How many meetings is a "normal" amount?
January 13, 2022 2:12 PM   Subscribe

Office Space question: Since the pandemic started, the number of meetings over the course of my workday has begun to feel out of control. Is it actually, though? Or do I just need to get my shit together?

My conditions: A big part of my role is client-service. A light week consists of about 15 meetings. A heavy week is 20-25 meetings (on weeks like this I try to use very careful discretion about meetings that I can skip, but this nets out to about 1-2).

Meetings range from a half-hour to an hour. They span from standing client "status" meetings, to internal standing department meetings, to internal standing "leadership" meetings, to ad hoc meetings ("I still have questions from this email thread, let's throw some time on the calendar to discuss this"), to ad hoc presentations we need to give, to trainings/informational sessions from 3rd parties. I actually speak for about 5-20% of the time in about half these meetings, though I never know when that will be the case, and sometimes I do have to lead them.

Working across multiple clients, many of these meetings become multiplied. I find myself with sporadic little hour or half-hour blocks of time during the workday to actually DO any of the tasks that I need to do. I can use these half hour blocks in my day to try and get work done, or to perhaps actually make lunch, or go for a walk outside or something. Sometimes I just do neither and get caught in an IM conversation until oops, the next meeting is in 12 minutes anyway and it's not like I'm going to get anything done now.

5-6pm is usually free of meetings, so I often do actual work from 5 until 7 just to catch up and email people back, or sit down and focus on putting together the spreadsheet that I owe to blah blah blah. I suppose I could work later than that, but I don't. And so my work piles up very quickly, and projects with multiple components start to fall very behind.

My questions are: Are these normal conditions? Is your work day like this or not like this? How many hours per day do you spend sitting in meetings? If over 50% of your day is in meetings, really - how do you manage? And were you able to lessen the amount of meetings, without pissing everyone else off since these meetings are *their* meetings?
posted by windbox to Work & Money (19 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
What is "normal" depends so much on the nature of the position that I suspect the answer to this question isn't going to help you much. For me (a professor at an R1 university) 12-15 meetings a week is pretty normal, but feels like too much, and I feel like stabbing myself in the face when it gets to 20+ per week (though this does happen). It's pretty clear that it feels like a bit too much for you too, in which case I think your real question is whether you can make it so you can have fewer, or lacking that, make them somehow more tolerable.

I don't have much advice on the "make fewer of them" front because again it depends so much on your responsibilities -- though I have made some headway by just asking ahead of time for a meeting if it's necessary for it to be a meeting, and/or right then, and/or for me to be there. This is usually reasonably well-received because a lot of people don't like meetings! But like you I can only shave off 1-3 meetings a week this way at a maximum.

I have been able to make them a lot more tolerable for me, and get more work done, by trying to bundle them together. I keep one entire day a week free of meetings no matter what, and for the others, I do the best I can so the meetings are back-to-back and I don't have lots of those annoying 30 minute increments between them. It makes for a marathon stretch (and I can't do more than 4 or 5 hours at the outside or else I go insane) but then it's done and overall feels more efficient and better for my mental health.

The other thing I do is some mindless task at the same time as meetings: colour by number, crochet, etc. I'm really upfront about it to people that this helps me focus and it hasn't caused problems - perhaps if you're more junior you might want to run it by your supervisor but as long as you can demonstrate that you're still paying attention a reasonable person shouldn't have a problem with it, at least for ones that are internal and not client-facing. It really, really, really helps. I don't know why, perhaps it's just my weird brain, but it really does.
posted by contrapositive at 2:32 PM on January 13 [3 favorites]

oh man do i feeeeeeel this. just got out of a day of straight meetings from 9am to 5:30pm with one 30 minute break. makes me fantasize about quitting just so i can have one moment to think.

something that helps when i am proactive enough to do it: blocking off work time in advance. i have found that people are less likely to book over an existing block on my calendar so i will often block 90 minute chunks that give me some much-needed breathing room. and i will defend those to the death. it’s a lot easier to be able to say “sorry i am already booked at this time” and nobody needs to know what for.
posted by missjenny at 2:41 PM on January 13 [16 favorites]

I’m a university staff member who’s second in command in my department. I probably have four meetings in a typical week. My boss has five or six a day. I will probably never seek to rise in my organization for entirely that reason: I’ve seen what that looks like and it looks fucking terrible. It doesn’t look reasonable or sustainable to me in the long term.

She sometimes asks me to take meetings for her and report back when her schedule is particularly terrible, and I’m happy to do that on occasion. Is delegation an option for any of this? When it’s just the two of us, I’m also completely fine with chatting on the phone while she takes a walk or cooks her lunch. I think it sucks for her that she has to do that because she doesn’t have enough other free time, but again, it’s something I’m happy to accommodate. If you have an understanding person or two perhaps you could work out some less meeting-like meeting strategies.

I’ve gathered that there’s also a strong element of blocking off a couple chunks of the week as “no meetings unless it’s the President of the university calling”.
posted by Stacey at 2:47 PM on January 13 [3 favorites]

This is really super common in my experience. For the last decade or so anytime I try to schedule a meeting with someone and I look at their schedule to find a time it's just stacked full of double & triple booked time slots all day every day. I don't really know how anyone gets anything done. I think the way to combat it is to be mindful & judicious about what meetings you accept, and to block out times for working and not accept meetings during those times. I know it's easier said than done. The consequence of this is just that meetings have to be scheduled further in advance. I know, easier said than done, but it's a fact.
posted by bleep at 2:53 PM on January 13 [1 favorite]

Answers are going to vary based on your job and your level of seniority.

Meetings most of the day and about 20 minutes of "emelenjr has work to do" is about average for me. My company uses G Suite, and we have some kind of add-on for Google Calendar that shows how our time is being used. For the month of January, I'm apparently in 91 hours of meetings. A lot of those meetings are ones I don't have to participate much in, so I can log in and listen and... do other things.

I'm more of a maker than a manager, so meetings very much are not my thing, but pandemic life has allowed me to get things done while I'm in a meeting, so I can't complain much.
posted by emelenjr at 2:57 PM on January 13 [1 favorite]

I don’t think there is a “normal”. My typical week has probably 0 to 3 meetings, most commonly 0, and that’s one of the things I like about it. That’s not counting a couple of Zoom catch-ups with my line manager, which are laid back enough that I wouldn’t class them as meetings.
posted by penguin pie at 3:04 PM on January 13 [1 favorite]

Adding to the data: Mine might be weird because I'm in journalism and we traditionally have "the morning meeting" daily, plus I have two meetings a week with other newsrooms where we discuss sharable stories, so I have seven routine, always-scheduled meetings a week on an ongoing basis. The morning meeting (and what we call "the meeting after the meeting" for editors) is usually about 45 minutes but can be 30-60; the two regional meetings are usually 15-20 minutes.

This week I've had two additional meetings, one a check-in with my supervisor and that team, and one with our local editor regarding a companywide schedule change. One of those was half an hour and the other one was less than ten minutes for an announcement and questions. So I feel like I have a lot of meetings, but compared to a lot, it's not that bad.

Unfortunately I have a couple of morning deadlines, so if the meetings run long, I have to hustle, but that's the biz. It really is aggravating when the meeting conflicts with work, but at least in my field everyone understands when you say, I can't make that meeting because we have breaking news here.
posted by Occula at 3:18 PM on January 13 [1 favorite]

I have a lot of meetings but I’m pretty far up the chain in software/IT management, so that’s expected. Are you a people manager? If not, talk to your boss about job expectations and whether they see all these meetings as part of meeting your requirements for a good review. Are you making clients happy by the meetings? Deciding on paths to take for a larger group? Learning something important? If not, do the blocking technique described above. I’m Gen X so YMMV, but I think multitasking is overrated and if you are able to multitask in a meeting, you could just as well skip it. Besides scheduling fewer meetings for my team (I don’t even do a standing staff meeting) so they can, you know, work, other things I do:

* go to zero of the optional training sessions that go around
* go to zero of the “get to know department x”meetings, spotlight on a leader, etc.
* never EVER watch a recording of a meeting you didn’t go to. This is an insane thing people do.
* avoid status meetings as much as possible by making status visible on our website and in our tracking tools.
* ask the organizer via chat or email if I really need to come. People often over-invite to be safe.
* as someone once said, know what kind of meeting it is. Getting stuff done or making decisions? Info dump? Required training? The last is the only one I really might multitask in, but I turn video off and play some puzzle iPad game - doing a second work task means I might miss the one thing I needed to know.

There’s also the fact that a lot of companies work everyone too hard all the time.
posted by freecellwizard at 3:18 PM on January 13 [9 favorites]

The best strategies are going to depend pretty heavily on how much you can get the meeting times reworked to suit your schedule vs how much you have to accommodate others' schedules.

Back when I had a role that required a lot of meetings and other people were putting things on my schedule, I would pre-emptively block out a couple of hours at the times I do my best work (for me this is mid to late morning). All they could see was that I already had an appointment (an appointment with myself to do some fricking work). If you can strategize to have an entire half day a couple of times a week you can get a lot done.

If you're relatively junior and these meetings are being scheduled at times you don't have control over, then I think your best bet is to be ruthless about meeting spillover. Keep a to-do list, look at your calendar in the morning and identify some tasks that you think you can knock off in the half hour between meetings or whatever, and then make sure you do them. When I was a medical resident and working 80+ hours a week, one of my co-residents would always keep printouts of journal articles stuck in the pockets of his white coat to read during downtime (long elevator rides, when escorting patients to tests, etc). Unsurprisingly, he is now faculty at Harvard Medical School and I am reading Metafilter while procrastinating on my patient notes.

And lastly, if these are virtual meetings, you may not need to hang on every word. I knock off a lot of email during Teams calls, is all I'm saying.
posted by The Elusive Architeuthis at 3:27 PM on January 13 [3 favorites]

Client-facing role (proj manager) in the technology industry. I counted 22 meetings for this week, and that does not include the ad-hoc "I don't understand what your trying to say in the chat, should we hop on a quick call?" I'd say 75% of these meetings, I either lead or am a significant contributor.

How do I deal? I wish I knew. It's exhausting. I am fortunate that I can take notes on-screen, on the fly, so that I have little to no follow-up work needed after we all hang up and move on to the next one. Most of the time I just have to save the document, copy the SharePoint/Teams link, and share it with the attendees. These back-to-back meetings with different people, on different topics, and for different customers require a sustained level of intense concentration that I don't think is sustainable. Because some days I find myself just going totally blank on a call or as I'm trying to compose an email, and I just need a full minute for my brain to restart, I guess! Pre-booking time is a good strategy, I have done that to protect my lunch break because otherwise I would never get to eat.

What I've done - draw better boundaries with managers, let them know when I can't take any more work. But it's not an ideal solution because there will always be pressure to work more. And we are currently understaffed so that doesn't help!

I actually added "work/life balance" as one of my goals for the year, to show my manager how serious I was about it.
posted by tinydancer at 3:35 PM on January 13 [1 favorite]

It's a structural feature of Bureaucracies. When any Bureaucracy get to a certain level of size and complexity, then the focus shifts from product/project/mission to the Hierarchy. The Hierarchy itself becomes the actual function of the system, and the product itself is just an aspect of it and a tool of the participants. Meetings become a ritual where status is negotiated. Those with higher status assert their power by Bloviating and wasting the time of those with lower status. Those with middle status book more meetings as opportunities to consolidate or advance their status if possible. Those with lower status attend meetings, and try to get their work done in between meetings.

In a system like this you try to adapt as best you can.
posted by ovvl at 4:41 PM on January 13 [5 favorites]

What's normal is definitely wildly variable, and dependent on both role and office culture. I recently switched from being an individual contributor to a team lead, which has increased my meeting load, but it's still less than I had as an individual contributor at another company doing similar work.

Just as a data-point, I looked at the last few weeks, and have 10-15 meetings, which is more than I'd probably prefer, but seems like a reasonable and manageable load to me. They do tend to be shorter, though, so I'm only averaging about 5-7 hours per week in meetings. My husband, on the other hand, is a people manager and frequently has days where his only break from meetings is for lunch. I was complaining about a "meeting-heavy" day where I was booked until 2:30, and for him that sounded like a great day. We refer to his situation of 8 different colors of solidly booked meetings as "manager's calendaritis" and at least it lets us laugh at it.

As for ways to manage it, I don't think there's really a single solution, but there's some things you can try. What works best is going to depend on the kinds of meetings you have, and also on your relative place in the hierarchy.

If people are booking meetings with you by default, and they could wait or could be emails instead, blocking out time on your calendar for focused work might be a good approach, since it will signal that you're busy. If a lot of the meetings are smaller groups, you might be able to reschedule them so that you can at least have your non-meeting time in bigger blocks. If you have lots of short meetings scattered around, you could try setting up office hours to cluster those meetings together. If you're part of a team who are all feeling the same pain, maybe you can all agree on one day per week where no meetings are allowed; external people will break that, but it's often enough to at least give you a day where you have bigger blocks of time.

A tool that could help, if you're on G-Suite, is Clockwise. It's a browser extension that connects to your Google Calendar and has a bunch of different tools to manage meetings, mostly built around the concept of "focus time" and reducing the gaps between meetings. You can set up meetings so they're automatically shifted around on people's calendars to optimize focus time for everyone, and you can also set it up to automatically schedule blocks of focus time on your calendar once it fills up to a certain point. It's not perfect, but it can be pretty handy.
posted by duien at 4:47 PM on January 13

I've been in 28 meetings this week so far, approx 6 hours a day.

I get work done from 9pm-10pm or 7am-9am, or when multitasking in meetings. Only on weeks where I have 28 meetings do I have to do that (usually I work 9am-5pm with a strict hour for lunch).

I would love to try to finish my work during the day so I don't do that, but it feels less stressful actually.
posted by sandmanwv at 5:20 PM on January 13

I worked for a large nonprofit in a senior role and pretty much had meetings all day (9 am to 5:30 pm) every day. There was no time to do my actual work during the work day, so I worked in the early mornings and after everyone left and on weekends. It sucked. I tried to change the meeting culture of my organization and lobbied the director relentlessly about it. He responded by assigning me to lead a committee to fix the meeting problem. This of course created even more meetings. But we did try a few things on an institutional level. We declared Friday afternoons to be meeting-free. This worked for a while. IT changed the default "appointment" setting on our shared calendars from an hour to 45 minutes, which helped a little. We tried to get everyone calling the meetings to circulate and stick to agendas, to keep meetings more efficient. Sometimes that worked. Personally I would just block an hour here and there on my calendar with faux meetings ("Status Review") to try to buy myself a little time.
posted by fiery.hogue at 5:26 PM on January 13

I’m a software engineering manager, and this week, if no one adds meetings to my calendar tomorrow, I’ll have 30 scheduled meetings. This is a normal to slow week for me, I’ve had time for some strategy and exploratory work. I’ve probably had a dozen impromptu video conversations over slack or zoom, as well- those add to my meeting fatigue in a way that in-person incidental conversations rarely did. My meetings are a mix between daily standups, sprint ceremonies, operational reviews/process meetings, 1:1s with my employees/ peers/ boss, and recruiting/interviews. I’m responsible for a product, a team, & much of the process of planning & prioritizing work. When I’m in a meeting, that’s my job at that moment. I hold blocks of time most days for any other work I need to do, usually any time before 9am (I usually start working between 7:30 and 8), a few 90-min blocks throughout the week, and most Friday afternoons, although I’m not really able to do intense or creative work then- I save busy work or prepare for the next week. I’m done working between 4 and 5 most days (usually earlier 1 day a week), and always block an hour for lunch. Some days, I don’t do anything beyond prepping for meetings, running meetings, & following up after meetings, and sometimes, I even like it. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ I do check in with my team on meeting load- they’re encouraged to refuse any meetings without agendas/goals, and we rotate who attends some of the standing meetings. In my opinion, meetings without notes that include assigned action items and decisions made (and why) are worthless, so I try to model that as much as possible. I also end meetings on time, and use the short scheduling option as much as possible (so 25/40/50 minute meetings) - I can’t teleport when in the office, so I need 5 minutes to walk between rooms and use the restroom, anyway.

I hit a high score of 13 meetings in one day a few months ago, and the problem with that was really the context switching- 13 meetings about 1 topic would be stressful, 13 meetings about 10+ topics was chaotic. I need downtime between some meetings to order my thoughts, and when I don’t get that, I am not useful in the later meetings, so now I try to pad 15-30 minutes around meetings I think might need it.
posted by worstname at 6:00 PM on January 13 [3 favorites]

This is normal as in typical, but it SUCKS. If your job were solely to contribute to these meetings, with pretty much no other deliverables, then meetings is the job, and it’s either a fit or it isn’t. But it sounds like your job also asks for deliverables, and the meetings are in the way of that.

I am in the same boat and I’m really vocal about it to my boss. Hopefully not in a negative way, just simply “I won’t be able to deliver x this week because I’m booked to capacity with meetings and don’t have the time.”

Any standing meeting I control, I cancel if we’re not going to be accomplishing something real.

Any standing meeting I don’t control, I ask the leader for less frequent (biweeekly or monthly) meetings. It has worked. Nobody likes these things.

Any meeting that’s never actually productive, I ask if I can just send them the info and they can give me a call if they have questions.

I also don’t personally attend every meeting I’m invited to. I sometimes just say I have a conflict (and I do. Working on my work is a conflict.)

We have one meeting-free afternoon a week as a company. That worked amazingly well and everyone respected it. For about two months. Maybe I’ll ask HR to send everyone a reminder to respect it again.

I mark myself as busy on my calendar for lunch and breaks, and when I need a couple of hours of focused time.

Do you like working until 7? Are you compensated for it? I worked my ass off for free late into the night for years and all I got was so burned out I’m no longer afraid to set a hard boundary and guard my time.

Fuck it. If my job cannot be done in 9 hours a day by a hardworking professional then that’s the company’s problem, not mine. I can’t recommend adopting this attitude but it may find you at some point anyway.
posted by kapers at 8:59 PM on January 13 [1 favorite]

I note "during the pandemic" is the game changer in your post.

Under normal circumstances, the higher up you are, the more meetings you have, in general, and otherwise that might vary depending on your job. But probably the first year of the pandemic, I had a lot more meetings during the day than usual, probably at least around 4 a day. This has definitely died down, presumably with Zoom fatigue and people just trying to schedule less meetings or to keep them shorter.
posted by jenfullmoon at 9:20 PM on January 13

I was in this exact situation: multiple clients multiplying standing meetings to about 20 hours a week of RECURRING meetings even before anything else was scheduled. I couldn’t get rid of a majority of the meetings because clients wanted them, and the rest of the meetings were necessary to keep the team on the same page and moving. It’s not viable. I did it for about 8 weeks and then had to take three weeks off because I was losing my ability to not completely lose my shit at the smallest thing. The only possible way this can work is if you’re senior enough to be able to delegate almost all of your work to others.
posted by annie o at 10:14 PM on January 13

I think there is a disconnect between those who work mainly/totally online and those who work in offices. A totally online organisation can tolerate a lot more meetings - they are easy to set up, require no travel time for those taking part, no room booking, no coffee breaks, no plugging in of laptops, no getting dressed up, no incremental bandwidth costs, no room heating. etc. Because of the low friction of setting up a meeting it is possible to have shorter ones too: a 15 minute daily "stand up" meeting is completely do-able - so is an ad-hoc meeting that grows from a phone conversation that has a couple of others added to it.

The problem happens when there is a hybrid of online workers and those in offices. In the past the "home workers" in the equation were often junior - and they would have to dial in to whatever meeting was happening in the office. Now it is often the more senior people who are at home and calling the shots.

Personally, aside from trying to make all meetings shorter and with only the essential people invited - I would also drop any default tendency to use video. Video free calls leave people much more free to concentrate on the topic of conversation rather than the way they, and everybody else, is looking.
posted by rongorongo at 11:18 PM on January 13

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