Elon Musk is full of hot takes, and I can't say I agree with all of them. But I have to give credit where credit is due -- the guy's got some pretty solid thoughts when it comes to meetings.

You may have heard Musk saying that meetings "are what happens when people aren't working," or instructing his employees to walk out of a meeting as soon as they aren't adding value.

These statements might be shocking to some, but if you ask me, it's meeting efficiency 101. In fact, I've had the same rule in my business for years.

Elon's three meeting rules

In 2018, Musk sent an email to Tesla employees that outlined, among other things, three clear meeting rules to follow:

  1. "Please get [rid] of all large meetings, unless you're certain they are providing value to the whole audience, in which case keep them very short."
  2. "Also get rid of frequent meetings, unless you are dealing with an extremely urgent matter. Meeting frequency should drop rapidly once the urgent matter is resolved."
  3. "Walk out of a meeting or drop off a call as soon as it is obvious you aren't adding value. It is not rude to leave, it is rude to make someone stay and waste their time."

I couldn't agree more. Musk and I seem to have very similar thoughts on meetings, and it's because we both understand their true cost.

The true cost of meetings

Most teams schedule meetings without ever thinking about the actual "cost" that comes with having a group of people set aside a part of their day to meet. Yet meetings are actually one of the largest expenses and productivity drains in most organizations. 

Let's say the average hourly rate of your employees is $50 per person (the equivalent of $100,000 per year). If there are five people in an hour-long weekly meeting, that's costing the organization $250 per week or $12,500 per year. A monthly all-hands huddle with 500 people? That's $300,000 per year. And a daily 15-minute check-in with 10 people? That's $31,250 per year.

If those meetings are useful, that's great. Unfortunately, they're often not -- Asana's Anatomy of Work Report found that, in 2022, knowledge workers spent around 129 hours in meetings that were entirely unnecessary. That's time that could be invested elsewhere in the business.

Lowering the cost of meetings is actually one of the most cost-effective moves an organization can make.

The 4 ways to reduce the cost of a meeting

When you break it down, there are really only four ways to reduce the cost of a meeting:

  1. Eliminate it entirely.
  2. Reduce the number of people.
  3. Reduce its duration.
  4. Reduce its frequency (if it's a recurring meeting).

Eliminating a meeting can be done by canceling it or conducting it asynchronously. That means using asynchronous communication methods like Slack, email, or video/audio recordings (I like Loom for video) instead of holding a meeting. This saves time, frees up people's schedules, and has many other benefits that come with asynchronous communication.

Reducing the number of people can be done by taking Musk's advice and leaving meetings where you're no longer adding value. But it can also be done by strongly considering who needs to be there in the first place. Remember, you can always pull someone in for a portion of the meeting or send out meeting notes afterward to keep people in the loop.

Reducing the duration is an easy one. I've found that people tend to conform to whatever length of the time a meeting is scheduled for. Try this experiment: Cut all your recurring meetings by 15 minutes and see what happens. When I did this, there was almost no impact. We still covered everything we would have previously, we just used our time more efficiently.

Reducing the frequency is another one that Musk and I agree on. Sometimes, meetings are scheduled frequently because things are changing rapidly and people need to check in with each other. Once they stabilize, those meetings should become less frequent. The reality is that moving a weekly meeting to biweekly often has very few negative consequences -- but it halves the cost of the meeting. Try it and see what happens.