How to make office meetings profitable

30 July 2018

An expensive waste of time?

A few weeks ago I received a phone call from a director of a client company. “About next week’s board meeting, I’m just writing up the last meeting’s minutes; do you have any notes on what we discussed?” Fortunately I was able to help, but it did make me question the value of these meetings.

According to a survey conducted a couple of years ago, employees in the private sector spend sixteen hours per week in office meetings – we are not talking here about meetings with customers or suppliers – and 25% of the time spent is wasted. In the public sector the figure was even higher: 22 hours per week of which 33% wasted.

This makes the cost of meetings hugely expensive. If you can, for the sake of argument, earn £40 per hour per employee and four hours per week (25% of 16) are wasted, the opportunity cost for each employee is £8,320!

Beware of trivia

So how does time get wasted at meetings? In 1957 C.N. Parkinson, most famous for his theory that work expands to fit the time available, expounded his Law of Triviality, which basically argued that organisations give disproportionate weight to trivial issues. He illustrated this by comparing the building of a nuclear power station with that of a bicycle shed. If a meeting is called to discuss the construction of a nuclear power plant no-one understands it so it is soon delegated to the experts. On the other hand, at a meeting called to debate the design of a bicycle shed all the delegates understand the concept so they will all have opinions to offer. Some will speak at length because they like to hear the sound of their own voice, others will debate irrelevant points and yet others will recount pointless anecdotes. The result is a meeting that wastes everyone’s time.

Another form of time-wasting meeting is one in which the only outcome is the endorsement of the opinion of the highest paid person. We have all experienced these. Few people contribute because they know that their opinions are not valued. Those that do contribute leave the meeting dispirited, which reduces productivity, and the meeting has changed nothing.

Inclusivity

On the other hand, it would be too simplistic always to take the view that a meeting is not necessary, or that certain people do not need to be invited. Paradoxically, people who do not like meetings dislike even more being excluded from them.

The power of meetings

So, I think we can all agree that meetings should be held only when absolutely necessary. At other times communication by email or even word of mouth is preferable. However, used imaginatively and efficiently, meetings can be excellent tools for:

  • Determining goals
  • Empowering people
  • Communicating ideas
  • Developing skills and leadership
  • Boosting morale

In my opinion there are only three types of meeting: the ‘strategic’, the ‘practical’ and the ‘essential communication’.

The essential communication meeting is the team huddle that should be held for five minutes every morning to share out tasks and deal with everyday problems.

The strategic meeting should be held rarely. Typically it is used to introduce new products or services, to communicate the organisation’s goals and ambitions and invite the team to subscribe to them.

Practicalities

The practical meeting is the type that can often be avoided and should be subjected to the ‘absolutely necessary’ test. However, when deemed necessary, it needs to be managed for profit. This means:

  • Start on time and finish on time.
  • Prepare and circulate an agenda in advance, and ensure that the most contentious points are dealt with early.
  • Make sure you invite everyone who thinks they are entitled to attend.
  • Have a ‘no interruptions’ policy combined with a ‘time limit’ policy. This means that anyone is allowed to speak without being interrupted, but only has a limited time to express his or her point of view.
  • If you suspect there are delegates who have ideas to contribute but are too timid to do so, talk to them before the meeting and then during the meeting prompt them to speak at the appropriate time.
  • At the close of the meeting agree a list of action points, allocating each one to a named individual or group and setting a time limit within which the action needs to be taken.
  • After the meeting prepare notes on one sheet of A4, with the agreed action points, and circulate it to the delegates within a couple of days. (Don’t prepare lengthy detailed minutes after the style of Hansard! No one will read them!)

Finally, regard your office meetings as a golden opportunity to obtain new ideas and to motivate your teams, in fact no less than a contribution to your organisation’s productivity. If you would like any advice on this subject or on any other aspect of managing for profit, contact me or your usual UHY adviser. Alternatively fill out our contact form here.