Exposing the hidden costs of meetings

Some costs associated with meetings speak for themselves, others are less conspicuous. Associate Professor Val Hooper lays those costs out, making suggestions on where we can rein them in.

Meetings – when last did we count the costs?

And so it’s back to work and one of the things one notices is how quickly our calendars become populated with meeting bookings – often scheduled for the whole year. Very soon our diaries take on a patchwork appearance and one is struck by how much time is spent in meetings. And that does not include possible travel time.

Since Covid-19 first struck early last year, the vast majority of companies have been struggling to find ways to reduce costs in order to keep operating. One area of cost that seems to have slipped under the radar is the cost of meetings. How often have the meeting chairs actually worked out the cost of the meeting, simply in terms of hourly salary of the attendees, and then asked the question: “Am I getting the return from this meeting that warrants its costs?”

Asking that simple question and doing a few basic calculations, many executives will be shocked at how much money is actually slipping away from the organisation unnoticed. The start of the year seems a good time to reassess this issue and take a fresh look at the meetings we plan. As a start, meeting chairs could possibly do a rough calculation of the salary costs of regularly scheduled meetings; then consider the points raised below; and finally calculate how much money could be saved by implementing some of the suggestions.

What is the purpose of the meeting? In general, meetings are held to benefit from group dynamics. Points raised by one attendee trigger consideration and subsequent suggestions by others.

  • Is the meeting to inform? If so, is a meeting really necessary? Can the information be disseminated via e-mail, for instance, to be read at the convenience of the recipient?
  • Is the meeting to consult? If so, consolidated feedback should be finalised during the meeting and forwarded to another body. One would assume any necessary information would have been disseminated in sufficient time beforehand so time isn’t taken up with explanations of preparatory documentation.
  • Is the meeting for planning and/or co-ordination of action? In such cases, a plan would be the outcome. As above, preparatory documentation might help, although often such meetings involve a lot of discussion that builds on the group dynamic.

Who should attend the meeting? Attendees should be limited to those who would contribute to the achievement of the meeting goals. Too often attendees include those who are not the pertinent decision-makers. Any consultation by the decision-makers should take place before the meeting and the information, not the individuals consulted, be brought to the meeting.

How long should the meeting be? It is the chair’s role to ensure sufficient time is allocated for any necessary discussion and the meeting stays focused. It is a sign of respect to all attendees not to allow the meeting to dissolve into unfocused, time-consuming discussion.

  • Consider allocating a limited amount of time to each speaker or allowing speakers to only address an item once or twice. In more formal meetings, only certain attendees have speaking rights and only certain attendees have voting (decision-making) rights.

Documentation should be disseminated at least a week before the meeting, not presented at the meeting unless it is breaking news.

  • Views differ on the extent and detail of the recorded proceedings – some organisations preferring only to record action points, others to record all discussions almost verbatim. What is important is the documentation provides sufficient information on which, how and why certain decisions were made.
  • It is the responsibility of each attendee to read the documentation in advance and prepare their discussions on points they wish to raise. Attendees new to the meeting should acquaint themselves with previous sets of minutes so they do not take up meeting time revisiting issues that have already been discussed and resolved.

Where the meeting is held and whether it is online or face to face is a last point to consider. An important aspect to bear in mind is the time spent travelling to a face-to-face meeting, possible time spent searching for parking, and parking costs.

The points raised above are by no means exhaustive but cover the main categories where hidden costs can be incurred.

It might be argued meetings serve secondary purposes as well, one of them being socialisation, especially if any form of lockdown is imposed. However, alternative opportunities and venues can be organised that will serve the socialisation need. Staff clubs are one such example, but these activities should take place outside working hours or during lunch breaks.

Meetings often provide an opportunity for some people to demonstrate their superior knowledge or how hard they’ve worked on a project. Although we all like getting recognition and admiration, a clever chair will briefly acknowledge any special expertise but provide other channels for the relevant individuals to shine.

This article has focused on how to save the costs of meetings. It has not focused on meeting protocol, about which there are many excellent guides.

Associate Professor Val Hooper is Head of the School of Marketing and International Business at Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington.

Read the original article on Newsroom.