August 13, 2020

The death march of meetings and what to do about it

Josh Little
Co-founder & CEO

“Let’s setup a meeting”
“Let’s jump on a call”
“2 o’clock?”
“I’m slammed today”
“How about next week?”
“Can you talk?”
We should schedule another meeting”
“Can you get together at 4?”
“Just 15 minutes”
“Do you still have time?”
“I’ll send an appointment”
“Let’s talk live”
“Sorry to interrupt”
“The week of the 12th”
“I have 30 minutes”
“Let’s touch base”
“I’m back to back all day”

Above is the soundtrack of the death march of modern meeting culture.  The march started over 20 years ago.  Time spent in meetings has increased 8-10% a year since the year 2000. For those of us who are able to remember what work was like in the year 2000, we realize that work was different back then–we spent a lot more time working.

Today, the average executive sits in 28 hours of meetings a week and the average team member attends 21 hours of meetings.  A new study at Harvard that tracked the time of 27 CEOs for 60,000 hours reveals that 72% of a CEOs time is scheduled.  With executives receiving on average 200 emails a day, when do they find time to get work done?

Meetings ≠ Work

Yes, if we consider brainstorming, creating alignment, solving hard problems, and sharing information work, then we have to consider meetings a form of work.  Because some meetings are spent doing these and other important activities. But, many aren’t.  Just Google “meetings are a waste of time” and you’ll have months of reading to prove why.

American companies hold approximately 11 million meetings a day, yet 65% of managers say that meetings keep them from completing their own work and 71% say meetings are unproductive and inefficient.  A survey of 200 senior executives from diverse industries conducted by Harvard Business Review reported that only 17% of executives feel that meetings are generally productive uses of group and individual time.  

And in business, time is money.  A study of one large company conducted by Michael Mankins at Bain found that a single weekly executive meeting had preparation ripple effects that cost the company 300,000 hours each year.  Feel free to multiply that number by an hourly rate and you start to understand how unproductive meetings cost American companies an estimated $399 Billion per year.

Your options

If these statistics on meetings seem incongruent, it’s because they are.  The majority of the workforce says that meetings are a soul-sucking waste of time, yet they spend most of their time in meetings.  Why? The answer is that they have no other choice.

There are six basic modes of business communication that can be broken into two camps–written (asynchronous), and verbal (synchronous).

Modes of Business Communication (yesterday)

The written modes of email, chat, and text are inherently slow because the average person composes business communication at about 19 words-per-minute (WPM), yet can speak at 150 WPM.  We tolerate the slowness because these forms are flexible and asynchronous, which are great qualities, but sometimes you just need to talk to move work forward.  And email and chat are blunt instruments for this occasion.  

When written communication just doesn’t cut it, you have three other options–interrupt someone, jump on a call, or schedule a meeting.  And while these options benefit from the full-spectrum of richness and speed that verbal communication has to offer, they are all interruptive.  Meaning, you have to stop what you’re doing to do them. Because verbal communication is constrained by time and place, it tends to break your day up into little fragments of time.  It’s in these fragments that you try to get your work done...if you’re not interrupted.

Interruption isn't the only inefficiency of synchronous communication. When you cross the threshold to synchronous, you introduce a number of other inefficiencies. When you hold a meeting, you need to wait for all parties to arrive before you can start. This is lost time is multiplied by the number of people waiting. Inevitably this leads to small talk, which often carries on into the precious meeting time.

Quite possibly the most inefficient aspect of synchronous meetings are people who really don't need to be involved, or only involved for a little part of the meeting. This is a high risk problem to solve because of social expectations of meeting culture. It feels awkward to excuse someone because that could be communicating the message that "you're no longer valuable."  It's equally as awkward to ask to leave as that could be construed as you saying "I have better things to do." Because of that risk, we often stay silent and tolerate the inefficiency.  This could be why a ridiculously high 92% of people report multi-tasking in meetings.

And how about this one–ever wonder why it seems like meetings magically wind up in the time that we give them. A 30-minute meeting usually magically takes 30 minutes and a 60-minute meeting magically takes 60. Are we really that good at guessing the right amount of time to meet? It seems that the conversation expands or contracts to fill the container it's given. This phenomenon is called Parkinson's Law, which simply states that "work expands to fill the time available for its completion." Have you ever been in a meeting where you reached the conclusion early, yet the conversation still lasted the full time?  That's Parkinson's Law at work.

So, it’s not your fault. The need to talk has increased with the pace of business. You really don’t have another choice.  When you need to talk, you have to pick your poison. Slow or interruptive?

Conversation is what moves work forward

What are we really trying to accomplish with this death march of meetings anyway?  Aren’t we really just trying to have a conversation?  At the heart of all important business communication is a conversation.  

Meetings are conversations.  Calls are conversations.  Sales, support, brainstorming, and even training (when done right) is a conversation.  Conversation is what moves work forward and is the medium in which we create alignment, make decisions, solve problems, and come together.

A new hope

With Volley, we are creating a new mode of communication.  One that inserts itself at the point where written communication is inadequate and you just need to talk.  Instead of interrupting, jumping on a call, or scheduling a meeting, you send a volley.

Modes of Business Communication (today)

Volley allows you to move work forward with conversations that don’t involve time or place using asynchronous video.  It’s the richness of talk combined with the flexibility of text.

Imagine standup meetings that no one attended, yet everyone participated in (at 2x).  Imagine brainstorming when you felt creative, not when the clock said you should.  Imagine sales calls that kick off right now, when your customer is on your website and thinking about you, instead of Thursday at 3:30.

And what are you doing Thursday at 3:30 instead?  Being the most productive version of yourself.  Because that’s what the most efficient communication tool for work should allow you to do.  And that’s our mission at Volley.

At Volley, we envision a future where you can meet less and communicate more. If this vision is exciting to you, download Volley and invite your team today.

Josh Little

4x Founder, Tinkerer, Tenor, Brinemaster. CEO of Volley.

About the Author

Josh Little started his career as a teacher then moved into sales training and education roles at three Fortune 500 companies before making the leap into entrepreneurship. Over the last 15 years, Josh built four successful tech companies (Maestro, Bloomfire, Qzzr, and Volley) that have improved the lives of hundreds of millions of people and been able to consult with some of the top brands in the world. He has a firm believe that a great conversation can change your life and with Volley he's making them easier to have anywhere, anytime.

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