The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How a company weekly meeting winds up consuming 300,000 hours per year


You know the drill. The big boss has his weekly meetings. To get ready for them, the lesser bosses have their weekly meetings, too. And to get ready for those, the junior bosses follow suit. It can add up to a lot of person-hours. The authors of a study in the May Harvard Business Review added it up. They data-mined Outlook calendars of executives in a large company, which they did not identify, and found that meeting madness “rippled through the organization in a profoundly disturbing way:” 300,000 person-hours burned up just for meetings per year.

Here’s the breakdown in the article by Michael Mankins, Chris Brahm and Gregory Caimi, all consultants with Bain & Co.

In this particular company, a total of 7,000 person-hours per year were spent in weekly executive committee meetings at which 11 senior staff members provided updates on the business.

To get ready for the executive committee meetings, these senior staffers held 11 of their own unit meetings consuming 1,800 person-hours each, for a total of 20,000 hours per year.

To get ready for the unit meetings, a total of 21 managers working for the senior staffers held their own section meetings, 21 of them, for a combined total of 63,000 hours per year.

Of course these unit meetings, being important, required “prep meetings.”

There were 130 prep meetings in total, consuming a total of 210,000 hours per year.

That’s worth a pause to summarize:

  • 7,000 hours: Weekly executive committee meetings.
  • 20,000 hours: Weekly senior staff unit meetings.
  • 63,000 hours: Weekly meetings of the staff to the senior staff
  • 210,000 hours: Weekly prep meeetings for the staff to the senior staff.

“As astonishing” as the figures are, say the authors, “300,000 person hours supporting one weekly excom meeting — it’s important to remember that it doesn’t include the work time [not in meetings] preparing for meetings. Research shows that 15% of an organization’s collective time is spent in meetings — a percentage that has increased every year since 2008. No amount of money can buy back that time….”

It’s getting worse, too. There are more and more meetings. Executives are attending more meetings in part because it’s gotten easier to have meetings, using video conferencing and screen-sharing. “On average, senior executives devote more than two days every week to meetings involving three or more coworkers and 15% of an organization’s collective time is spent in meetings….”

How useful are meetings?

In a recent Bain survey, the authors say, senior executives rated more than half the meetings they attended “ineffective” or “very ineffective.”

“At most of the organizations we examined, participants routinely sent e-mails during meetings. At one company, in 22% of meetings participants sent three or more e-mails, on average, for every 30 minutes of meeting time.”

They didn’t say what the e-mails were about. Maybe they were e-mails scheduling more meetings or maybe complaining about the meeting they were attending.

All this, of course, calls for a big meeting.