The Cost of a Meeting

So after about 17 years working as an integrator, as a rental staging guy, and as a manufacturer, I got my first job working as an end user. I figured that based on my background and experience that this would be a no-brainer. I mean how hard can it be? I know all this stuff. But once I became an end user, I had to totally shift my line of thinking as I realized something fast… we, as an industry, SUCK.

Yup, I said it.  And then further to that, I had to accept another truth when talking about integrators.

THEY ALL SUCK!  Success will always come down to how well you can manage the suck.

OK, just pause a second before you start on the hateful comments. I don’t mean that integrators aren’t able to do a great job, or deliver outstanding results. Far from it! And as an industry, we have what the end users need… but there is this huge chasm that we have yet to cross (apologies to Geoffrey Moore) in that we are frequently NOT on the same page. I had to reset my expectations, I had to change how I described/asked for projects, and I had to be clearer about what things mean in the enterprise world versus the AV world. (You could do a few podcasts just focusing on words that mean different things on the two sides of this gap).

On the customer side, we need to do a better job of detailing our requirements not by “this monitor vs. that monitor” and a far, far better job of ensuring that our final user experience is documented. (I’ll get into more detail on this in a later article). But on the integrator side, folks need to do a far better job of digging into what the customer wants from that experience. Only then can you start to isolate/identify things that might have value to us.

One of the things that really took quite a bit of effort to shift my thinking was the realization that EVERYTHING has a cost. And in order to spend money, you need to justify that cost. Not the cost of the widget (the CIO couldn’t care less about that); you need to show the overall opportunity cost. Let’s say, for example, you want to swap out cables for ClickShare in a big room. On one hand, we can all see how much easier that will be to manage. No more broken cables… this is good, a no brainer, right? WRONG! Cable is maybe $75, while ClickShare is $1,000+. Good luck convincing the CIO that you need the money.

However, if we decide instead to figure out the lost productivity costs of when meetings can’t start on time because of a broken cable and the time to fix it. Also factor in that part of the daily routine is physically sweeping/auditing the room because those things can break, the adapters can get stolen/lost/mangled (insert slack mention #gearfail) and all of a sudden, it’s a lot easier to make the financial case for the ClickShare if all that goes away.

Of course, just because I am saying “ClickShare” in this example doesn’t mean I’m not making a case for ClickShare in all circumstances — I am making a case for a wireless presentation system. Deciding on the right one factors in all sorts of variables to ensure that it’s a solid investment. At the end of the day, if that wireless solution makes life easier and the enterprise more efficient, that’s worth a lot of money. It also dovetails with a point I made in a previous post in which I said, don’t bring me gadgets/widget; bring me data. In this case, if you want me to buy gadgets/widgets, be prepared to help me sell me with data on the opportunity costs if I go the other way.

But let me backup.

Let’s apply a few numbers to the scenario here to understand where we are coming from.

Your average meeting has somewhere between six to 10 participants. Your average room has six meetings a day in it. And on average, the room sees about 240 work days a year. In a simple room, the total cost to build out that room is maybe about $20,000 (codec, displays, control, wiring, labor). If we amortize those costs over four years, we can see what a room costs us each day. And in reality, it’s about $20-21/day. Here is where things get more interesting. Let’s go with an average salary in the Bay Area of about 120K. (If you think that’s high, take a look at our real estate costs!) If I were to throw all the above numbers into a spreadsheet (as I did), you would find that your average meeting costs the company about $6/minute in that those people are now otherwise occupied. That’s fine… it’s all part of the deal. However, if something causes that meeting to start late… then it adds up fast. Let’s say that a room has some sort of tech deficiency that causes meetings to start on average 3 minutes late all the time… then that costs $18/meeting or $108/day. Or to look at it another way… that’s five times the total cost of that room! Suddenly, taking a deeper look at how we can be more efficient in that time makes some serious financial sense.

Why do meetings start late?

At a previous employer, I had about 700 technology-enabled conference rooms in my portfolio. Way more than many, not even close to some. But I did some quick math and determined that the value of that investment was in the range of $25 million USD. And we realized that we had spent all this money on the tech in the rooms, but had never really focused on the meeting itself. Things like how to meet better, meet more effectively. We never focused on things like, why do meetings start late, or run over?

I have watched this area for a long time now and I would like to put forward four reasons why meetings start late and thereby cost money. (Not to mention cause frustration in those that were able to be there on time.)

  1. Tech issue. Can’t dial the call, can’t connect your laptop, can’t figure out the interface… all manner of things connected to the tech in the room.
  2. Couldn’t find the %$^%&$ room. Let’s face it, wayfinding can almost always use improving. There are loads of rooms we can get to with our eyes closed… then there are those ones we rarely visit, or the ones far across campus. Or just the fact that you have back to back meetings that are on opposite ends of campus. And you don’t realize it until the first meeting finishes (2 minutes late, most likely) so even to take it via video means even more delay as you seek out a place to take the meeting.
  3. This is the worst one of all. We schedule meetings to start and stop at the top or bottom of the hour. And as we all end up not just in back-to-back meetings, but many times double or triple booked… we are lost to begin with.
  4. And finally we have to accept the reality of human physiology. You just got out of a 1 hour meeting… and in that meeting you drank a large beverage of some description. You not only need to take a trip to the little technician’s room… you need to refill said drink for the next meeting. Nevermind that you also ran into your finance person in the hall that you have been meaning to call and that conversation took up another 2 minutes…

Honestly, it’s a miracle anyone makes it to any meetings on time at all.

As a service provider that can bring tools and tech to bear, we can affect the first two points. The third one can only be affected internally, and of course the last one is just a carry over from point three.

One thing I started doing in my last role was diligently working to have my meetings ONLY start/stop at 5 mins to/from the top or bottom of the hour. So my meetings were 20 mins or 50 mins long. Oddly, the biggest challenge in doing this was Microsoft Outlook. It doesn’t allow you to change those default times. That’s how ingrained the 30/60-minute meeting is.

Why did I start doing 20/50-minute meetings? Well in one of the local AV user group meetings a while back, Mark Coxon (he was at Barco at the time) came in and gave a great talk. And in that talk to end users, guess what? They spoke not a single word about technology! They shared results of studies they have been doing into HOW people meet. How do people feel about their meetings? What makes a meeting good? What makes a meeting less valuable? And from those studies and research then came up with a set of suggestions for how to make meetings better. One of them was shooting for the 17 minute meeting. (Apologies guys, I went with 20… makes the math easier!)

Earlier, I mentioned trying to get my CIO’s attention to buy new widgets. And that he couldn’t care less. Want to know what he REALLY liked… that research and insights on how to meet better. Data-driven insights make people pay attention. We all know there are problems, what we want is help solving the big problems.

So when we look back at the reasons why meetings start late, and if we use that as a starting point for how we can save money via that opportunity cost, we have a real chance to make changes. And the things we need to do are not always in line with what the industry expects. Take the tech stack in the room. If you can simplify the dialing via a better interface, then we can show that savings add up every day. How do we know that it is actually making a difference? Well, most organizations are capturing CDR data from their codecs or their back-end (it was mind boggling how much data BlueJeans gave us via Command Center that we dumped into Splunk to filter and define as needed) so we can see when calls start and end. And it’s easy to draw insights from that.

Or when it comes to things like the lighted blades that Crestron and others have introduced for us to look for an empty room… how about putting that INSIDE the room above the TVs and make it indicate when you meeting should be wrapping up and when it’s over so that the folks standing outside waiting can get started.

I could go on but there no real need right now. Hopefully you get the picture: We need help. And if you understand the real sunk costs that we are dealing with when it comes to room/spaces, there are ways to help us make our experience better. Sometimes hardware is a part of it, sometimes it’s data insights. But either way, we need to constantly both improve the experience and show a return to the business.

It’s all about cost benefit; we just need to find it.