Meetings have been an innocuous time stealer for long now, with little attention given to the time and money spent on them. While in this age of disruptions and start-ups, more and more leaders are confronting this silent productivity killer, one question that keeps coming is: “Are meetings needed?" Of course, they are. They are a means to share information, improve teamwork and decision-making, brainstorm for winning ideas, innovate and solve business problems, says Parth Gandhi, senior partner and managing director, AION India Investment Advisors, a private equity firm. “A big reason meetings persist is rooted in our work culture: face time is valued. Employees feel guilty about missing meetings and feel paranoid if they are kept out of meetings," adds Vikas Chaturvedi, senior practice consultant, Gallup India.

The problem then is not meetings but “bad" meetings—the ones that are a model of ineffectiveness and a source of Dilbert comic strips. “Inefficient meetings—where the meeting objectives or outcomes are unclear, participants are unprepared or decision-makers are absent—are a drain on an organization’s resources," says Gandhi.

Harvard Business Review designed a simple web tool to calculate how much meetings can cost a company. A look at its estimates can surprise you: Weekly meetings of senior managers in a large organization can cost up to a few crore rupees a year. The financial cost is in addition to loss of productivity, employee well-being and engagement.

Around 10-15% of an organization’s time is spent on meetings, with an average employee spending about 30% of his or her working time in meetings, according to a 2014 study by Bain & Co. The same study found that, on an average, senior executives spend more than two days a week in meetings. People working for large organizations tend to have more meetings than those in smaller ones. “In my experience, the decision-making in smaller organization is faster but as the organization becomes huge, it adds many meetings or delays in decision-making process," says ShriKant Vashishtha, Agile coach and consultant at Malonus, an Agile consulting and training company.

Towards transformation

Meeting effectiveness should be an important goal for organizations considering the amount of time and resources spent on it. But do companies look at meetings strategically?

“Not yet. The link between return on investment and innovation has not been established or understood completely," says Gaurav Lahiri, partner and leader, human capital, Deloitte India. Chaturvedi concurs. “In most organizations, inefficient meetings have become a way of life that is not challenged. In many qualitative interviews of hundreds of leaders and managers in companies of various sizes that we conduct, participants often rue shoddy meetings. However, organizations and leaders are doing little or nothing to assess the return on meeting investment or to take steps to ensure the investment is a good one," he says.

One commonly voiced issue is that people find it tough to excuse themselves from meetings, even when they have nothing to add, fearing it may send a signal that they are disengaged.

However, the shift in how meetings are being viewed—from something that just needs to be done, to a process that achieves results—is slowly happening, albeit at an individual level (leaders) for now, say experts.

“We are increasingly seeing that work starts to imitate life. Just like the way long meetings with endless PowerPoint presentations and lots of people sitting in a closed room with no windows are uncommon when we take life decisions, the same way it will become uncommon at work too," says Lahiri. “Meeting formats will change—there will be fewer people, and they will be discussion and decision-oriented," he adds.

Making meetings better

Companies would see significant improvement if they helped employees decide when to call meetings and when to use other approaches (collaboration technologies like Microsoft’s Office 365, Barco’s ClickShare, etc.) that can work just as well. They also need to help employees understand how to manage a participation list, prepare an agenda and run meetings according to the meeting types—outcome-oriented (where one needs to make a decision), update meetings, and strategic meeting (where participants brainstorm to solve a problem or innovate).

Vaishali Kasture, managing director and country head, Experian India, who ends up spending around 60% of her time in meetings, given her job profile, says she owes her meeting effectiveness to planning. “I am in total control of my time and do not allow people to randomly block time without purpose. I think I consider my time more precious than money."

Kasture reviews her calendar a week in advance and ensures it matches her top priorities for the business. She advises being laser-sharp on intended outcomes and respecting others’ time. “I will not commence a meeting without knowing what outcome is expected. If I feel the participants are unprepared, I reschedule the meeting within the first 5 minutes," she says.

Organizations and leaders should periodically assess their meetings to increase effectiveness. Dhanya Rajeswaran, director, talent strategy, at Accenture India, says employees at the global consulting firm apply design thinking methodology extensively when “we need to ideate or solve any complex problem that needs unconstrained thinking".

“For optimal productivity, teams are encouraged to agree to ‘ways of working’ within their team to have agreements on time set aside for deep work, no meeting hours or days, etc.," she adds.

Gandhi, on his part, swears by time-boxing meetings. “Otherwise you can debate something to death and this could lead to another meeting to discuss the remaining items."

In essence, successful leaders and organizations look at meetings strategically—capitalizing on its value and curtailing the costs and catches. As Vashishtha puts it, “Meetings are not just meetings but they essentially mirror the organizational culture. So reducing time in meetings overall may signify how much an organization focuses on outcomes."

How to go about your meetings

The three-point rule

■ Two-pizza teams: Meeting teams shouldn’t be larger than what two pizzas can feed.

■ No PowerPoint: Six-page structured narrative on the meeting topic instead of PPT.

■ Start with silence: Start the meeting with participants silently reading the memo together.

—Jeff Bezos, founder, chairman, and CEO , Amazon

The four meeting codes

■ Everyone should be fully prepared before the meeting.

■ Break down the meeting topic to basic facts and present it coherently.

■ Keep the long-term vision in sight.

■Do not expect more than you are doing yourself.

— Elon Musk, co-founder, CEO, and product architect, Tesla

Close