Zombie Hand

UB Insider #63: Exorcising Time-Wasting Meetings

About this episode:

According to data from Teem, a meeting room analytics startup, “ghost” and “zombie” meetings—no-show meetings or recurring meetings scheduled by someone who has since left the company—can haunt offices and have a huge drain on a company’s productivity. Zach Holmquist, Chief of Workplace Experience at Teem, shares how to exorcise these wasteful meetings to become more productive all year round.

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[The following has been edited for grammar and clarity.]

Lisa Christensen: Hello and welcome to UB Insider. I’m Lisa Christensen, online editor at Utah Business magazine. Do you have zombies or ghosts in your office? What about meetings that nobody goes to? Or meeting rooms that have been reserved for months in advance by employees who are no longer with the company?

According to data from Teem, a meeting room analytics startup, these ghost and zombie meetings can be a huge drain on a company’s productivity. Zach Holmquist, chief of workplace experience at Teem is talking today by phone about how to exorcise these wasteful meetings and become more productive all year round. Welcome.

Zach Holmquist: Hey, how are you? Thank you for having me on.

Lisa Christensen: Absolutely. So tell me about this research. What prompted you to gather this data?

Zach Holmquist: At Teem we started working with all these incredible companies, especially out in the San Francisco Bay. They were not interested in how work has always been done. Instead they kind of looked at the world saying, “Can we do this better?” And starting from nothing you can do whatever you want.

As we began working with these companies we started asking a lot of questions. We thought, surely there’s data here that we can use that’s of a lot of value. So as we were prompted by them and we really started seeing our data and insights on our side. All these fascinating patterns started surfacing as a result of that. So that’s where it really began.

Lisa Christensen: So tell me about these patterns. What were the results of all these dives into all of these different companies?

Zach Holmquist: One of the patterns that was really fascinating was this idea that people weren’t actually showing up to meetings. We have a conference room display that sits outside of the room and gives people the ability to check in. So if people were not checking into the meeting it was safe to assume that they were not attending. And as we were seeing that pattern, we noticed there were a lot of people who were not showing up to the meetings that they had scheduled. More than a third of the meetings, in fact, were actually going ghosted, similar to what you have with online dating vernacular – someone will ghost you.

Meetings were having the same situation. So there was all this real estate that was going unused. And then we had another company that had massive layoffs. All of a sudden we were seeing that these ghost meetings were recurring. Week after week after week this space was going underutilized. And so that became a really fascinating thing for us to start looking at. How could we help these companies recapture the lost productivity and utilization of that real estate? Those were two critical patterns that many of our customers rely on today. They really want to maximize the space that they have.

Lisa Christensen: So what effect does it have when a company has a meeting scheduled and it’s just not used, the conference room goes empty? What effect does that have on productivity?

Zach Holmquist: What’s really fascinating is when you have a conference room and the calendar or display outside the room indicates that there is supposed to be a meeting happening, if people believe that it’s not happening, you’re missing other opportunities to have critical meetings. You may have someone who has an important sales call or an important sales demo or a critical marketing conversation that needs to happen and when they go looking for a room it appears to them that nothing is available when in fact there is tons of available space.

So one, you’re pushing off conversations that could be very critical or timely. Two, you have this space that you’re paying a fortune for and then you’re having people who are complaining about not having a space to meet in because they can never find a room that’s available. Often what we were seeing from a lot of customers was A, there’s clearly not enough spaces. Everyone is complaining. No one is happy. So we need to buy another floor, build out more conference rooms and hope to solve the problem. When in reality all that was available. So there’s productivity, there’s real estate costs and then there’s actual happiness of the employee, the end user of the space. When they can’t find somewhere to work it’s a drain on productivity and even morale.

Lisa Christensen: The zombie meetings, I understand that. But people just ghost meetings? People collectively don’t go?

Zach Holmquist: Yeah. So you know, it can be any number of things. Through Slack or something they’re communicating, “Oh hey, I’m unable to make it into the office today.” So for whatever reason that meeting doesn’t get cancelled. It stays put or things get missed. But if you think about it, a third of them end up being no shows and 25% of those meetings, that’s a month. 25% of meetings in a month go no show. Which is incredible.

Lisa Christensen: In the data that I was looking at from this research it appeared that geography played a surprisingly significant role in all of this.

Zach Holmquist: Yeah, it’s really fascinating when you begin looking at the data if you look at West coast culture versus East coast culture. Not to, you know, pit those two against each other or anything but there’s definitely a difference.

When we’re on the West coast we kind of see this more relaxed culture around meetings. Being late isn’t a big deal or things going over isn’t a big deal. We’ll figure it all out. Kind of this West coast vibe where everything is all right. Where if you go to the East coast it’s very strict and very on time and you start to see those differences.

But what I think is interesting is how different departments and individuals do meetings differently. So a sales team, because they’re so rigorous on time will often be on time. Another department will probably be more casual than that. That’s a culture that’s actually relative to everyone, beyond East coast, West coast ways of meeting. Individually and collectively as a culture it also happens.

So we’ve had customers on the West coast that their meetings would always start an hour late. Nobody cared much about it until we came in and all of a sudden it was a contract on the wall that says your meeting starts here and ends here. And we shifted their whole culture to be more on time and more productive which then had gains throughout the organization, which is fascinating.

Lisa Christensen: That is fascinating. How do people identify this problem then to help them become more efficient and use their space more efficiently?

Zach Holmquist: I think the one thing that is really fascinating is kind of this bizarre-o tribal law that exists inside of a company. When you start at a company you just kind of learn oh, so and so kind of operates this way. And oh, there’s this meeting that we’re all asked to go to but it doesn’t have a ton of value. There is this weird kind of jungle law, almost, of how the company operates. It’s the unwritten law of how it’s working.

So people get very stuck in thinking that that’s normal. And especially as we were talking about a second ago, I came from a West coast startup and I went to another West coast startup and the culture is kind of the same. So we kind of get into these habits. Next time you’re walking around the office notice how many rooms are empty when you know that there’s supposed to be a meeting going on in there. That kind of creates that awareness. People start to become aware of their surroundings instead of just being robots moving through the space getting from point A to point B.

How can you start looking around and noticing all of the inefficiencies that are happening in the physical workplace? That’s where we start to have the conversation. So we point that out and then people will call us and say, “Oh my gosh, I had no idea how much time we were wasting finding open rooms, trying to peek into a room and not disrupt it.” That’s when we begin to deploy solutions to resolve that.

So for us, we started with conference room displays. We have a product called Flightboard that shows a map as well as all the available times and what the current status is of the room. By having these tools in your browser through Chrome and as an Outlook plugin you can really begin to understand the space and begin to utilize it more. We often see utilization rates go really high and the space become more productive and efficient. But then you also see people expressing like, “Oh my gosh, I feel like I can actually get stuff done in this office,” which is really good feedback.

Lisa Christensen: Yeah, that’s generally something you do want in an office.

Zach Holmquist: Yeah. Well and that’s the thing. I think it’s funny that we often spend eight hours a day at some place. We want it to be really effective. And that’s one of the more interesting things, I think, that’s happening. It used to be that you had to go to the office to use the internet. You had to go to use the printer or to use the fax machine. And now oftentimes our households are far more sophisticated, with better technology and a faster internet connection. It’s designed exactly how you want it. So the workplace has become vastly different. If you find friction and frustration in the workplace, one, that becomes a retention problem for that company. And two, why should I even go in? What draws me to go into the office, and that’s a really big concern that’s happening at many of these companies.

Lisa Christensen: Was there anything about the research that you found surprising?

Zach Holmquist: You know, I think the most fascinating one was that oftentimes I think, millennials have this angst-y persona where they want to work a certain way. They want all the baby boomers to die so they can have the workplace they want. You get these really fascinating ideas about a different culture.

So we ran the data and what we were actually seeing is that the baby boomers, almost 53% of them weren’t being trained or they felt that the workplace was failing to help them succeed in the workplace. Which is really fascinating given that software is really becoming so integrated into so many workplaces. I think a lot of millennials will think oh, a baby boomer doesn’t care about tech. But instead, they are desperate to learn how to better integrate themselves into that culture and be a part of it. I think that’s really compelling to start thinking about different generational workplaces and how they can operate together.

Lisa Christensen: Is this something that you are planning on doing more research on in the future?

Zach Holmquist: Yeah. I think for us what we really want to understand is how the digital workplace and the physical workplace, rather than being two separate ideas or places, how do they become one? There’s calendars and data about where you’re supposed to be and who’s supposed to be where, and we’ve surfaced that in meaningful ways through the Flightboard to the conference room displays. As we move along it’s how do we really understand how people are operating together? What are the meaningful connections or the meaningful, almost serendipitous collisions that need to happen in a workplace?

So how can we understand that this baby boomer would be really benefitted by sitting next to this group of millennials. Then I think we can begin to create a different dynamic. We’re absolutely invested in understanding how every individual works in the workplace and then how the workplace and the digital workplace coexist with one another.

Lisa Christensen: And that sounds like it’s also going to help make things more efficient in the workplace.

Zach Holmquist: Absolutely. So the thing that’s so frustrating I think, is a lot of the workplace has physical walls. We don’t really think about that very often. I mean, I can speak of all the times I’ve been a workplace and haven’t been very thoughtful about the place that I have been surrounded with. And so it will be interesting to see as we kind of keep moving down this path of how do we remove friction and kind of start this new style of work?

What happens when I can literally work anywhere and what are the implications of that? How does an organization bring me to home base and allow for those meaningful connections and collisions? I’m not saying that they can’t happen in Slack or some chat program or through email, but there is something to be said about that physical connection that can happen. But we’ve got to work harder. Many companies, and we’re part of that, have to work really hard to raise the banner and make people come into the office.

Lisa Christensen: Absolutely. Was there anything in the research that made you reflect on how you guys are doing things at Teem? Something that may have changed some of the ways that you were doing things to increase efficiency yourself?

Zach Holmquist: Yeah, so I think one of those was people aren’t really compelled by compensation. Obviously people have to make a living, but really they’re more interested in how technology supports them in their work. And that’s really fascinating and especially.

As I was mentioning earlier, we’re at an interesting point where me as a peer, as a coworker, as someone going into the office, I’m typically far more sophisticated than the workplace. So it is frustrating when you expect the world to function like Snapchat or Tinder and be super simple. Then you go into the office and it’s like, here’s this really crusty enterprise software and here’s this thing, this terrible laptop that doesn’t work and is a far worse computer on technical specs than the phone in your pocket. And here is all this data that you can’t access anywhere but via paper or by connecting through a thousand different gated doors to get to it.

I think we have to start questioning technology. It should be supportive. It’s often hostile if we’re not staying on top of it and being proactive towards it. So for us, we look at things like Amazon’s Alexa. It’s amazing at home. I can talk to a digital assistant and she responds. I can turn lights on and off but then I go into the office and I don’t have that same technology. So how does something like Amazon’s Alexa play itself out in the workplace? How does a mobile device play itself out in the workplace? How does document storage and the ability to work anywhere impact all that stuff? That’s what we’re really interested in.

Lisa Christensen: Okay, well thank you so much for talking to me about this today. I appreciate it.

Zach Holmquist: Thank you, Lisa. I appreciate it as well.

Lisa Christensen: Got thoughts on today’s episode? Reach out to us on social media at @utahbusiness or email us at Be sure to subscribe to UB Insider wherever you get your podcasts. Thanks for listening.