The Cost of Last Minute Meeting Cancellations

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Meetings; people either love them or hate them. Some see value in sharing and discussing ideas and plans, others view them as a distraction for their primary role. With the different attitudes toward meetings it isn’t surprising that so many of them are cancelled. This post isn’t going to look at the value or cost of meetings, although that could be a good topic for another post, instead I’m going to look at the cost of the last minute (less than 2 business hours) cancellations.

To get value from most meetings there’s a certain amount of preparation that has to take place. Depending on the content and your expected involvement in the meeting, this can be a significant amount of time. If you’re giving a presentation it’s quite reasonable for the preparation to take several times the length of the meeting (for me, a 1 hour presentation can take more than a day to prepare for); if you’re attending a meeting but not involved in the actual running of it you may only need to spend 5 or 10 minutes preparing for an hour long session. Personally I also need to spend an additional 5 to 10 minutes to give myself time to context switch to the meeting and to psychologically prepare myself for it.

For the sake of this article, I’ll use an example meeting of an hour in length, with an average agenda complexity. I’ll assume attendees will need to spend around 15 minutes preparing for the meeting, reviewing the agenda and understanding what will be discussed. The chair of the meeting will spend an hour preparing the agenda, ensuring details are up to date and getting a room booking.finally, I’ll run with 6 attendees (including the chair).

Using this fictitious meeting we can calculate that before the meeting the attendees have invested two and a quarter hours in preparation for the meeting. Most of this time will have been invested at least one day out from the meeting; so if the meeting is cancelled with less than a day’s notice there’s been a waste of over 2 hours.

If a meeting is cancelled within the last 15 minutes, the cost goes even higher. We can assume that half the people won’t get the cancellation in time, so they’ll turn up to the meeting and wait for 10 minutes before they give up. Now the cost is at nearly 3 hours, especially if some are like me and need to psych themselves up for a meeting.

If the meeting is cancelled at its start time, the cost goes up to over 3 hours.

Based on a 7.5 hour work day, and some expected non-productive time within that, half a day of productive time has been wasted. If that happens once a fortnight, allowing for time off due to annual leave, that’s 12 days of wasted productivity.

But that’s only the directly affected time; what about the opportunity cost of the cancellation. How many of the attendees had to decline other meetings, how many had to reschedule a meeting or spend more time planning one to find an available time? Was scheduling for another meeting made more difficult because of the lack of a meeting room? It’s quite possible that the effect of cancelling a meeting could be measured in days of lost productivity.

There’s another cost that comes with meeting cancellations. If staff are regularly exposed to meeting cancellations they will stop preparing for the meetings, this will result in meetings taking longer than they should as people aren’t prepared. If the same meeting is cancelled regularly, staff will begin to see the meeting as unimportant, this will lead a lack of preparation, but also an increase in “no shows”.

I’m not saying meeting cancellations and reschedules shouldn’t happen, but they should be minimised and actioned early. If a meeting is regularly being cancelled, assess if the meeting is really necessary (hint, it probably isn’t). If people aren’t prepared for the meeting, or just don’t show up, check if the agenda gives enough detail, find out if the past cancellations have had a negative impact, and again, work out if the meeting provides any value.

If you have to cancel a meeting, actually, even if you might have to cancel it, do it early. The cost to the organisation and to the individuals will be significantly less if its cancelled a week before, rather than a day or an hour before.