Technology Won’t Kill Meetings – But We Can


Technology failed us.

We thought the world of work was to be reimagined. The death of the office. The end of email. A utopia of work/life integration fueled by work-where-you-want technology.

It hasn’t happened.

Six years ago 2.8 million people made daily commutes of two hours or more. In 2016 that’s risen to 3.7 million.

People report attending an average of five meetings a week with over one third saying they are unproductive, admitting to checking emails, Twitter and even Tinder.

And despite unprecedented access to virtual tools – our actual productivity has slumped to the worst level since records began.

Is it possible to spend a whole year in meetings?

In 2014, a research team from Bain and Company used data mining tools to analyse the Outlook schedules in a large company. It concluded that in one calendar year the organisation spent 300,000 hours in meetings.

Given there are only 8,760 hours in a year that’s quite some feat.

It’s because of what they termed the Ripple Effect:

  • The weekly Executive Meeting – essentially a status meeting – accounted for 7,000 hours.
  • 11 Unit Heads met with their senior team to prepare for that meeting – another 20,000 hours.
  • The 21 divisions racked up 63,000 hours in the subsequent team briefings.
  • 210,000 hours were “sub-meetings”. Literally – meetings about the other meetings

Very few of us do the meeting maths. As Jason Fried has written – the time blocked off doesn’t equal actual time spent. A one hour meeting with 6 people is a six hour meeting. A 15 minute meeting with 9 people is a two-and-a-quarter-hour meeting.

What if every meeting we had kept a real time counter of the salaries in the room, increasing minute by minute?

If you’re brave – try running this meeting calculator at your next one. Even if you run it based on the average UK wage the results are eye watering.

We all know we can be better than this.

Work can be better than this.

We can make it more collaborative, more efficient, more connected, more transparent, more elegant, more fun. 

In the current incarnation of Bromford Lab we’ve abandoned meetings altogether, even weekly planning. We run our work through Basecamp which prompts us to answer “What do you plan on working on this week?”.

We get a daily prompt to ask what we’ve completed and can answer it at our convenience.  The productivity , or sometimes lack of it, is visible for us all to see.

Technology is not to blame. It’s our failure to adapt our leadership for the digital age.

We still have a tiny percentage of leaders who are really living a digital lifestyle. There are still relatively few having open debates , showing transparency in public discourse , answering questions online and sharing progress.

Until there is a monumental shift in the leadership dynamic from the old fashioned command and control to a collaborative, status free, matrix way of working, then we will still have all those meetings.

The challenge is spotting the friction and noise that is dragging us back to 20th Century management behaviours – and then personally doing something about it.

Technology didn’t fail us. We failed technology. And it’s our job to fix it.



5 thoughts on “Technology Won’t Kill Meetings – But We Can

  1. I can’t be doing with pointless, unproductive meetings but a bit more rigour is needed here: according to some data presented nearly 2/3 presumably found them useful (over a 1/3 finding them unproductive, tho some folks within that group it seems were multi-tasking so sometimes doing something productive?) Then the Bain and Co data doesn’t describe/account for the outcomes of meetings. Presumably, and it’d be interesting to see if it’s so, a number of useful things happen as a result of some meetings and people take those forward. In that regard, I like the £/hr meeting cost notion but it needs to be wider than simply time spent planning for or being in a meeting. Content analysis of Outlook is easy, consideration of what happened after a meeting is a bit trickier. In terms of team cohesion and all the human sized stuff that keeps the wheels turning then unless you are in a small team in the same room, or close by and in constant discussion, then some kind of formalised checking in and keeping in the loop and mutual motivation/thinking is needed, otherwise everyone becomes a micro-silo and it’s easy to lose grasp of the shared/related aspects of a project and the big picture within which it exists. It’s also less fun – Basecamp is nice but it’s jokes suck. At the end of the day meetings are as good as the people organising and running them and participating in them. No meetings is no solution. Smart use of meetings can be. So the question for me is what does a productive meeting look like and what broadly tells us that having one is the best way of achieving what is needed at any specific moment.

  2. I’m with Dave. Paul, you’re a very intelligent and insightful guy and I want to thank you for your writing! So I think you can take a bit of challenge. Why would we assume that people together = unproductive, people alone = productive. Oh yes, but /meetings/ are bad, whereas /teams/ are good. And /networking/ is OK. So some types of people together have some value 🙂
    The real question, which it seems to me everyone who declares war on ‘meetings’ (and also ’email’) is failing to ask, is: what distinguishes productive activity from unproductive? That’s a lot more interesting but a lot messier I think!

    1. Well challenge accepted and you’re right. We can’t assume that meetings are less productive than any other type of collaboration. It all comes down to what you want achieved.

      In defining productivity around meetings it depends what they are for. If it’s just for informational purposes their are better ways of doing things. If it’s for idea generation or problem solving then meetings are the worst forums for these.

      So we have to assume most meetings are about agreeing decisions – a very real constraint on the financial performance of most companies is management’s capacity to reach good decisions quickly.

      But we’d be wrong – most leadership team meetings (more than 65%, according to HBR research) are not even called for the purpose of making a decision. They’re held for “information sharing,” “group input,” or “group discussion.”

      The problem with meetings is they are called for the wrong reasons

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