“most companies have no clear understanding of how their leaders and employees are spending their collective time”

Harvard Business Review has a long piece by several Bain & Co. consultants on how much time organizations waste through email, meetings, etc. TL;DR version: it’s a lot, and a lot of it is wasted.

Most companies have elaborate procedures for managing capital. They require a compelling business case for any new investment. They set hurdle rates. They delegate authority carefully, prescribing spending limits for each level.

An organization’s time, in contrast, goes largely unmanaged. Although phone calls, e-mails, instant messages, meetings, and teleconferences eat up hours in every executive’s day, companies have few rules to govern those interactions. In fact, most companies have no clear understanding of how their leaders and employees are spending their collective time. Not surprisingly, that time is often squandered—on long e-mail chains, needless conference calls, and countless unproductive meetings….

Most advice about managing time focuses on individual actions. Coaches tell us to reassert control over our e-mail, be far more selective about which meetings we attend, and so on. Such recommendations are worthwhile, but executives often discover that their best intentions are overwhelmed by the demands and practices of their organizations.

Naturally there’s a focus on the lives of executives (this is the Harvard Business Review after all, which tends to present itself as a Bible for CEOs and people who want to be), but still:

As the incremental cost of one-to-one and one-to-many communications has declined, the number of interactions has radically multiplied. Many executives now receive some 200 e-mails a day—more than 30,000 a year—and the increasing use of IM and crowdsourcing applications promises to compound the problem…. If the trend is left unchecked, executives will soon be spending more than one day out of every week just managing electronic communications.

Furthermore, even in an age of frictionless electronic communication, executives are spending more time in meetings, not less: “senior executives devote more than two days every week to meetings involving three or more coworkers, and 15% of an organization’s collective time is spent in meetings—a percentage that has increased every year since 2008.” But a large portion of these meetings aren’t with clients, other parts of a business, or other outsiders: instead, “up to 80% of the interactions we reviewed took place within departments.”

As people have to attend at more meetings, they’re less present: double-booking is more common, almost a quarter of people in meetings send 3 emails or more, and there are few sanctions for bad behavior (either for participants who work n other things during meetings, or for managers who run disorganized meetings).

None of this will be a surprise, but the authors also unveil a couple other interesting examples of how mindless organizational practices absorb time:

leaders at one large manufacturing company recently discovered that a regularly scheduled 90-minute meeting of midlevel managers cost more than $15 million annually. When asked “Who is responsible for approving this meeting?” the managers were at a loss. “No one,” they replied. “Tom’s assistant just schedules it and the team attends.” In effect, a junior VP’s administrative assistant was permitted to invest $15 million without supervisor approval. No such thing would ever happen with the company’s financial capital.

The real eye-opener is how much work one weekly excom (executive committee) meeting generated within the company. Senior staff spent 7,000 hours a year in these meetings; another 20,000 hours were spent in meetings between unit heads and senior managers to get the information presented at the meetings; those meetings were supported by another 61,000 hours of data-gathering and -synthesizing meetings; and those were backed up by 210,000 hours of meetings. In other words, this single practice— the weekly executive committee meeting— consumed 150 person-years of time.

Once you start measuring labor costs absorbed by meetings and bad practice, things start to get pretty interesting— and scary. But this is part of a growing body of research on the real costs of electronic communication. Or rather, it illustrates how driving the cost of communication to zero creates other kinds of inefficiencies and dysfunctionalities, which are borne not just by individuals or managers, but by the company as a whole. I think there’s a tendency in business to think that if people fee like they’re overworked, or processes are not efficient, that these are costs that the individual bears, and they don’t really have an effect on the bottom line. But the Bain study shows that this is definitely not the case, and it’s not the only such study.

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