Few words are more menacing to today's office worker: "Reminder: Meeting … in 15 minutes."
It's a pop-up message that—not unlike a computer virus pop-up—threatens to consume your next hour or perhaps the rest of your afternoon.
One-third of Americans recently told pollsters for software firm Mersive that they attend 10 or more meetings every week. Another recent poll for Clarizen, also a software firm, found 46 percent would rather get a root canal or go to the Department Motor Vehicles, or do other unpleasant tasks, rather than attend another status meeting.
Hard data on wasted meeting time is essentially impossible to collect, but no one would blame you if you believed the oft-quoted guestimate that Americans attend 11 million meetings daily and waste $37 billion a year doing so. If I wrote a jillion hours and a $1 zillion, you'd probably believe that.
Steven G. Rogelberg, a professor of organizational science at the University of North Carolina in Charlotte, said he can't talk to anyone about his research without people launching into what he calls the "meeting hell lament."
And yet, meetings are going nowhere, fast. "If there truly was an appetite to stop these things you would see that happening. It's not," Rogelberg said.
In fact, an entire industry has sprouted offering ways to wrestle with might be called "meeting inflation." Gurus sell the virtue of standing meetings, walking meetings, huddle meetings—even role-playing meetings.
Silliness aside, there's growing evidence that some of the ideas may actually make meetings more productive, if not more popular.
Meetings seem more like a bad habit, or even an addiction, Americans can't kick. We can't live with them, but we just can't cancel them, either. How did we get here?
Neither meetings, nor widespread frustration with them, are a 21st century creation. In 1973, Canadian business management expert Henry Mintzberg was among the first to examine the problem. His book "The Nature of Managerial Work" found that more than half of managers' time in his sample was spent in meetings.
If meetings seem worse today than in 1973, it's probably because managers are now sharing their pain. Corporate structures are far more flat now, which means more workers are included in meetings, said Rogelberg. There aren't really more meetings; there's just more people in them.
"People expect to have voice. It's seen as an entitlement," he said. "A lot of organizations have truly embraced a culture of inclusion and empowerment."
As many political historians have pointed out, democracy sounds lovely, but it has flaws. Seemingly endless discussion is one of them.
But there are other reasons for meeting inflation. One can point the finger at the rise of calendar software like IBM's Lotus or Microsoft's Schedule+ product, both released in the early 1990s. The software enabled workers to claim hours of each other's time with a mere click, and made increasing the size of a meeting as easy as tapping out a few keystrokes.
"The ease with which you can have a meeting and draw someone into a meeting is really pretty tremendous," Rogelberg said. The burden is now on meeting invitees, who can avoid invitations only by filling up their calendar blocks with fake meetings.
Russell Clayton, a professor at Saint Leo University who studies workplace issues, said while he knows of no research into the origins of meeting creep, he thinks technology could also be playing an unexpected role.
"It is possible that meeting 'inflation' is occurring because workers still feel comforted on some level by getting in a room together … and this comfort may be needed because of all of the technological advances that are supposed to help us stay connected do not truly connect us," he said. "That is, the face-to-face meetings provide the warmth of a real meeting that computers, software, apps cannot."
So if we're stuck with inclusivity and the desire for human contact, is there a way to make meeting reminders feel a little less like an order to go visit the dentist?
Most of the popular meeting guru advice involves having a clear agenda, setting goals, sticking with schedules and assigning responsibility for tasks—good work habits that most of us know implicitly but find very hard to put into practice. New software products like Peak Meetings try to help with this issue by providing built-in structure, flow and format to meetings.
A change of scenery can help, too, keeping workers interested during meetings that otherwise occur in the same drab conference room every week or every day. Clayton recently published a study in Harvard Business Review showing that trendy "walk and talk" meetings can be an effective management tool. (One immediate benefit: Walks have a natural ending point.)
Clayton's study found that walk-and-talk participants were 8.5 percent more likely to report high levels of engagement. His research suggests that walking increases creativity, too.
Walking meetings have serious limitations, of course—they become unruly if more than three people attend. So standing meetings are becoming increasingly popular, mainly because the threat of physical exhaustion helps limit the soliloquies.
Multitasking is a big meeting problem, too: You can't really read email and listen at the same time. Rogelberg recommends banning mute buttons during conference calls to expose those who aren't really paying attention. (It's pretty hard to disguise the tap-tap-tapping on a keyboard without mute.)
He offers another novel suggestion. Give some participants specific roles, such as "devil's advocate" or "customer." That can help keep a meeting on track and encourage healthy discussion.
But his real advice to meeting organizers is a healthy dose of humility.
"If you look around and see everyone in the room on the phone, are you able to say to yourself, 'Wow, I must be running a crap meeting'," he said.
That's part of what Rogelberg calls a "service manager" mentality. People who run meetings need to ensure that the participants' time isn't wasted.
"It means a focus on featuring others, not yourself," he said. "If you are running a meeting, your job is to orchestrate the experience. You are a steward of other people's time. That mindset is going to make a tremendous difference in how often you call meetings. But until the leaders of an organization change, the meetings aren't going to change."