Knowing the Cost of Meetings

As a general statement, I don’t particularly care for meetings.

Part of that is my own personal bias. Like a lot of tech/programmer types, I’m mildly autistic (somewhere in the asperger spectrum), and I don’t function terribly well in a meeting environment. It isn’t social nervousness - I don’t get any butterflies when giving a presentation in front of lots of people - my brain just isn’t wired for the kinds of social interactions that exist in your typical meeting. If you were in a meeting with me today you probably wouldn’t know that. I’ve made a concerted effort to learn those types of interactions, and I’ve come to a point where I can fool most people. But it will never be a natural thing for me.

But that isn’t my main gripe with meetings. My biggest gripe, by far, is the cost of a meeting almost always outweighs its benefits. Most people don’t consider the cost of a meeting before they schedule it. Meetings are, however, horribly expensive things. Depending on what your organization values more, you can look at the cost of a meeting in either time or money.

For most government agencies, time is probably the best measure of a meeting’s cost. Suppose you’re invited to a meeting from 1:00 to 3:00 PM. Your first instinct would be to think that it’s a two hour meeting.

There is no such thing as a two hour meeting.

Let’s say 12 people were invited. 12 people x 2 hours = 24 hours. Charge an additional 15 minute pre and post meeting switching penalty for travel and refocusing your neurons on another task (.5 hours x 12 people = 6 hours), and you are up to 30. That meeting from 1 to 3 is really a 30 hour meeting, because that’s what it is costing your organization. Discounting any extra prep time needed before the meeting, it’s going to cost nearly four working days.

Now think about what the meeting is supposed to accomplish. Is it worth four days of productivity? In some cases the answer will be yes. In most cases, however, the answer will be no. To emphasize the time costs of a meeting, at Google meetings have two projectors going - one for the meeting materials, and another a large ticking clock.

If your organization bills its time and thinks more in terms of financial costs, there’s a cool little web tool I ran across that got me started on this topic. The PayScale Meeting Miser launches in a pop-up window and helps you get a clear monetary cost of your meeting. You enter your location and then the work title of each attendee (it has a long list with estimated costs for your region), and then you can either extrapolate the cost from the estimated cost per minute or, even better, project it on a wall and hit the Start button when the meeting starts so attendees can watch the dollars pile up.

Of course, meetings themselves can often be made more efficient. A good meeting leader will set time limits on agenda items, quickly table topics that have outlived their usefulness, and quash off-topic tangents, maximizing meeting time. Some organizations have even eliminated chairs in meeting rooms, finding meetings take less than half as long if the attendees have to stand. But even the rare well-run meeting should still cost justify its existence or choose another venue to accomplish its goals - email, office drop by, IM, blog, smoke signals, etc.

I think everyone probably has a dead-horse committee (bring us a dead horse and we’ll beat it) they belong to or, perhaps the most horrific, a meeting where a whole cadre of sadists round-table wordsmiths a document.* I think if the true cost of those meetings were known, those meetings would either be significantly different or relegated to the dust-bin of inefficiency.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to run to a 22 hour meeting from 10:30-12:00. We’re in the market for a new dead horse if you have any ideas.

*Two words for those people: Google Docs.

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