BOSTON — It's Monday morning: time for the weekly department meeting.
Everyone piles into the conference room, but your boss is nowhere to be found - dashing any hope of starting on time.
No one has an agenda. And all you can think about are the dozen e-mail messages back at your desk.
Why pay attention, anyway. You'll only talk about the same issues you talked about last week and nothing will get resolved.
The workplace is so clogged with meetings it's a wonder anybody can get anything done.
Workers spend one-quarter of their total workweek in meetings; middle managers spend as much as two days a week; and senior executives up to four days, according to Roger Mosvick, a professor at Macalaster College in St. Paul, Minn., who has conducted an 18-year study on meetings.
In addition, a recent study by 3M found that nonmanagers now spend twice as much time in meetings as a decade ago.
And the number of meetings is only going to rise as companies push the latest trends and buzzwords: teamwork, partnering, alliancing, collaboration. And technology now makes it possible to meet anywhere any time.
The problem is that businesses lose billions of dollars a year, experts agree, because of poorly run meetings.
Some companies go as far as hiring professional meeting facilitators. Others have moved all the chairs out of meeting rooms and make participants stand.
"Meetings have become the Achilles' heel of American management," says Mr. Mosvick, co-author of "We've Got to Start Meeting Like This!"
No doubt some meetings can be plain old mind-numbing.
Based on his own research, Mosvick came up with what he calls "the four-thirds of meetings":
* One-third of those at a meeting don't know why they're there.
* One-third shouldn't be there.
* One-third of the decisionmakers aren't there.
* One-third have "no say."
A survey by 3M earlier this year of 3,400 workers nationwide found a dominant disdain for meetings and common themes about why - few decisions are made, few participants are prepared, and few meetings stick to an agenda.
Yet little ever changes.
"People have resigned themselves to the fact that when you get together in meetings, people will be off topic," says Michael Begeman, manager of the 3M Meeting Network Web site (www.3m.com/meetingnetwork) set up to help companies run better meetings.
"It's not that meetings are horrible," he says. "It's that they're not as efficient as they could be."
So where to start?
How about with an agenda.
People have to know what the meeting is about, experts agree. That way they can prepare, and the meeting stays relatively short.
The alternative is, literally, money down the drain.
A typical meeting of eight people each making $40,000 a year costs about $750 to $1,000 an hour, including materials, food, equipment, and space, estimates Jana Kemp, who runs Meeting & Management Essentials, a consulting firm in Boise, Idaho.
And it is up to executives, she says, to set the tone.
"If they start meetings on time and end them on time, the rest of the organization will follow," Ms. Kemp says. "Too often senior managers and executives feel exempt from the need to improve their meeting skills."
"The message I try to convey is that everyone - participants and leaders - is equally responsible for the success or failure of a meeting," she says.
"Either find a way to make it better, or find a way not to go."