It's a supposed fact of modern business life: We all have to attend too many meetings, even though we hate them and they're mostly a waste of time. West Unified Communications (which makes technology people can use for meetings) decided to find out if this is really true, so the company surveyed 250 full-time employees from around the country to get their views on whether we're having too many meetings and whether those meetings are or aren't useful.
Given how much everyone says they hate meetings, some of what they found might surprise you:
1. Almost everyone thinks we need to meet.
Can you picture a world with no meetings? Neither could survey respondents. Eighty-six percent said they thought meetings were necessary for getting work done. They were more divided on whether we need all the meetings we have, with 44 percent saying we could get our jobs done with fewer meetings, and 42 percent saying we need to meet as often as we do. Perhaps not surprisingly, you're likelier to love meetings if you're the boss: 50 percent of managers, but only 36 percent of non-management knowledge workers think meetings are necessary to getting work done.
2. How many is too many?
We may complain about meeting overload, but how many meetings are we actually having? Only 31 percent of survey respondents reported attending six meetings or more every week. The rest had five meetings a week or less, on average no more than one per day. Is that too many? Depending on meeting length and the preparation required, it may or may not be.
3. Most of us should definitely skip some meetings.
In most cases, we shouldn't attend meetings just to passively receive information--getting that same info by email or in post-meeting notes is a more efficient use of our time. Yet more than half of survey respondents say they attend meetings where they don't join in the conversation one to three times a week. That adds up to a huge amount of wasted time. It's a particular problem when people join an in-person meeting by audio or video conference. In that situation, 57 percent of respondents feel they get forgotten by the participants in the room--and they're probably right. Thirty percent of respondents admit that when colleagues dial in to an in-person meeting they do indeed forget they're there and are surprised when they speak up.
The problem may be that too many meeting leaders send out blanket invitations by rote, which meeting attendees also accept by rote, especially since modern calendars will drop an event right into its time slot without your having to do anything. To fight that tendency, managers should stop and think about who really needs to be in a conversation, and resist the urge to invite those who might just want to "sit in."
Those on the receiving end of blanket invitations would do well to follow the advice David Grady lays out in his hilarious TED Talk about avoiding bad meetings: Before confirming that you'll definitely attend, "Tell them you're very excited to support their work, ask them what the goal of the meeting is, and tell them you're interested in learning how you can help them achieve their goal."
Answering that question might lead them to conclude that you don't need to be there after all. It might even inspire them to send out an agenda--something that happens only 37 percent of the time, according to survey respondents. It should happen every time, even if the agenda has just one item on it. Knowing there's a definite goal that the meeting should accomplish is the best way to make sure it won't waste anyone's time.