What Is Your Return on Meetings?

Agencies have many processes and hurdles you need to clear if you want to spend funds for things like training, new software, or office equipment. Any new projects require much documentation to justify the project’s budget. Agencies are very careful (or should be) in how the agency spends its annual budget. And agencies should be because they are charged with the responsible use of tax dollars.

However, agencies may not be as careful with how the employees spend time. According to Michael Mankins and Eric Garton, organizations spend at least 15% of their annual work time in meetings. Mankins and Garton write in their book, Time, Talent, Energy, how technology has made it easier to schedule and hold meetings. Therefore, organizations are holding more meetings without considering the costs of meetings. Many hours of valuable employees’ time is spent in meetings because there are no organizational methods to determine if meeting time is a good investment. How do organizations calculate the costs of meetings?

For over twenty-five years, I have attended meetings in government agencies, in nonprofits, in volunteer organizations, and in private sector startups. Frankly, there isn’t much difference from one meeting to another. I created the following metric based on the experiences I have had in all these meetings. The “Return on Meetings” attempts to capture the benefits and costs of meeting so decision makers can decide whether to meet or not.

First, consider the benefits of the meeting. There are two major benefits to meeting. The first benefit of meetings is to announce important information that is necessary to help the workforce with their jobs. Now, the information could be distributed through email, posters, or some other communication vehicle. The rationale for announcing information at a meeting is to allow the workforce to ask questions and receive immediate responses.

The second benefit of meetings is to allow participation in a decision that directly affects the participants. Again, participants could interact through email, but a meeting allows for immediacy and feedback. However, some decisions require face-to-face interaction (even if it is virtual). Having established the benefits, what are the costs of meetings?

There are four major costs to meetings. First, there is the overhead costs of having a meeting room, preparing meeting materials, and the salary costs of all the meeting participants. Second, there are the lost opportunity costs. What could the participants have accomplished or worked on if they were not in the meeting?

The third cost is not as easy to quantify but can have long-term real cost impacts. I am talking about the emotional costs of meetings. Let’s be honest; you and I have been in dysfunctional meetings. Meetings which have increased the conflict in the workplace, led to key employees becoming disengaged from their work, and compelling employees to leave the organization. I would not be surprised if there is not a strong link between the increasing number of meetings and the decades-long decline in employee engagement.

The fourth and final cost stems from the damage to the organization’s culture. Frequent, badly-planned meetings will have a corrosive effect on the culture as employees feel they are not accomplishing any “real work.” Even if an employee is not directly involved in a meeting, he or she can suffer the second-hand effects of bad meeting decisions and the emotional toll on his or her superiors.

The equation looks like this: Return on Meeting = The REALIZED benefits of the meeting divided by (overhead costs plus lost opportunity costs plus emotional costs (such as employee disengagement) plus cultural costs (such as turnover and recruitment costs).

Time is a more valuable resource than money and should be treated . I have written before how wasting time is a major component of organizational drag. Too many meetings and emails are the biggest time killers. Meetings and emails can be productive – if wisely used. For meetings, considering the costs and benefits will help agencies realize a good return on meetings.

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Bill McFadden

For government meetings to be successful, in my opinion, there needs to be several elements. First thing there needs to be a time limit, preferably one hour. For more complex matters schedule more time. There needs to be a strong individual leading the meeting and reining it in when it goes off topic. There needs to be an understanding of what needs to be accomplished, why is the meeting taking place? Lastly, a decision needs to be made of how many individuals to include. Do all of the invitees absolutely have to be there. When there are people only peripherally involved coupled with people who like to hear themselves talk, that is a combination that more often than not will lead to an unproductive meeting. Just my opinion.