Meetings are a Waste of Time

September 19, 2013 — 34 Comments

Despite how much I like to talk, I think most meetings are a waste of time and a drain on my life force. At least half of the meetings I attend, nothing is really happening other than the swapping of stories. One on hand, that’s okay because I’m the Pecos Bill of stories, but I simply don’t have the time for it anymore.

I wrote a post a few months back that discussed the merits of an open plan in an architect’s office. At my last job, I had a sweet private office with plenty of room to spread my stuff out, listen to whatever music I wanted to without headphones … heck, I could even lay down and take a nap survey the progress on 5 jobs at one time! Yes, that was a sweet office but as I wrote in the post, the thing I was missing out on was all the action. I wrote:

Not only is there a lot of collaboration and camaraderie taking place, but by listening in on the questions being asked, I am able to interject myself into the answer process and actually do the thing I am supposed to be doing – mentor these younger architects.

So it’s been a few months since I wrote that and I wonder “what the hell was I thinking?” … the shine of the open office plan has worn off … I  miss my private office. I got so much more work done when I was cordoned off in my ivory tower from the level of casual interaction I get minute to minute in my current working arrangement. Despite the fact that everyone LOVES hearing my stories over and over again (because they are hilarious AND educational), I get asked about a million questions a day and it’s hard to get any momentum on the tasks I am charged with completing. As a result, I am becoming more and more sensitive to sitting in meetings where I think:

What am I doing in this meeting?

You already said that, move on …

What does that have to do with what we are supposed to be talking about?

In fact, I’m pretty sure I have walked out of the room when the senior partner of my office was still talking as I muttered back over my shoulder: “Uh-huh, Yeah, I got it … I’ll take care of it.”

Probably not a strong career move but luckily for me, I’m not just some guy in the next cubicle.

Architect Bob Borson's calendar

The image above is a screen capture from my weekly calendar. Every colored entry is a meeting and every individual box is a specific task on a different project. I don’t know about you but that doesn’t look like architecture to me … I imagine this is why people start having two martini lunches. What isn’t shown on that calendar is the number of times that someone has a single “quick question” for me. My days are typically 10 hours long and I am trying desperately to keep them there.  These are the steps I try and follow and I have varying degrees of success actually implementing them. I should also point out that none of these rules applies towards clients – they get a free pass.

So in an effort to reclaim some lost time, here are some tips I have collected and follow to help make sure that my days don’t get longer by sitting in unnecessary or gratuitous meetings:

  1. Start your meetings on time. if someone is late, that’s their problem. Don’t review information that’s already been covered. I make it an effort to be on time to meetings and it drives me insane when someone else is late and I have to just sit there waiting on them. Not only a waste of time, it’s disrespectful – it says “my time is more important than your’s”
  2. Set the meeting length to an hour and end the meeting on time. Unfortunately, some meetings always seem to take longer than an hour but I’ve found that when I walk into a meeting and tell people they have an hour before I have to leave I am always amazed that we can almost always get everything done in that hour.
  3. End meetings early. People seem to respond more favorably to attending meetings when they actually end sooner than they are scheduled. I know that when I have resigned myself to sitting in an hour long meeting with the structural engineer and it ends early?! I’d better go buy a lottery ticket because it must be my lucky day.
  4. Limit the number of participants in a meeting to a few people as possible. In the case of meetings, the “more” is definitely not the “merrier”. Whenever you get a large group of people in a meeting, there will be items covered that do not pertain to everyone in the room … and that’s when things turn like a pork sandwich left out in the sun. Next thing you know, there are multiple meetings taking place and you’ve lost control.
  5. If this is your meeting, keep things on point. This is the one rule that can make you come across like an a-hole if you’re not careful. As soon as someone starts telling a tale “this one time, I was doing the air-conditioning…” you have to gauge the temperature of the conversation to determine how to cut that person off. Sometimes I have to let that first story go but as soon as the next person starts to tell their air-conditioning story I don’t let them get too far before interrupting. If someone tries to hijack the meeting with whoppers, it’s your job to get things back in focus.
  6. Do not let people work on other things during the meeting. If it isn’t important for them to be paying attention, they don’t need to be there in the first place.
  7. No cell phones. Don’t let people use their cell phones during a meeting – see note #6
  8. Have an agenda. For most of the semi-casual meetings that I have this is a bit overkill. What I do try and do is to outline via email what items are to be covered during the meeting and I make sure the primaries have that information prior to the meeting. I will print this list out and make sure that we stay on the list. If something else comes up, I will add it to the bottom of the list and if we can get to it in the allotted time we can discuss it at the end. Since it’s normally other people who bring up new topics, this is an incentive to them to get through the things that formed the basis for our meeting in the first place.
  9. Control the dialog between participants. This means only have one conversation going at the table at a time. I have sat in meetings where a group of 10 people are having 4 mini-meetings and since I am generally the only one taking notes, I can’t cover what everyone is talking about and things get missed.
  10. Assign Responsibility and Action items. For the items reviewed, make sure that before you move on to the next item, that task is assigned to specific parties during the meeting.
  11. Eliminate “informational” meetings. These are meetings where everyone is collected into a room and talked at – mass information distribution. If no participation is required from the people in the room, issue a memo. When it was something so important that we wanted to make sure that we knew people had received the data, they were required to check off their initials to show they had received the information.
  12. Regularly scheduled status meetings are a complete time waste. Only call a meeting when there is something specific to be reviewed. There are people out there who will want regularly scheduled meetings in an effort to make sure that people are doing what they are supposed to be doing and the threat of being called out at a “regularly scheduled meeting” is the incentive to force people into action. That’s great for the one person who needs it but it’s a waste of everyone else’s time.

Here’s to 10 hour days –

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  • David

    Right on Bob. I am starting to feel the same “uncharitable” thoughts during meeting when the point is being made at length and again. Also I work open plan and find the same advantages/disadvantages. Since we are moving and designing new office space, I have been thinking about this and finally decided it is worth the interruptions to be in on the action – tough call though…

  • Glenn

    SO TRUE… some meetings are really unnecessary. it’s a waste of time and sometimes money.

    and most meetings i’ve attended #1, #7 and #11 are a crucial issues… more wasted times/moments & opportunities, makes more complicated arguments due to distractions and too much talks/blabbers unrelated to the meeting or agenda given.

    so now i only attend meetings when necessary (on my part), wants to contribute something about the agenda given and sometimes for the FOOD. LOL.

    -great post (thumbs up and toes)

  • Mark Mc Swain

    #12 needs to be taught in elementary school.
    Sadly, #7 is in trouble for the number of people whose calendars and note-taking pads are on their phone-like devices.

    • I don’t think I’ve ever seen someone taking notes on their phone. iPad – yes. iPhones … that can’t be very effective. I think that’s what the voice memo button is for.

      • Mark Mc Swain

        Well, I was being a bit inclusive without using the clunky “electronic devices” collective noun, Also, as some of the larger phones are closing in on the “micro” sized pads out there.
        That, and there are aa few of us out there with X41, X61, even )drool) X201 IBM/Lenovo tabletPC (sure that iPad is only 1/4″ thick; but my “tablet” will run ACAD, upon which I can scketch with my stylus [neenerneener {g}]).

  • You made great points. I could never work in an open plan. I can’t work if people are talking.

    • People put on headphones to tune out the distractions – which works fine when you can just sit at your desk and work. The very nature of my job requires a great deal of interpersonal interaction between me and those around me and rather than it being focus, concerted dialogues, it’s 1 question every 90 seconds. That’s what makes make it so difficult at times.

      • chris cobb

        I wonder…maybe the constant questions could be handled in a…(dare I say it?)…meeting. I have had to point out directly to people that it is far more efficient for them to move on to something else, and simply compile of list of questions that can be answered by me all at once. We are experimenting with daily scrum meetings: (

        These are small group, project based meetings. The idea is 15 min. max. No sitting down.
        The agenda is:
        1. What did you accomplish yesterday?
        2. What are accomplishing today?
        3. What do you need from me or anyone else to do your job?

      • I bet!

    • Goliath888

      I agree with you. I would probably implode in an open plan…even with my headphones on. Too much stimulus for this introvert! Love your posts, Bob!

  • Zeljko

    Hey Bob I like your Blog. Your posts are very fresh and good to read. But I don’t like this posts title “Meetings are a Waste of Time” at all. Meetings are an important part of the game we play and sometimes we can’t discuss everything on the phone or via e-mail. In my opinion it always depends who is the leader of the meeting. If he or she is good in leading than he or she will follow some “meeting rules” like you have listed them because they are essential. I realised that the max. length of a meeting is one and a half hour. In most cases one hour is too less. I also think that a maximum of three meetings per week (all projects together) is enough. Everything more than three gets ineffective.

    I worked also in an open office with 15 people. I liked it a lot but I also sometimes didn’t like it at all. One advantage/disadvantage is that you hear everything. In the end a few months before I left the office I realised that I couldn’t work as I was used to it (work flow) because I was the most experienced employee and everyone wanted something from me. Proposal: Make a sign (put something on a certain place) and tell the staff that this sign means ‘occupied’. This should work so that you can work.

    Greets from Switzerland, Zeljko

    • I didn’t mean to infer that all meetings are a waste of time – it’s really that meetings can be time wasters. With a little bit of effort, I can get done in a 1 hour meeting what might normally take two hours.

      I should also point out that I am particularly bad at chatting people up in meetings so this is me saying “Healer, heal thyself”

  • Dan Jansenson

    My meetings increased in effectiveness and decreased in length–dramatically–when I took away the chairs in the room.

    • That’s hard core … or possibly good for your core

  • Drew Hasson

    Hmm… guess the phrase “Less is More.” holds clout in meetings as well!

    • absolutely. Besides, if the meeting get done sooner, that leaves more time for grabbing a beer after work with the same people!

  • Rafael Gomez

    Hey Bob now I am afraid to be an architect like time to replenished my energy
    after working 10 long hours and a chatty ,chatty time even to have a fresh session of sex when a get home because I had already that with the people minds…I wonder if it will be possible to go all the way in your career and be a good out of average architect (to don’t said mediocre) .
    I don’t know if fame and adulation just cut the architect source of creativity ..let him
    handicap to do only regular paper work and technical things which is the job of technical people.
    Bob you are useful and mentor to people only when are free from many things
    you are not superman ..just a limited energy try to conserve and save it for high
    purpose and ideals.
    Sorry to be so frank but I like your blog

    • Thanks for sharing your thoughts – I like that sort of thing.

      If I really wanted to work an 8 hour day I could. Problem is that I want to do those other things that require my days to get a bit longer – the positive side is that rather than depleting me, some of these items energize and invigorate me and I KNOW that they are making me a better architect. Some are even helping me become a better person.


  • 03306028

    Speaking from outside the architecture field, let me just say, yes, yes and oh yes. I couldn’t agree with you more. I think what you’ve done is taken the list of rules governing meetings from the last place I worked for and reversed them. Nothing ever started or ended on time. Meeting rooms were always jammed with people who didn’t need to be there playing with their phones and laptops. I could go on but you get the idea.

    Fortunately for you, you’re in a position to direct the culture of your office. You could easily distill this blog post into a few simple points and set policy. “We’re all busy so please be on time so we can get through this quickly and continue to make good use of our time. Let’s stick to the agenda, stay on point and free ourselves from distractions. Let’s make sure we all have a good reason to be here.”

    Meetings have their place – sometimes it’s critical to have everyone working on a project sit down and share notes and discover problems and solutions together. In a collaborative environment it’s important to get action items assigned and know where everyone is with their assigned duties. Open dialog discussions can help everyone involved better understand projects and how their roles fit into the puzzle. But there’s nothing like an hour of irrelevant blah-blah to send you looking for an exposed beam, a rope, and a stool to kick over.

    We feel your pain Bob.

    • I was inspired to write this post because I was casually complaining to my wife as we were preparing dinner and after I moment I realized that my issues in my little office are nothing compared to what my wife has to deal with. People are capable of setting up meetings on her calendar (you need to set a meeting to get time with her – she’s a big shot) and her calendar frequently has as many as 4 meetings scheduled at the same time. She would think my calendar problems are dreamy compared to her own!

      I am lucky that I can try and set the culture in my own office – the best part is that I get to instill these practices into the minds of young architects so that as they mature, they will be less prone to having unnecessary meetings

  • MarvinOne

    I wondered when the shine of the open office would wear off! I don’t like being alone in a cubicle, but the open office is just as bad with multiple distractions. I rarely get to to go to meetings, so I welcome them as a new item to my day, but I think everything you said is great advice. My biggest pet peeve…the people in my own office late to meetings. I’ve sat there for 20 minutes before anyone else showed up. I was 5 minutes early, they were 15 minutes late. Annoying!!

    • being late to meetings is a systemic problem. Eventually you’ll be running meetings and it will be your chance to stop the cycle

  • Sheldon Wolfe

    Yes and no; there is a difference between small and large offices.

    A public agency I worked for many years ago had far too many meetings. One of the office jokes was that we should hire several new employees whose only responsibility would be to attend meetings, so the rest of us could get our work done.

    My office has about 140 employees. Work bays seat four, with shoulder height partitions between bays. Project teams are grouped, and move during the year as they shift from one team to another at the end of a project. All open plan, except for principals’ offices, but the bay partitions dampen the sound a bit between bays. Works quite well, except for the technical guys (specs, code, CA), who work on all projects, and are in their own area.

    This is the only office I’ve worked in that had a monthly staff meeting for the entire staff. Reports from marketing, staffing, HR, and others give everyone an overview of what’s going on – proposals going out, new projects coming in, office anniversaries, and many extracurricular activities. In other large offices I have worked for, it seemed everything was secret, and those of us in the trenches had little understanding of what the office did.

    Great suggestions for meetings. They seem obvious, but unless you’re really running a meeting, instead of letting it happen, it will expand and take more time than necessary.

    • Those are all good points. The last office I worked in only had 8 people and we had a Monday morning meeting where we reviewed the status and needs for every current project. I thought these were kind of great but since I was management, they served a different purpose for me. I could see the folks who were only working on one or two jobs tuning out until their project came up.

      Everything about the open office works as you discussed. I think grouping people who are working on the same (or similar project types) is great. Sticking a partner in the middle of one of those pods presents it challenges.

  • Mark Wilson

    Hey, Bob. One of the advantages of an open office plan is that everyone already knows what everyone else is working on. Everybody knows what phase of design everyone is working on, or toward. Hence, no stupid “Regularly Scheduled Status Meetings”. The biggest single waste of time [yawn] attributed to any office.

    • I can’t disagree with that, what I like about the open office plan is the same thing as what I don’t like about it – ease of conversayion. Maybe if we weren’t all literally sitting on top of one another (I am two strides away from 6 people) the ease of asking a question would be precluded with 5 minutes of trying to figure it out for yourself.

  • agreed (is that concise enough?)

  • kerry hogue

    hi Bob. Every meeting should have a purpose. That purpose is defined in the agneda. if you cannot create an agenda for the meeting, then it has no purpose and there is no need for the meeting. All agendas should be distributed to every invited attendee at least a day in advance of the meeting. this lets everyone know what is to be discussed so they can prepare. I include the agenda with the meeting planner invite, and usually send that out three to four days minimum before the meeting, often earlier. One of my pet peeves is getting a meeting invite and there is not enough defintioin included to know what the purpose of the meeting is. I usually decline those meeting and state the reason why in response.
    i like all your points and those are exactly what I tell all of our project managers on meetings management.

    • You migrated over to the big boy site! Much easier to get a response here.

      Glad you concur. I have a hard time getting meeting agendas distributed more than about a day in advance for the simple reason our projects tend to be smaller and move a bit faster (meaning) that the time between the moment it is decided that a meeting is needed, they are scheduled as soon as possible – sometimes the next day.


  • Nice piece Bob, though you know with a regular scheduled morning meeting you might be able to eliminate 3 or 4 others throughout the day… just saying : )
    Nah, in reality, I have only seen a few places where that really works, the rest are as you describe them… a freakin waste of time
    As one that also hates meetings, I shoot for ignoring the defaults – a meeting should be 15, 30, or an hour & instead will pull for 10, 20, 40, etc… (45 max) that also gives one time to go get other important time wasting activities done like answering emails…

    • I don’t dislike all the regularly scheduled project construction meetings – those have value – but there still needs to be an agenda. My two favorite residential contractors are both fans of the weekly job site meetings and to their credit, they both send out an agenda and action items a few days before. Sometimes, this shifts my priorities around so that I can make sure that come meeting time, there isn’t anything on the agenda that starts with “we’re waiting on the architect to provide …”