I’m spending hours every week sitting in useless meetings!

A reader writes:

I’ve been in my current position for 8 months, and I’ve realized that my organization is suffering from a severe case of meeting overload. We don’t have that many meetings — maybe 4 or 5 per week — but the ones that we do have are horrible and violate almost all of your rules. In short, they are agenda-less info dumps that often last 3 to 4 hours each. To clarify, these are not meetings that I’ve called with my team, but meetings I am required to attend with my supervisor and the other department managers.

I’m a relatively new manager, and I’m in charge of one of the largest departments in my organization. I have a lot on my plate, and attending all these pointless meetings is killing my productivity. However, I seem to be the only one bothered by all the meetings. Some of the other department managers have even told me that they look forward to them because it gives them a chance to catch up on gossip! I love my job and I genuinely enjoy my co-workers, but I’m struggling to get my own work done because I spend half my day sitting in meetings listening to my colleagues talk about nothing.

My boss doesn’t actively encourage this behavior, but she doesn’t discourage it either. When I’ve brought up the length of the meetings in conversation, she agrees that they are probably too long, but expresses no interest in changing things because “this is the way these meetings have always been run.” I’m afraid that if I keep bringing it up, it will reflect poorly on me because the other managers don’t seem to have a problem with the current system. I’m not sure if they have less to do or if they’re just more productive because they’ve all been here 10+ years, but I know that at this stage in my career, I can’t afford to waste half my day in meetings and still have time to finish my own work and manage my own department. I really don’t think I have an issue with time management, because I have no problem getting things done on days when I have short meetings (or no meetings at all). Am I out of line for thinking that these meetings are unreasonable? Do you have any suggestions about how I can minimize the impact they have on my productivity without alienating my boss or my co-workers?

Regular meetings that last 3-4 hours each?  With no agenda and where people spend some of the time gossiping? No, you’re not out of line. However, you might be out of sync with your manager and your organization, in that you value productivity and efficiency and want to get things done, whereas they … don’t.

You already approached your manager about this and she didn’t seem interested in doing anything to change the status quo, so your options for making real change are limited. Your best bet is probably to simply find ways to limit the impact on yourself.

For instance, you might say this to your boss: “I need more time to focus on X, Y, and Z, and I’m spending 15 hours in meetings every week — almost two full work days. So unless you object, I’m going to excuse myself from meetings if it starts to seem like the discussion isn’t essential to me.”

You could also try taking your laptop to the meetings so that you can work during them.

Of course, you could also ask your manager if she’d be willing to try it your way and experiment with letting you run a few meetings yourself. You could point out that you’re not the only one spending two days a week sitting in meetings, and that it’s a drain on productivity organization-wide. And who knows, maybe she’ll let you, as long as it’s not more work for her.

But with all of these options, the potential problem is that you’ll be doing something so foreign to your culture that it may cause Issues. So you’ll need to be attuned to that, and pull back if it does. Although if that’s the case, then I’d strongly recommend considering finding an environment that has more clarity about how people’s time should be used, because the overarching message here is that this is a culture that isn’t able to make smart decisions. And there’s no way that this is the only area in which they’re making bad calls about how to best get results, so you might find seeking more efficient pastures very satisfying.

Read an update to this letter here.

{ 40 comments… read them below }

  1. Colette*

    I was in a similar situation in a volunteer organization, and I handled it by approaching the person in charge and saying something along the lines of: “You know, these meetings are regularly stretching to 3+ hours, and I’m finding that I’m not terribly effective after 2 hours. I don’t want us to make a bad decision because people have tuned out. I know I’m as bad as anyone at not sticking to the agenda, so please feel free to pull me back to the topic at hand.” She agreed, and the meetings were suddenly 1.5 hours.

    If that’s not an option – i.e. the manager doesn’t see it as a problem – can you book another meeting (with someone who reports to you, perhaps) to start a reasonable time after the unproductive meeting? The second meeting doesn’t have to last long – it can be a 5-minute catch up – but it gives you an excuse to say “I have another meeting at 11, so I apologize but I’ll have to leave for that one”.

    1. anon-2*

      I worked at a place once that did this — we were all spending too much time in meetings. The mantra (and defense of all the meetings) was “If you fail to plan, then plan to fail.”

      The problem is we were planning, planning, planning and never had the time to execute what was being planned.

      My manager — and I’m sure others did this as well — would have one of their subordinates page them out of the meeting after 15-20 minutes or so. My boss would come by and say “911 me out at around quarter-past, ok?” … will do! And please reciprocate for me tomorrow, OK? OK!

      1. Harry*

        lol. Sounds like bailing out of a bad date!

        “I’m sorry, my roommate locked herself out of the car and I must leave.”

  2. ChristineH*

    WOW, that definitely sounds like meeting overload!! But it sounds like it’s not changing anytime soon, so…

    Since the other managers have been there much longer, maybe ask one or more of them how they’ve been able to maintain good productivity despite all of these meetings? I know you said you have no problems with time management and I believe that. But given how much you like your job and your coworkers, it’s not a bad idea to just find out what works for others, and ascertain if it fits in with what you’re comfortable with.

    Now, if that doesn’t work, then I’d go with what Alison suggested and seriously consider looking for a more efficient environment. A lot of meetings do drag on and on and on, but this sounds really excessive.

  3. Dave*

    I would suggest that you entirely drop the line of reasoning (in any form) along “I am struggling to get my work done because of the meetings” because some managers will dismiss the meetings as the problem and instead think that you just can’t cut it in your role — and the meetings are definitely horrid based on your description.

    I love the line of reasoning that the entire organization is using 20-40% of the work week on meetings and that, with more effective time management, this time commitment can be cut down considerably. Depending on how many people attend you can actually do math on how many hours a year that is or how many full time equivalents.

    As a step one to potential change, you could print out AMA’s rules for effective meetings and show it to your supervisor and potentially to others (saying that a friend had emailed them to you or something) and point out that the meetings are breaking all the rules and that you would be happy to help make them more productive (i.e. shorter).

    Good luck – I am blessed with only one big meeting per week (3 hours) and it is HIGHLY regimented and often ends early.

  4. Christine*

    I would definitely trial making another short meeting that gives you a get out after an hour or so and see how it goes down. I had a lot of colleagues who saw our MD’s 3 hour meetings as paid time off, there was not going to be any stopping them. I had a friend who worked round the corner who would call at reception for me and I would pop out for 15 minutes, silly really, but it saved me 12 hours a week wasted at times. Eventually I excused myself altogether by showing a strict time sensitive schedule that I was keeping to and reasons why I could not and did not need to attend, and then left the company to one more in tune with the way I like to work. This new company had a lot of meetings but always restricted to an hour with attendance often optional.
    In meetings without agendas I always take my own so I don’t get side tracked and make sure any issue that needs to be raised is raised.

  5. Suzanne*

    I once worked at a place that had a weekly staff meeting that always lasted 2 to 3 hours and occasionally 4 hours. One staff member routinely fell asleep and another often texted his kids during the meeting. One week, we spent a good portion of the meeting looking at pictures of the director’s church, and every week produced some sort of anti-government rant from one or more of the other employees. It was generally completely useless.
    I quit that job after 10 months of complete frustration of which the staff meetings were only a part. However, the craziness of the meetings mirrored the way the entire organization was run. Quitting without another job lined up was probably the stupidest thing I’ve ever done, but it was either that or psychiatric care with meds from trying to survive working in a vortex of workplace insanity.

  6. Cruella*

    Here’s a suggestion that won’t ruffle any feathers, but may put a stop to the 4- hour, unproductive meeting.

    Ask to start a Toastmasters group in your office.

    Yes, I realize that it would be more responsibility on your, but you could soon reap the benefits. Toastmasters teaches how to run a structured meeting, with defined start and stop times, and teaches your speakers how to recognize defined speaking limits. Most Toastmasters meetings last only an hour to an hour and a half.

    It also helps those involved brush up on their public speaking skills. The work books outline every type of speech imaginable, including those used for training.

    It really worked for us. Now I can sit in a meeting and can tell who has had Toastmasters and who has not.

    Just a thought.

  7. Eric*

    You say that these meetings are killing your productivity? What are the consequences of this? Are you getting feedback that you aren’t getting enough done from your supervisor? Is there anything tangible other than your own personal feelings of efficiency? Missed deadlines? Etc?

    My observation is that you are trying to pug a square peg in a round hole. Embrace the corporate culture. “When in Rome…”

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      No! Don’t encourage the OP to give in to this kind of slackerhood. There are some people — myself included, and it sounds like the OP — who bristle at this kind of thing because they’re internally motivated to get stuff done, to be productive and efficient, etc. That trait will serve her well in her career — even if it’s somewhere else. It’s a trait that will get her promoted, get her raises, etc.

    2. Vicki*

      Some of us can’t just settle into the “wrong” way of doing things just because it’s the way “everyone does things”. I left a job because I was bored: I was “on call” for one team, if they had problems. If they didn’t have problems, I had nothing to do. Some people would call this a dream job. I didn’t.

    3. Dehlia*

      Wow, when in Rome . . . Not. When adding up the time management can spend shooting the breeze about nonsense it seems frivilous to hold 2, 3, or 4 hour meetings. Most of that stuff can be sent to all parties via email. Sitting around sharing gossip is time that could be doing the work instead of hearing the gossip about those doing the work. What a really odd comment. Who today with all the work involved in managing would prefer to sit in a long drawn out meeting that is not counterproductive?

  8. Anonymous*

    I used to work in an organisation that had a lengthy (3 or 4 hour!) unstructured meeting of the team leaders every fortnight. I raised it with our boss but he made it clear he was not interested in applying good meeting practice (even though he knew what that was – in fact we were an OD unit which rolled out effective meeting training to the rest of the organisation!!). It drove me crazy (I would sit there twitching and thinking of my to-do list) until I finally realised that it actually reflected an overall orientation in the work area towards meeting affiliation needs over prioritising project delivery. In other words, the group was generally more interested in relationships and people than they were in projects. This was reflected in other things, not just the meeting. I found that once I recognised this as an orientation/style clash it annoyed me a lot less. I decided to use the meetings as an opportunity to strengthen my relationships with other team leaders and see it as productive time for that reason rather than a waste of time that could be spent on project work. I won’t say I didn’t still twitch occasionally, and I made judicious use of the “I have another appointment at 11am which I just couldn’t reschedule” approach, but it did help lower my blood pressure a bit.

    1. Vicki*

      If they’re going to have a Social, why not just call it a Social and be honest. Hold the meeting over lunch or at 4pm with cookies.

  9. Anonymous*

    Don’t just say, this is a problem. Then you are a whiner.
    Try here is my suggested solution to this problem and how I would be willing to help fix it.

    I had board meetings getting out of hand and I wasn’t able to do that, so I created a written report with all the information for my piece. E-mailed it out before hand and at the meeting would say, any questions about my report? No great moving on!

  10. JT*

    Eric – the time spent in meetings is time not doing other work. That reduces productivity.

    To the OP – after a while I’d go slightly passive-aggressive and just leave the meeting and go do regular work. Let people (including your boss) who want the meetings make the case for you to be there. It is possible they are so weak on “management” skills they won’t be able to do so, and you’ll get more done in the meantime.

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        Because she values her career and reputation, and because she’s internally motivated to get stuff done and it drives her crazy if she doesn’t.

      2. Jaime*

        Sometimes, in the absence of gaining another job, the only way to save your sanity in a badly run company is to go with the flow. If the flow is “they don’t care about productivity then why should I”, then whose fault is that? There are ways to do this that does not make you look like a slacker and does not harm your reputation. The real risk is to stay at such a company too long and develop bad habits. I’ve learned that there are times when I care more about doing a good job than my company does and if I want to not be perpetually frustrated and angry in the face of unchanging, nonsense policies then I just have to let things go. I pick my battles and I still get great reviews, but I also have had to break bad habits in myself that develop if I’m not careful.

        And, sometimes giving someone exactly what they say they want is the only way to change things.

        1. JT*

          Jaime, good points. I like to think of it not as going with the flow – Instead “sidestep the flow.” Don’t fight it over and over again (you’l get nuts), don’t do it (bad habits), but ignore it. Don’t waste time in meetings like everyone else – instead just leave the meeting early. Or bring other work to the meeting and do that while there. Be aware that these choices are rude and counter-productive in good or usually-good meetings. But in consistently bad meetings, vote with your feet or your attention.

  11. Harry*

    In any meeting whether I am a host or I am an attendee, I always ask for an agenda. If the meeting goes on a tangent, I throw a line such as, “That’s great but lets get back to the agenda before the sun sets on us.” That usually brings a few laughs even when there isn’t an agenda. Interesting thing is that EVERYONE knows they were going off tangent.

    1. Mike*

      I would find out how long these meetings have been going on and how many people have been attending. I would agree we need to collaborate across departments and these meetings may offer value. However, if we shortened the meeting and had a clearer objective, how much time would we save. Then I would graph it out and pose the question, given that the attendees are leaders in our organization, what could we have accomplished if we had spent that time differently? What could we accomplish in the next year with the extra time?

      1. Dehlia*

        I certainly agree. People walking out of their office with cups of coffee in hand are not necessarily going in to participate with comments to a meeting. After working both the State and Federal government, I see the same thing going on and quite honestly, I agree with many on the blog, these are extremely unproductive meetings, and a huge waste of time. Most of the information could be sent via email to a host of other managers. I could type a message, and send it to 100 people in various locations to notify and get opinions all at the same time. Why should one have to gather 15 other managers in a room with coffee and pastries to take up work time sharing gossip, of slacking off for 3 to 4 hours each day? I often wonder how any of these individuals got where they are? Sitting in a meeting; just who are you managing again? No one. Yet you still collect a paycheck for doing absolutely nothing.

  12. Scott Woode*

    @ Eric: The company culture is grinding down on the OP with their inefficiency and it’s making her think that “just because the other kids are doing it” (the mentality you propose) makes it OK. It isn’t OK and she knows that, which is why she’s writing in to find out how to solve the problem, not succumb to it.

    @ OP: Stick to your guns. The reason I have a job now after over a year of unemployment is because of AAM and how supportive and level-headed she is, even in the face of adversity. Trust what she has to say. And maybe take Colette’s advice while you’re at it.

    @ AAM: Thank you for all you do and Happy New Year!

  13. Anonymous*

    Hi everyone- OP here. As AAM suggests, the excessive meetings bother me because I value efficiency and WANT to get things done at work! I have a Type A personality, and sitting in these pointless meetings listening to my co-workers talk about the casserole they made for dinner last night makes me crazy because all I can do is think of the things I could be accomplishing in my office.

    For what it’s worth, this is also my first public sector job- before starting here, I spent a few years working for a large corporation, so it’s possible that I’m still experiencing some culture shock. Things are definitely less… structured here than at my previous job, but the work I’m doing is more satisfying than anything I’ve ever done. It may be true that I would be happier in a more efficient environment, but I really want to make things work here. Thanks to everyone (especially AAM) for the great advice! I’ll give your suggestions a try, and with any luck I’ll be able to help make my organization a better and more productive place.

    1. Long Time Admin*

      I “get” your problem with a new corporate culture. When I moved from the upper Midwest to the South, I almost had a stroke at how unbusinesslike and unprofessional companies are here.

      At least you don’t have to to the “Corporate Cheer!” at every meeting. (Give a G, give me an A, give me a G, give me a “ME”!)

  14. Dawn*

    Sounds to me like the company uses these meetings for the purpose of having scheduled slacking-off time. It baffles me that the OP can get anything done at all with all these meetings. I recently started attending our weekly managers’ meeting. It’s about an hour if we’re on task, about two hours if we go off in other directions. We discuss loan and deposit activity, liquidity, and a couple other things (I work at a bank). To me, that’s a reasonable amount of time. Beyond that, I don’t see what could possibly be gained from meetings that hog up 15 hours a week.

  15. J.B.*

    Ahh, public sector meetings. We’ve made some improvements in ours but it is slow going. I would go easy on the double booking type excuses. The best you can do is try to move things along and follow an actual agenda at meetings for which you are responsible and maybe see if others want to try to follow that style too.

  16. Kat*

    Reading OPs posts brought back horrific memories of the five person law firm I worked in a couple of years ago. We would have 3 to 4 hour meetings to discuss how to process mail. It wasn’t as if we were doing it inefficiently to start with, nor was it a big office with a large mailroom (the office was in a house, and the mailman literally walked in and handed us mail, most of which was junk mail), but you walk into a room with a whiteboard and the attorneys turned very flowchart happy. We would leave the meeting even more confused than when we walked in, and the mail procedure would go straight to hell until us, the ‘staff’ decided to just revert it back to the old, efficient and useful way.

    I used to love meetings because they got me out of work, but the longer I’ve been employed, the less I like them. Like someone else said, you lose productivity, especially if a meeting has no agenda and no real purpose. Half the time, half of the people in meetings don’t need to be present in the first place.

    This may seem ‘anti-social’ of the OP but since they’ve already discussed this with the manager, can you ask that you are only included in the portions of the meetings that directly deal with your job?

    1. Dawn*

      “I used to love meetings because they got me out of work, but the longer I’ve been employed, the less I like them.”

      This is so true. I used to love the fact that I was away from my desk. It seemed like such a perk to me. Now I know how boring, useless, and dragged out they can be sometimes. I’d rather be at my desk getting real work done.

  17. EK*

    Are there times when 3 hour meetings are appropriate? I manage a small non-profit with 5 staff members, and we have a 10 minute meeting every morning for a check in, and a weekly staff meeting. (Any other meetings that occur are ad hoc one-on-one meetings on specific topics or projects.) I tried for a while to keep the staff meetings to one hour, but we have had a lot of major projects going on, so they have crept up time-wise (we still have an agenda, and I work to keep off-topic conversation to a minimum.) I want to make sure that everyone is in the loop, and these discussions typically are relevant to all but one the staff members. I haven’t heard any complaints yet, but I know long meetings like can drive people crazy, particularly if it isn’t directly related to their tasks. Can these longer weekly meetings possibly not be horrible? Is it worse to have the one staff member who they are less relevant for sit through them, or to have him be the only one on staff who is left out of the loop?

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      I’d give him the option and see which he prefers.

      But it might be worth looking at a different system: I’d do individual weekly check-in’s with each of your direct reports, and only use staff-wide meetings for things that truly require discussion with the full group. Of course, with a staff that small, that might be most things — but I’d be really disciplined about asking whether that really applies to each topic or not … and saving the other stuff for one-on-one’s or group meetings with just those involved.

  18. Pam*

    “…you’ll be doing something so foreign to your culture that it may cause issues”

    PLEASE write a whole blog post on this! This is one major thing I wish I knew about the work force before I went into it. New ideas are generally welcome but if you try to force the issue, it won’t be pretty. You have to pick your battles.

      1. Diane*

        +1 with sprinkles on top!

        Maybe you can do a post about cultural tension, addressing the top five (or so) ways in which a new employee’s style/experience/expectations don’t mesh–and how to know when to mellow out, compromise, address it, or leave.

        In my last job, I was seen as the relationship person who valued collaboration and process in an office full of people who focused on outcome. It (mostly) worked because we complemented each other and could work with a variety of people. In my current job, I’m seen as the direct, outcome-oriented person in a place that takes process and indecision to an art.

        Or how about those whose idea of balance is 55 hours a week in a land of 40? Or literal types among jokers? Rule followers among rule benders?

        1. Jamie*

          Yes! This ties into Alison’s post from today about interviews where she references how hiring managers are looking for the right fit, in addition to the right qualifications.

          I know when people are out of work they can convince themselves that can be happy anywhere that will have them, as long as it comes with a paycheck. I’m not judging, I’ve done it…but for me a wrong cultural fit can make work an absolute nightmare.

  19. Gary Winters*

    The OP’s situation sounds awful. If she can pick the brains of some of the other managers, maybe she’ll find some who agree with her — or at least they can work on strategies to reduce their individual portions of the meeting (like one person said, emailing their reports ahead of time and just asking, “Any questions?”).

    I agree with what Dave said, to drop the line of reasoning that you are struggling to get work done because of the meetings. “I love the line of reasoning that the entire organization is using 20-40% of the work week on meetings and that, with more effective time management, this time commitment can be cut down considerably. Depending on how many people attend you can actually do math on how many hours a year that is or how many full time equivalents.”

    If nothing changes, I would bring work into the meeting.

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