other department managers have even told me that they look forward to them because it gives them a chance to catch up on gossip! I love my job and I genuinely enjoy my co-workers, but I’m struggling to get my own work done because I spend half my day sitting in meetings listening to my colleagues talk about nothing.

That complaint about socializing isn’t unusual. While it’s nice to have colleagues you enjoy chatting with, mandatory meetings that turn into social hour can be frustrating for others who feel like their time is being hijacked:

I have a couple bosses who are very social and outgoing. They talk about non-work stuff a lot, which is generally fine, but every Monday we have a meeting the first thing in the morning. I am in a different time zone, so I have to attend very early in the morning on the first day after the weekend. It’s work so I am okay with it, of course, except we only start talking in the meeting about actual work about 30-45 minutes into the meeting. The first half hour is just water cooler talk about sports, what happened in the news, or any other topic with zero relevance to work. They are very talkative and I’m on the other end of the phone, which means I can’t get a word in edgewise and I have no input at all into the conversation. So I basically get up really early to listen to other people talk about nothing for a half hour, when I could be getting another half hour of sleep.

Often meetings are just poorly planned, with no real agenda or clear set of desired outcomes. Often, too, people are required to attend even when their presence should be a low priority—as with this person who’s regularly stuck in daily three-hour meetings:

On most days at work, I have to take part in a three-hour long working group. The point of these meetings is supposed to be to work on changes that are needed for the software system to function, to create new categories in the software system as needed, and to set up the software system services to smaller divisions. However, the vast majority of the time in these meetings is spent watching my coworker document every single change she makes to the system, and watching her compose emails. Both these tasks and the actual “work”—changes to a system—could easily be done by one person. The rest of us (3 or 4) just sit and watch, sometimes one of us playing secretary. There is a very small amount of useful discussion.

I feel we are wasting an incredible amount of time. I’m bored out of my mind. I know others are too, due to comments I’ve heard and the fact that one coworker has trouble not falling asleep. I’m not doing anything remotely productive and I very rarely learn anything. We are running very behind on the work that needs to be done. My manager says that I need to attend as it’s part of my role.

Part of the problem, too, is that most offices don’t train people on how to run meetings well, which means one participant can easily monopolize the conversation and derail the session.
Often, the person running the show isn’t sure of how to regain control:

I am a department head at a small financial firm. Recently I began hosting weekly meetings for our 25-person business team, which is comprised of other department heads and their teams. For the first couple of weeks, things were going relatively smoothly, but recently one department head has been hijacking every meeting.

He shows up late … and he interrupts people’s presentations to interject his own thoughts, opinions, and agendas. One of his team members was presenting last week, and he butted in and droned on for several minutes. These are only supposed to be five-minute presentations and are an opportunity for all of our team members to be heard, not just the outspoken department heads. I can see people slumping in their chairs and disengaging every time he pipes up. … Do I speak to him privately or just shut it down mid-meeting? I don’t want there to be tension that will make everyone in the meeting uncomfortable, but he is being too disruptive to ignore. These meetings are supposed to be fun and energizing and he is sucking the life out of them.

The blame for this scourge of terrible meetings lies squarely with employers who don’t think to train people to run meetings effectively and allow meeting-heavy cultures to flourish without intervention.

Ideally, employers would align all their employees, and especially managers, around a set of meeting norms that include expectations like:

• Meetings shouldn’t be used to convey information that can easily be conveyed in a memo or email. They should be reserved for topics that truly require back-and-forth discussion.

• When inviting people to meetings, organizers need to think about who really needs to be present and whether attendance should be optional.

• Every meeting should have a written agenda with a clear statement about what outcomes it is designed to achieve. If an organizer isn’t sure, the meeting should be delayed until that’s worked out.

• Anyone running a meeting must be responsible for ensuring the group sticks to its agenda. That means cutting off ramblers and redirecting tangents, ensuring the meeting ends with clear action steps or takeaways, and starting and ending on time.

• Employees should be empowered to decline meeting invitations that conflict with higher-priority work.

If you’ve ever worked somewhere that does adhere to operating norms like these, you’ve seen the relief and higher productivity that result when you’re liberated from the tyranny of excessive meetings. It’s bizarre that most employers—who generally want to keep employees productive and efficient—simply accept long, unfocused meetings as an unavoidable element of work life.