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The real, hidden cost of meetings

Alex Moser

by Alex Moser on July 10, 2019

Meetings are expensive. We all know it: as our calendars fill up with endless meetings, our productivity goes down… dramatically.

At some point, almost every company is affected by meeting drain. Employees start to complain about the amount of time they spend in meetings, no one can find time to meet, rooms are overbooked, and inevitably, someone starts to joke: how much is this meeting costing us? Whether it’s a joke or a real question for the business, the formula is always all too simple: calculate each attendee’s hourly rate, multiply that rate by the duration of the meeting, then add each of the attendees’ costs together to get a total cost of the meeting.

Using this method, a meeting with four attendees at $70 an hour, for example, is $280 gone. That might not sound like much, especially for an important topic that needs to be discussed in a meeting.

Unfortunately, the true cost of that meeting to the business is actually much higher.

Meeting blast radius

Looking at the cost of meetings based on meeting time alone misses the larger picture of how disruptive each individual meeting is to your team’s productivity. Even if it is worth having the meeting — and it often is — not all time is created equal, and the cost of meetings goes far beyond the literal time it takes to perform the meeting.

Just the act of switching topics from whatever you were doing before a meeting, to attending a meeting, to getting back to work can have significant productivity costs. It might take each attendee 30 minutes or longer to find their groove again after a meeting, and an approaching meeting tends to do the same, pulling people out of the zone. On top of that, there’s the planning and preparation time for multiple attendees, which is left out of most calculations.

“It might take each attendee 30 minutes or longer to find their groove again after a meeting, and an approaching meeting tends to do the same, pulling people out of the zone.”

Even more expensive than switching costs is the impact meetings can have on work time. Ever been in a meeting for an hour right after lunch, only to return to your desk and decide that there’s no time today for that big presentation you were supposed to put together? Or that there’s simply no point in starting on that bug fix until tomorrow? Getting real work done often requires long, uninterrupted blocks of time, and meetings are one of the biggest reasons why those blocks are so rare.

A meeting in the middle of the afternoon is likely to make everyone from engineers to product managers decide to defer a big job that needs hours of unbroken concentration to another day. That has the ambient effect of making your roadmap slip too, costing even more than is calculable, and ultimately derailing project estimations.

All-in Meeting Cost

So how do you quantify the all-in cost of a meeting, including the blast radius of interrupted productive time? Unfortunately this is a difficult task that often varies person to person and meeting to meeting – for each attendee in a given meeting, we’d need to calculate costs for the time spent in the meeting, their switching costs, and the focus time interruption costs.

While it’s hard to assign a dollar value, you can measure how many otherwise productive hours the meeting interrupts. Or, put another way, how much time for focused work the meeting takes away.

Tools like Clockwise will do this for you, but you can also do it manually:

  1. Define how much consecutive time you need to go deep on a task – at Clockwise, we use 2 hours as the minimum duration for a block of Focus Time, so we’ll use 2 hours for this explanation.
  2. Look at a given meeting and count the hours of consecutive free time greater than or equal to 2 hours that you would have if the meeting didn’t exist
  3. Count the number of consecutive hours of free time greater than or equal to 2 hours that you have now that the meeting is scheduled
  4. Subtract step 3 from step 2 to get the Focus Time cost for just you.
  5. Repeat for all the attendees and add together to get the total Focus Time cost for the meeting.

In the example below, before the meeting was scheduled I had 5.5 hours of Focus Time. After the meeting was scheduled, I was left with 3 hours of Focus Time (and 1.5 hours of fragmented time). So this meeting costs 3 hours for me, plus the cost for each of the attendees.

This will give you the number of Focus Time hours, but translating that to a dollar amount is difficult to do at an aggregate level. Putting a direct cost on meetings is a nice idea, but it’s like trying to hammer a nail with a shoe: you’re not really solving the actual problem. The problem for most organizations is that they have too many meetings, scheduled at the wrong times.

Now what?

The best thing to do, rather than focus on direct costs, is teach employees to use their time wisely, and treat meetings as a scarce resource. When a meeting has to happen, remember to keep the meeting blast radius in mind, and follow these best practices to minimize its impact:

  1. Schedule meetings back to back, or as close to that as possible, to reduce the cost of switching between work and meetings.
  2. Consider the impact your meetings have on your focus time, and the focus time of the other attendees. This can be hard to do, especially with larger meetings, which is why Clockwise built a scheduling tool that calculates the Focus Time cost of meetings dynamically, allowing you to choose the least disruptive time.

By showing your team that that the cost of meetings goes beyond the time the meeting takes, they can better understand their own ‘blast radius’ and learn to adjust their habits to avoid impacting others.

Alex Moser

Alex Moser

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