we have to sit in 3-hour “working” meetings every day where nothing happens

A reader writes:

On most days at work, I have to take part in a three-hour long working group. The point of these meetings is supposed to be to work on changes that are needed for the software system to function, to create new categories in the software system as needed, and to set up the software system services to smaller divisions.

However, the vast majority of the time in these meetings is spent watching my coworker document every single change she makes to the system, and watching her compose emails. Both these tasks and the actual “work” — changes to a system — could easily be done by one person. The rest of us (3 or 4) just sit and watch, sometimes one of us playing secretary. There is a very small amount of useful discussion.

I feel we are wasting an incredible amount of time. I’m bored out of my mind. I know others are too, due to comments I’ve heard and the fact that one coworker has trouble not falling asleep. I’m not doing anything remotely productive and I very rarely learn anything. We are running very behind on the work that needs to be done. My manager says that I need to attend as it’s part of my role.

Your company requires four or five of you to spend three hours a day sitting in a meeting where you watch your coworker document changes to a system? That’s more than one-third of your work day, every day.

I need to say it again: Every day!

What the hell?!

If you’ve explained this to your manager the way you’ve explained it here and she’s still requiring you to attend because it’s “part of your role,” then your manager is incredibly bad at her job and should be stripped of her title, immediately.

If you haven’t explained to her exactly what’s happening at these meetings, you should do that right away. As in, “The working group meetings are not functioning as a working group. We are not working on anything jointly. Instead, we all just sit and watch while Jane documents her software changes when we could be doing ___ instead. These meetings are costing the company a huge amount of money — one-third of each of our salary, in fact. I propose that we end these meetings and instead meet as needed to do the things that this group was originally set up for.” 

But if you’ve tried that and gotten nowhere, then what you have on your hands is a manager who is content to watch an incredibly unjustified waste of time and resources rather than doing the work it might take to make a change. If that’s true, then I’d start looking for another job, not only to avoid spending your time this way, but also because you’re working for someone offensively negligent.

{ 64 comments… read them below }

  1. ThursdaysGeek

    I wonder if the manager has read something about pair-programming, but not read enough about pair-programming.

      1. Piper

        My immediate thought was Agile gone awry here. I, too, have been subjected to such meetings, where the business analyst just goes through a list of defects and whoever was responsible for that tells her what to put in the document. All of that could be done individually. No need for a meeting that lasts several hours.

  2. Lora

    Oh, Alison, could you explain this to my managers? My guess is that the meetings exist, in part for Visibility. I’ve had to organize such meetings, which could have been handled by a simple update memo, on the grounds that merely turning in a business plan, scope of work, assignees & responsibilities, experimental data, technical reports and timeline, was insufficient to prove that we were actively addressing the problem. I wish I were kidding.

    OP, does your building have wifi, and can you bring a laptop? At least that way you can do some work while you’re sitting around.

    1. Judy

      I remember being sent across the country to a factory that was having issues in production. Spent the first day with one meeting at 8am to update everyone (that lasted 3 hours) and another meeting at 1pm to update everyone (that lasted 3 hours). I could have sat at my desk and called in to those meetings.

      At least they heard us when we were whining. We still had 2x day updates, but they were limited strictly to 30 minutes.

      But nothing says you’re addressing an issue like sending lots of people all around the country.

    2. Ruffingit

      The laptop was going to be my suggestion. If your manager continues to remain so terribly negligent and wasteful with your time, then you might as well be getting things done that are at least somewhat productive. Answering emails, planning a vacation, job hunting…just kidding about that last one. Sort of.

      1. Pussyfooter

        Yeah, until something else in this situation changes–laptop/smart phone, etc.

        Also:
        I couldn’t make it through the OP’s opening paragraph without thinking of the “Donut Option Working Committee.”

  3. Lulu

    I am so sorry to hear you have to endure this. My guess is that this may be some common practice for software/IT related process improvement work as I had to endure the same at a previous job. It was painfully miserable and knowing that I would have to work even later to make sure my normal work was completed only compounded the frustration. One person felt the need to run around pretending to do/know everything while silently screaming “look at me, pay attention to me.” Some of the others in the group actually played on their phones, Facebook or whatever else during this time. In order to stay sane I usually offered to play “secretary”, take notes, add items to outlines or diagrams…again, simply to stay sane and not lose it. I have to agree with Allison about management being negligent….my former manager could care less, told us we had to meet in these daily groups and if/when he showed up, he was playing games on his iphone and completely unengaged.

    1. Jessa

      Has the manager ever once been invited to sit IN or at least peek in on one of these “meetings” and see what goes on personally?

  4. Laura

    This reminds me of a job where we had daily staff meetings, each lasting between 1 and 2 hours. About 30 minutes was spent talking about actual work, and the rest of the time was us being trapped in my boss’s office to provide her with social interaction, because she allegedly worked around the clock, was new to the area, and had no friends or family.

    Or, if we had done something wrong, we would be treated to a lengthy diatribe about it in the daily staff meeting. One time someone made the mistake of punching holes in some reports to be filed in a binder without making sure the pages were inserted all the way into the hole puncher, thereby causing the pages in the binder to be out of alignment. The next day’s staff meeting was dedicated to Remedial Hole Punching 101.

    1. Ruffingit

      I think I worked at your company!! The exact same thing would happen at the place I was at a few years ago. Staff meetings were ridiculous and took hours, although that was because the company owner/CEO loved to hear herself talk. It wasn’t unusual for a staff meeting to last for four to six hours. Most of the time, people played on their phones or texted others at the table with “OMG, will she ever shut up?” kind of stuff.

      And yes, the wrath of God would rain upon you if you ever made such a mistake as using the whole puncher wrong. You would be dragged into 45 minute meetings with the CEO where she would malign you without allowing you to speak at all. It was ever so much fun. Thankfully, I never had those 45 minute meetings myself, I quit about six weeks into the gig as did several other people because it was so ridiculous.

        1. Ruffingit

          Me too. LOL! Like you, I can laugh about it now, but while I was there, it was hard. I worked closely with the CEO so I saw firsthand a lot of her neurosis and psychosis play out in front of me. It got to be too much to handle watching people be verbally abused and mistreated by her. She had major emotional and mental issues of her own, but since she was the CEO and her husband the major backer of the business (who thought his wife could do no wrong), there was nothing to be done, but leave.

      1. rlm

        OMG, I worked for someone like this too. Ridiculously long meetings that were at least 50% of the time used to publicly criticize/lecture people. And when I suggested to her that we have break periods for meetings longer than 2 hours, she acted like it was the dumbest thing she’d heard someone say. Luckily these meetings didn’t happen every day like for the OP, but still…

        1. Ruffingit

          Maybe we all worked at the same place. ;)

          I have never found it appropriate or helpful to have meetings where colleagues are called out for mistakes publicly. There is something so wrong with that.

  5. The IT Manager

    While it it totally possible that Alison’s answer is true and your management is awful (as is so sadly the case in many letters), it strikes me that it is also possible the you and your working group are doing the meeting wrong. i.e. you should be collaborating and are not. Maybe its the fault of the the woman running the meeting who has you watching her work instead of leading discussions around changes that are needed for the software system to function, to create new categories in the software system as needed, and to set up the software system services to smaller divisions.

    Would it possible for you to say to her, “Sally, can you finish that documentation or email later after we’ve covered the topics that require group discussion and consensus?” Can you enlist the other meeting attendees to help with this tactic? Repeat every time she heads down the patch of doing her work in front of you.

    1. Colette

      This is a possibility – and make sure you leave the meeting with a clear idea of what each of you needs to accomplish before the next meeting.

      (Having said that, I can’t imagine any kind of software development that would required 3 hour meetings indefinitely – I can see it at the planning stages, but then the focus should be actually developing the software.)

    2. AnonHR

      I was thinking the same thing. Our software development team has has regular 4 hour meetings that are specifically meant for a particular process of code-writing/project management (… you can see how much I know about it). While that’s a lot different than completing what should be individual projects together for three hours every day, maybe your meetings are meant to be completely different and this co-worker is leading you in the wrong direction. But, your manager should still get involved if that’s the case…

    3. Vicki

      I agree that something like this should be done (be proactive; try to turn the meeting around). Still, I have to say “Three HOURS? Every DAY?!” That’s wrong no matter how “productive” you can make this meeting.

      1. rlm

        Agreed! I would be physically and emotionally drained if I had three-hour long meetings every day – productive or not. I agree with approaching Jane about making the meeting more collaborative, and also not as frequent.

  6. David

    “…your manager is incredibly bad at her job and should be stripped of her title, immediately.”

    This.

    More businesses need to recognize that there are 1) managers like this and 2) stripping them of their titles is an appropriate course of action.

  7. EM

    This is horrible. You have my sympathies.

    At a previous job, we had these 3-hour meetings once a week, and I still thought I was going to go insane. I was also forced to go because of my role, but about 10 minutes of the meeting was dedicated to the type of work I did, and the remainder of the meeting I sat there and desperately tried to stay calm enough to avoid throwing a stapler across the room whilst shrieking with rage.

  8. Erik

    I would use those 3-hour blocks to find a new job. I figure if they’re wasting my time, I might as well do something about it.

    1. Anonymous

      I would use that time to map out the data design and UI for my latest iPhone app that will make me a bundle and get me out of there.

  9. Vicki

    It sounds to me like the manager (or someone) is trying to create collaboration… and going about it in the wrong way.

    You can’t force collaboration by throwing people together into a room with no framework or plan.

  10. Elizabeth West

    0_0

    I’m not sure I even understand what the manager is trying to do here. What are the three or four other members of the team supposed to be doing if there’s only work enough for one person? If the team is getting behind on their project, then something has to change. Perhaps that could be the angle they could use to convince the manager to stop this.

  11. Mason

    What if you asked your manager to sit in on the meetings? Maybe s/he would realize how wasteful they are…

    1. KarenT

      I think that’s a great idea. The OP could frame it asking for the bosses advice on making them more effective.

  12. Not So NewReader

    I think the manager should sit in on these meetings. She can “help”.

    Seriously, though. I had a job where the first few days I was only allowed to stand and watch. Oh yeah, there was a manual I could read.
    I made the mistake of saying I wanted some real work. This threw management into a tizzy. (The work was not brain surgery- most people could catch on fairly quickly.)

    I don’t know why I did not walk off the job. (Probably just because walking out is not something I do.) But it has made a great story to emphasize to new employers that I expect to put my hands into the work right away, even if it is just doing simple tasks. OP, I think you have a great story to explain why you left your job.

    Alison, I love your choice words on this one!

  13. Em

    I didn’t read the other comments, so someone may have already suggested this, but could you invite your boss to sit in on one (or part of one) of these sessions so she can see for herself what’s going on? Just let her know that you don’t think the time is being used productively, but you’re unsure how it could be improved and would like her to sit in and provide her feedback. I think that would help her understand how insane this situation is far better than you trying to explain it.

  14. Brett

    This sounds like an attempt at daily scrums gone completely wrong. Or maybe some other Agile development technique that is very definitely being executed the wrong way. I could even see this being some weird form of pair programming gone wrong like mentioned above.

    1. Anonymous

      The agile team I was on had all day meetings. Yes, 8 hours with a couple 15 minute breaks all so that we could get requirements down because the project was huge. And the powers that be were crazy.

      1. Piper

        Why do companies have such a hard time implementing agile? I’ve never seen it done correctly and it ends up being anything but quick, coordinated, and effective (i.e., agile).

  15. Rebecca

    I hate meetings! They are constructive if you’re going to meet with a set agenda, with a short set time frame, work through issues, and then actually implement helpful changes, but that’s it!

    Last week, I was in the middle of a bazillion things on my to do list, and the pointy haired boss called a meeting. It lasted 1 hour and 10 minutes. Subject? Why we aren’t getting our work done in a timely manner.

    FACE PALM! Here’s a hint! Quit interrupting our work to ask us why we aren’t getting things done on time! Instead of pestering us, why not get after IT and ask them why the system is so slow, and why we get booted so often. That would speed things along, too.

    If I had to go to regularly scheduled 3 hour meetings, I don’t think I could cope. Ugh, what a waste of time.

  16. AB

    As AAM said, “If you haven’t explained to her exactly what’s happening at these meetings, you should do that right away.”

    I obviously don’t have all the context to know for sure, but I’d bet the manager has no idea what happens in those meetings. Perhaps at some point in the past, these 3-hour “marathons” made sense for some reason (though I can’t think how), and now the tradition goes on because nobody had the idea to explain to him why it’s no longer relevant (or never was).

    Some managers are simply out-of-touch with the reality of their reports. As much as I’ve tried to keep my bosses informed of my workload in the past, it was very common for them to tell their peers, “no, AB can’t help with your project because she is too busy with X, Y, Z”. Huh? Have you not read my last email where I explained “I’ve finished X and Y and am waiting for ABC to be able to finish Z, please let me know if there are any other projects I can get started in the mean time”?

    Unless someone explain in detail what’s happening at these meetings, why it doesn’t make sense to be together for so long when the work can’t be shared, why it would be much more productive for the team only to meet once a week for an update, here’s a better plan, etc., the manager will keep thinking that the arrangement makes sense and is key for the team to collaborate. Perhaps the OP has been too vague (“it’s not productive”). In order to convince the manager, you need to be more explicit about what’s going on and how it’s negatively affecting productivity.

    (If course, there’s always a possibility that the manager is indeed being “offensively negligent” (best description ever!), but it could be a matter of ignorance too.)

  17. TychaBrahe

    At the tail end of my last job, I worked in software support. The company was developing a new process to handle pricing. This required the input of the mainframe programmers, the data managers, the laptop software vendor, and us. And daily two hour meetings that were supposed to be about processing the change from both sides but ended up being mostly the mainframe programmers and data managers talking about issues they had preparing the data that would be delivered to the laptop software.

    Fortunately each of these groups were located in a different part of the country, so it was handled in a conference call. I got a lot of crocheting done.

  18. MR

    Given how prevalent this type of behavior is across the business world, I’m always amazed anything ever gets done anywhere.

    That being said, I’d love to know why this is tolerated. Someone above these managers has to know this type of stuff is going on and costing significant time and money. Yet nothing is frequently done and all it does it cause turmoil (and helps keep Alison in business).

    Maybe Alison has written about this before but if not, could someone address this for me and others? Thanks!

  19. FRRibs

    Three hour meetings? If someone asked me what time it was during such a slog, I would tell them what Frodo Baggins was doing in LOTR if I had started watching when the meeting started.

    No meeting should go past hiding from Nazgul on the road.

  20. Hope

    My previous boss called long meetings in her office where we “worked together” on presentations and reports. This entailed me watching her do the job while she randomly asked, “What do you think?” and then proceeded to do tell me why her way was best if I did offer any feedback. I quickly learned the best answer was, “That sounds good.” Luckily, her office was set up so I could surf the web and do emails while in these “meetings”. She was blind-sided by my resignation and asked why I was leaving. I said I needed a bigger challenge and she totally didn’t get it. SO glad I am out of that job.

  21. Anonymous

    If your manager stands firm, then why don’t you just start changing the way the working group functions? It sounds like a situation that badly needs some leadership, so either step up or step out.

    Bring some work. Bring up some issues for discussion and effort yourself (suggestion for topic #1 – how could we make these required meetings more effective?). If there are absolutely no issues on which you could use the advice of your peers, no issues to discuss, then just start working individually on your laptops. No laptops? Haul your full desktop in. Ask to take turns with the co-worker who is actually getting some work done. Ask to watch TED talks, for goodness sake. Anything to make the meeting something more useful than nap-time.

  22. Bystander

    Went through a number of these meetings in the past where the only thing that was accomplished was a waste of time. Since you are required to attend, politely ask your boss for time extensions on your work since you are so busy. Putting your manager in the hot seat may push her along to let you all out of the meeting when she is going to look bad. Get the time extensions in writing or confirm to her in writing and thank her for her help. Is it possible to make the meetings productive with fellow coworkers to get other matters resolved since you are all there anyway? Have any work reading or writing you need to do? You just don’t want to look like a non-team member. Sounds like the people in charge don’t know how to do their job and all are suffering.

  23. OP

    Thank you for your excellent (and speedy) response! Today’s meeting was made bearable knowing I would be talking to my boss tomorrow.

    Thank you all for the great advice.

  24. Lee

    Sounds familiar!

    My ex-boss (the COO of the company where I worked) loved to talk! We had Monday morning meetings where she would talk at end about what she did in the past week, making elaborate plans (that have little to do with our projects i.e. soft skill related, pollyanna-ish strategic plans) that would get spoken about beyond the time frame of the meeting.

    Finally,all the employees together put in a suggestion that the meetings be restricted to 30 minutes and be spilt into smaller groups where teams working on a certain project would share updates among themselves. That really saved us precious 3 hours on sleepy Monday mornings.

    You could try suggesting that the meetings be spilt into smaller, more focussed ones.

  25. OP - Update

    Well, not good news. My boss, co-worker and I had a meeting. Co-worker defended long meetings by saying we needed to bounce ideas off each other and that important decisions are made. Complete crap but it’s my word against hers. She also said I need to observe all the decisions made because I will probably take over from her in three years when she retires, even though we’re getting a new system in a year.

    I’m pretty upset about this. I really love the other 2/3 of my job, and the benefits are fantastic, so I really don’t want to leave.

    1. Jamie

      That sucks – but at least you know the first change you’ll implement when you take over in 3 years.

      I do feel for you, though – I hate when logic loses the fight.

  26. Beena

    Wow, these meetings sound unbearable. 3 hours per day wasted?

    I would ask my boss to start attending these meetings as well. If after 1-2 meetings, she doesn’t realize these meetings are unproductive for everyone but the person leading the presentation and cancel them, then I would ask her to help you “prioritize your workload.” There are only 8 hours in your work day (unless you get paid for overtime) and if these meetings are necessary, then something else will need to give.

    Most likely, she’ll come to her senses when you pose it to her this way. If not, dust off the resume and start looking! Good luck!

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