The True Cost of Meetings and Tardiness

One of the most defining features of the modern workplace is the humble meeting. Now the default mechanism for communication, coordination and collaboration in organisations, meetings are a familiar, if onerous undertaking for almost all workers.

According to some researchers there are as many as 11 million meetings held every day in the United States, with employees in the UK, US and Australia spending nearly 6 hours in meetings every week on average.

By some estimates, meetings account for nearly 70% of managers’ work time which can be an expensive undertaking when you consider the cost (both real, and opportunity related) of keeping a number of senior managers in a room and away from their desks for hours at a time. Indeed, some research has indicated that as much as 15% of the personnel costs of an organisation are accounted for by meetings.

Given this investment (both time and money), there is a real incentive for businesses to make sure the meetings being held daily are productive. However very few organisations are actually successful at doing this – estimates suggest that some 33% of meeting time is non-productive, which accounts for as much as $37 billion annual waste in the US. Even more surprising is the fact that to date, there has been very little research conducted into one of the main culprits of non-productive meetings: meeting tardiness.

One recent study by Steve Rogelberg and colleagues goes some way to closing this research gap, exploring the phenomena of meeting lateness in an attempt to answer three fundamental questions:

  1. What is the base rate of meeting lateness in organisations
  2. What attitudinal and individual difference variables influence meeting lateness
  3. What is the impact of lateness to meetings

In the study, participants were asked to report the number of meetings they attend, and to estimate the percentage of time they arrived late for a meeting, using their own definition of ‘lateness’ which was provided earlier in the study. Participants also provided ratings of work-related attitudes (such as job satisfaction), and individual difference variables such as personality. Finally, participants provided qualitative feedback regarding their perceived consequences of meeting lateness.

Based on the feedback of 195 participants from organisations in the south-east United States who reported on 331 meetings, the authors identified that nearly 37% of all meetings started late, with punctuality ranging from 79% for problem-solving type meetings, to just 40% for recognition oriented meetings. The average meeting delay, meanwhile, was close to 15 minute.

In terms of individual differences in meeting lateness, nearly 70% of participants reported being late to meetings, with an average tardiness rating of 5% (but ranging all the way to being late 50% of the time). Employees with lower job satisfaction, lower conscientiousness, and employees who were younger were all more likely to report being late to meetings.

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In terms of the impact of lateness to meetings, the researchers found that turning up late to a meeting led to negative mood states among those who had already arrived ( e.g. feelings of frustration and being disrespected), as well as poor perceptions of the late comer, both of which could have negative flow-on effects to things like team performance, creativity, and cohesive relationships.

Overall then, and despite some methodological limitations such as reliance on retrospective self-reports, the results of this study indicate that meeting lateness is a pertinent topic for organisations, with some clear links to important team and organisational outcomes.

So what can you do about it?

A recent study by Daniel Fienup and colleagues took a rather novel approach to develop and pilot a behaviour change intervention for meeting tardiness, using a methodology known as functional behaviour analysis.

Functional behaviour analysis is a research method used to explore the relationship between behaviours and the environment in which they occur, and specifically to identify the triggers of a behaviour and the consequences which explicitly maintain it. Understanding these elements helps illuminate the key behavioural levers that can be pulled to enact sustained behaviour change.

Although used primarily in childhood research (e.g. to create interventions for serious problem behaviours), the method has also been used successfully in organisations. The Performance Diagnostic Checklist (a diagnostic tool based on behavioural analysis principals), for example, has been used to good effect improve the efficiency of closing tasks in restaurants.

In the context of meetings, Fienup and colleagues used a functional assessment interview to identify the triggers and consequences for behavioural data around meeting lateness, meeting duration, and transition time between back to back meetings. The authors identified three key elements:

 “…interviews revealed that (a) restroom breaks following one meeting caused the next meeting to start late, (b) there was no expectation that staff should arrive to meetings on time, and (c) staff never received feedback about showing up late to a meeting or not starting a meeting on time.”

To address these aspects, a three-component intervention was defined and applied to future meetings. The intervention comprised the following aspects:

  1. Meeting reminder emails including location, time, and agenda were sent out by leaders 24 hours prior to every meeting
  2. A 50-minute hour policy was created to allow adequate transition time between meetings
  3. To reinforce timeliness, coupons for a monthly prize draw were provided to staff who arrived on time
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As a result of this three-part intervention, the number of minutes late that meetings started decreased from 10 – 15 minutes to less than 3 minutes. In addition, the percentage of staff who arrived on time for meetings rose from an average of 35% to 79%!

Again despite a number of limitations such as a small sample size of meetings and participants, these results go some way to providing the proof of concept for a method of diagnosing, changing and embedding behaviours in an organisation, which could be applied to businesses looking to avoid some of those significant costs associated with meeting tardiness (and other undesirable behavioural norms for that matter).

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Andrew is a full-time Management Consultant and part-time blogger who loves getting at the heart what makes businesses successful and customers happy. Read more about Andrew at his website


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