Tales of timewasting at work

Time is money. Productivity is paramount. *Insert other wanky Wall Street term here*. 

When it comes to modern work, there’s a disease that is killing morale and productivity. And that is unproductive meetings.

We’ve all been there – sitting in a conference room, half-listening to a seemingly never-ending discussion that could have been an email. Or sitting on a video conference, pretending to listen but working away on something else in the background. 

It’s time we called out unproductive meetings for what they are and started a movement to end time wasting culture. And it starts with exploring just how many of our meetings may be unnecessary and the impact they’re having on individuals and organisations.  

The Meeting Overload

Unnecessary meetings have become an epidemic in modern workplaces. An average employee spends approximately 31 hours a month in meetings (which is one of the more conservative figures being reported), with 50% of that time deemed unproductive. This is huge and doesn’t just show how pervasive the problem is but also the impact it has on productivity. 

The adoption of remote and hybrid ways of working has only added to the issue. A study by Microsoft found that there was a 153% increase in meetings post-COVID. But not only that, the nature of the interactions have become overly formal and as a result been eroding social networks. For example, instead of being able to turn to the person next to you and ask a simple question, you then put a 15 or 30 minute call in someone’s diary.

One of the main culprits behind this meeting overload is the lack of clear objectives. Many meetings are called without a defined purpose or understanding of the rationale and role of each person in attendance, leading to aimless discussions that drain valuable time and energy. FOMO (the fear of missing out) also drives people to invite too many participants or otherwise not saying no to an invite.

The Lost Time

Modern workplaces are rife with busyness culture. Don’t know what I mean? Next time you’re in the office, ask someone how they’re going. “Busy”. Always. And as annoying as this is, there’s something in it.

Time is a finite resource and unproductive meetings are robbing employees of valuable hours they could otherwise dedicate to meaningful work. These lost hours can result in delayed projects, decreased productivity, and increased stress levels. It also leads to a day of back-to-back meetings and feeling like the workday doesn’t start until after your last meeting finishes where you start getting through the to-do list and, I don’t know, actually do your job. Because instead of fostering creativity, collaboration, and innovation, excessive meetings divert employees’ attention from their core responsibilities. It gets in the way of their ability to concentrate on tasks that drive real progress for the organisation, as well as leaving them frustrated and unfulfilled. 

The Impact on Individuals and Organisations

The impact of unproductive meetings is felt on multiple levels. On an individual level, it affects the workers’ psychological, physical and mental wellbeing. Employees feel demotivated when their time is squandered on meetings that don’t contribute to their growth or the company’s success. This lack of engagement can lead to decreased job satisfaction and even employee burnout because they have to work longer hours to compensate for the lost time that was given to pointless meetings.

Organisations, on the other hand, suffer from reduced overall efficiency. When time is not used optimally, important decisions are delayed, and projects fall behind schedule. The cumulative effect of unproductive meetings can stunt a company’s growth and hamper its competitiveness in the market. Moreover, the financial cost of paying employees to attend unproductive meetings can be significant – in Australia, this is costing $59.3 billion dollars of lost productivity every year. And for an organisation of 1,000 people, it adds up to $10.96 million, which is no small figure.

Addressing the Issue

It’s super important for both individuals and organisations to take proactive measures to address the issue of unproductive meetings. Here are some practical steps that can make a sizeable difference:

  • Clearly Define Meeting Objectives: One time I had a colleague who asked me to clarify why she was invited to a meeting and to provide her with an agenda in advance. At first, I was annoyed that she was being so difficult. But now, I’m all about it. As a meeting organiser, make sure that it has a well-defined purpose and only invite essential participants who can contribute meaningfully to the discussion.
  • Embrace Alternative Communication Channels: Not every issue or topic needs to be a meeting. Instead, use it as a last resort. Encouraging the use of instant messaging, email, or collaboration platforms for straightforward updates, questions, and non-critical discussions can save valuable time while maintaining effective communication. And if you’re purely inviting someone for line-of-sight, consider recording the meeting and sending it through so they can catch up in their own time. 
  • Limit Meeting Duration and Frequency: Set a time limit for each meeting and adhere to it. If discussions aren’t resolved within the allocated time, schedule a follow-up meeting with specific goals. Additionally, reevaluate recurring meetings to make sure they’re necessary.
  • Stand-Up or Walking Meetings: For brief discussions or brainstorming sessions, consider holding stand-up or walking meetings. The change of environment can promote more dynamic discussions and keep meetings concise.
  • Create Meeting-Free Time Blocks: Designate certain periods during the day or week as “meeting-free” time to allow employees uninterrupted focus on their tasks. For example, Loom do meeting-free days, which are becoming increasingly popular.
  • Implement Meeting Etiquette: Set ground rules for meetings, like arriving on time, avoiding off-topic discussions, and limiting the use of electronic devices. Respect for others’ time can lead to more productive interactions.
  • Use Technology Wisely: Leverage technology to improve meeting efficiency, such as collaborative online tools, agenda-sharing platforms, and scheduling apps. Atlassian are also big believers in synchronous and asynchronous work so, for example, rather than all coming together for a brainstorming session, use an online collaboration board and jump in to provide your input in your own time. 

Unproductive meetings are a silent but formidable killer in today’s workplace. The amount of time wasted, the negative impact on individuals and organisations, and the overall cost to productivity is massive. And it’s only going to get more pervasive. By recognising the issue and implementing practical strategies, both individuals and organisations can reclaim their valuable time while building a more productive, engaged, and impactful work environment.


Author Dr. Ben Hamer

Dr. Ben leads the Future of Work practice here at CreativeCubes.Co and is our Chief Futurist. Dr Ben Hamer, was recently awarded the #1 Voice for the Future of Work in Asia Pacific and in the Top 10 globally. Ben is an accredited futurist, having undertaken work and research around the world, which included time spent working at the World Economic Forum and as a Visiting Scholar at Yale University. He is an Adjunct Professor at Edith Cowan University and a Board Member for the Australian HR Institute, where he was appointed as the youngest Non-Executive Director in the organisation’s history. A sought after media commentator, Ben was the host of PwC’s Future of Work podcast and the author of The Kickass Career: How to succeed in the Future of Work, today! Ben has worked extensively advising across the private and public sectors

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