Business
6 min read

The real cost of business meetings

Angela Murphy
August 22nd, 2018

Most people may view meetings as costs. And they do require money and time. But, if done right, they can be valuable investments

Ah, business meetings. The gathering of people for professional discussion.

If you have ever worked together with others, chances are you’ve attended a meeting or two. Even people who do freelance work in a remote location will need to have some level of communication with the outside world, such as virtual meetings with clients. So whether you’re a CEO or an introverted artist meeting only occasionally with a manager, meetings are a part of your professional life.

Maybe you are the one who tends to lead the meetings at work. Or maybe you just show up and try to stay awake. Either way, it’s important to understand how much of your salary, time, and energy is being dedicated to attending meetings.

Being aware of this can be a help in taking back control over your responsibilities, and becoming more aligned with your fellow colleagues. Not to mention saving some serious cash for the hand that helps feed you. When it comes down to it, meetings can take a toll in terms of time, money, and energy spent.

In the United States alone, unproductive meetings are said to cost (in terms of salary) a staggering $37 billion annually

In this article, I’ll go over meetings in terms of the expenses, followed by a discussion of how they can also represent solid investments. What’s the difference between a cost and an investment? While a cost is purely an expenditure of money, time, or resources, and investment is an expenditure that has the possibility of a substantial return (e.g., additional revenue, new skills, knowledge, etc.).

Let’s first look at meetings as costs

Money

Publications such as the Harvard Business Review have outlined the monetary cost of meetings by taking into account how many attendees there are, what they earn, and how long the meeting is.

Let’s consider some examples based on their online calculator:

AttendeesAnnual income (per person)  HoursCost per meetingAnnual cost 1x/weekAnnual cost 2x/month
55x $70,0001$245$12,740$5,880
155x $50,0005x $60,0005x $80,0001$280$14,560$6,720
2020x $60,0001$840$43,680$20,160
3010x $50,00010x $60,00010x $70,0001$1,260$65,520$30,240

While the above table outlines just a few combinations for potential meetings, a bit of mental math shows that something like taking 15 extra minutes to get a meeting started can increase annual expenses by thousands of dollars. Also, a decision to host a meeting less regularly – say, twice a month instead of one a week – can more than halve the resource cost.

According to a Verizon White Paper on meetings in the USA, the bigger the company, the more money spent per meeting. This makes sense if we assume that, as a company grows, so will the number of high-paid managers, and the amount of time that different departments and branches need to spend on coordination and alignment (i.e., more meetings).

Another factor to take into account is how the meeting is being carried out. Verizon also reported that “a five-person meeting conducted in-person (involving plane travel for four of the attendees) is over seven times more expensive than a meeting conducted by audio conference, and nearly three times as expensive as a video conference”. In other words, if possible, conduct the meeting digitally.

Time

In addition to the financial implications of unnecessary meetings, additional costs can be considered in terms of wasted time, productivity, and morale.

One key way to cut down on wasted time and energy is to check in advance that your setup is working in cases where documents need to be presented, and people in remote locations need to join over the phone or a video conference.

CBTS report that within the span on a 38-minute call, eight minutes go to just getting set up, and a further thirteen on interruptions. With that in mind, getting better solutions, and testing them in advance, is essential to wasting additional time, money, and energy.

Other factors that companies around the world have been battling with include how much employees attend to their social media accounts, personal email, etc. during a meeting. The cause of these distractions may arguably have something to do with the fact that, according to a study by STL – around 47% of people feel that they have to attend too many meetings.

Different summaries on the exact amount of time spent in meetings offer different figures. One study suggested that office workers spend an average of four hours per week in meetings, and feel that more than half of that time is wasted.

Another study suggests that the “average” employee spends closer to a third of their work hours in meetings, with this percentage increasing to 35% and 50% for middle and upper management, respectively. A Forbes article stated that executives can spend upwards of 18 hours per week in meetings, highlighting the fact that leadership roles require more time spent in meetings.

Attending meetings is rarely a requirement written into our work contracts. But attendance is still considered mandatory. And although the total hours spent may vary depending on the person’s role, and the type/size of the company, a common trend is that employees feel they need to work overtime or otherwise compensate for the time meetings take away from fulfilling other duties.

Morale

Perhaps as a result of our concerns that meetings will have a negative impact on our productivity, we decide to multitask. Bringing a smartphone, tablet, or laptop to a meeting is fairly commonplace, and 73% of attendees report doing other work during meetings.

It’s fair to say that multitasking happens when we feel our engagement is not really necessary for a meeting. So, while our physical presence is demanded, our thoughts and focus go elsewhere. Either to checking emails, or daydreaming about what’s for dinner.

While it may not be outwardly expressed, meetings very often have the reverse effect as intended – they demotivate people

Attitudes and behaviors can arguably vary across cultures, either on a national, international, or organizational level. For example, the extent to which power hierarchies and inequalities are accepted (or rejected), may have an impact on participation. That said, there is research suggesting that the frequency and length of meetings are not significantly different, even when taking specific regions into account.

So, although the monetary cost of meetings may differ in terms of amount and currency depending on your location, the percentage of company-wide resources spent on meetings can eat up the same proportion of resources.

Productivity

Maybe you’re someone who feels that it takes an effort to hit a good stride during your workday. It might take first answering recent emails and making the perfect cup of coffee before you feel you can get down to the core of the big project you’re working on.

Once those boxes are checked, you’re feeling ready to put your head down and focus. But then you get a reminder about the meeting starting in 10 minutes, and it kills your momentum.

You passively attend the meeting, not saying much if anything at all. It ends, and you go back to your desk and stare at the screen for 10 minutes or so. You make another cup of coffee, hoping it’ll kick you back into gear.

If this sounds familiar, then know that you’re not alone. In a summary published by STL, they report that around half of meetings are considered to be wasteful or unproductive. And more than 60% of employees worry about being able to take care of other work responsibilities when spending time in meetings.

Now, let’s consider meetings as investments

Okay, so we know that meetings will definitely take up at least some time and money. But this, as well as how attendees end up feeling at the end of a meeting, can significantly vary.

If we start thinking of meetings as investments – opportunities to align on goals, tasks, and organizational values, the positive outcome can be that we make more effort to make the most of them. Attendees may just end up feeling inspired and enthusiastic after a meeting, rather than exhausted and frustrated.

When considering the ROI (return on investment) of a meeting, it can get complicated if the ground covered does not have a clear or direct financial benefit. For example, if the discussion focuses on aesthetic choices for a company’s logo design, use of terminology, etc., the impact can seem more abstract than, say, having a sales meeting that focuses on how to bring in more customers.

The 80/20 rule is a statistical observation that suggests that 80% of wealth is generated by only 20% of people and/or activities within a company. Some people interpret this rule as an instruction to cut out anything that does not bring in a direct financial benefit (including many meetings).

Here’s the thing though: While 20% of your company (e.g., the sales team), are likely responsible for 80% of revenue, the reaming 80% of people and activities serve as an essential support structure.

So, while we should be critical and eliminate activities that are completely unproductive, a strong company culture also comes from feeling unified on all fronts. And meetings are necessary for when things are better said in person, especially when communicating important developments and decisions.

Everything from technical improvements to artistic choices is sometimes necessary to hash out in meetings. The perception that a large proportion of input is wasteful isn’t always applicable when the nature of the work is taken into account. Not everything that lacks a direct financial benefit should be eliminated.

That said, you should always remain aware of what you are willing to invest in a meeting in terms of money, time, productivity, morale, etc.

Whether a meeting should be viewed as a cost or investment comes down to how it’s run and what the outcome is.

Want more tips on how to turn meetings into investments? Check out the 50 golden rules of business meeting etiquette.

Angela Murphy
I work with customer success and content writing at Airtame. Meaning that when I’m not writing to you on our live chat, I’m writing about writing to you via our live chat.