In the COVID world that we live in, we have transitioned to a world that can have a Zoom or Teams meeting at any time. No more do we need to reserve a conference room. Instead, we can all log into any virtual meeting in any attire and location. Consider that Microsoft Teams went from 19 million daily active users in July 2019, to 145 million in April 2021. That is almost an 8X increase in just under 24 months. But is this making us more effective? Examples are everywhere of these benefits, repainting our definition of how to schedule and execute a meeting.
"We are spread out across Duke’s campus, so it was hard for us to find a set time and location to meet in person,” said Kokosa, clinical pharmacist for the Duke Endocrinology and Bone Densitometry Clinic. “The pandemic forced our hand into finding an alternative way to gather. We’re now meeting more, and our information sharing has improved because of it.”
However, I feel like I am in more meetings than ever before because of this ease of schedule. Has the abundance of meeting tools enabled an overproduction of meetings? Have we forgotten the fundamentals of what a meeting is for? Have we forgotten the importance of effective meeting scheduling with the abundance of meeting flexibility features? I will assume that the majority of us can relate.
To support this hypothesis, consider looking at your data points. If your record retention system is loose, look at your calendar for last month and compare it to a specific month in 2019. I will assume that there are anywhere between 20% to 50% fewer open slots on your schedule now.
So in this current world of denser schedules, what happens when we change a mandatory meeting’s start and end time? With our packed schedule, this unplanned change distributes collateral damage on everyone else’s schedules, rippling through the entire organization. Our schedules are not as flexible as they once were, and we are less nimble to adjust to meeting schedule changes. Let us consider the math.
Consider an organization with three levels of organizational hierarchy. The individual at the top has a meeting with six direct reports that changes from Tuesday to Thursday. Let us assume that half of their direct reports had a conflict in their schedule to the new meeting time, which is cascading change within their direct reports. Then of those affected direct reports, half have conflicts in their schedule, resulting in more cascaded schedule changes. That one change at the top impacted a total of thirty-seven previously scheduled meetings. Make whatever assumption you want on the time devoted by team members to schedule a meeting and the time devoted by the team members to accept a meeting invitation. The casual change at the top looks like nothing at first, but its impact is a form of overproduction. Like throwing a stone in a small pond, the ripples expand in all directions requiring more of the organization’s most precious commodity, “time,” to be spent on unplanned actions. So how do we fix this?
I will propose five things to consider to minimize the impact of this meeting change having a ripple effect through the organization. First, emphasizing and training organizations to plan effectively with their electronic schedules is a fundamental and courteous discipline. Encourage the organization to have transparent electronic schedules for non-confidential material and the importance of maintaining their accuracy. Train and leverage the features available in practically all electronic calendar tools. Consider things like meeting categories, visibility of schedules to others, and the effective use of out of the office features. These simple features are effective communication tools in the planning process of meetings.
At the end of every week, review your calendar for the following week.
Second, plan your meetings effectively with prep work ahead of time. Best practices encourage sharing the material to be discussed before the meeting so that participants in the meeting stay on point. Consider an organization having a meeting that is discussing how a customer’s claim transpired. Consider making a short video (e.g. Microsoftstream, Vimeo, Youtube) showing the logic of the root cause failure analysis. Sharing a video ahead of time allows the recipient to pause and or replay the video on their own time to address their preparation questions and deter transient conversations during the meeting. Another option to be considered ahead of time is to improve the meeting's aim. This can be accomplished by covering the targetted actions and why it is strategically important to the organization.
The main question you should ask yourself when creating a meeting is, “why am I asking everyone to meet?”
The process to schedule the meeting is the third key. In the majority of all electronic calendar software, you can see the availability of co-workers. By taking a few extra minutes to look for times that match well with most, if not all, of your meeting’s attendees. Consider the functionality of the tool in Outlook called Scheduling Assistance, where it looks at attendees and rooms and matches optimum availability. This tool quickly looks through the schedules of the invitees and makes the most optimum recommendation.
Fourth, is within the execution of the meetings. Be respectful to the start and end times of your meetings. If a meeting is to last 30 minutes but doesn’t look like all of the material is going to be covered in time, consider pausing the material at the 25-minute. Then, proceed to courageously vocalize that the material will not be covered in time, requiring the team to reconvene. Or consider an alternative strategy at the 25-minute mark by pausing the discussion and asking everyone if the meeting’s duration can be extended. These little respectful actions minimize the complacency the attendees may have to the meeting’s end-time and prevent the disruption of succeeding meetings
Fifth, let’s all try to have fewer meetings. Take a moment and look at your next meeting. Ask yourself, are all of the attendees needed in the meeting? Is the material being covered applicable to all of the attendees for the entire duration? Is it best to split the meeting up into multiple meetings? I have never seen an effective four-hour-long meeting for all of the attendees. At some point during the meeting, you have lost the attention of the attendees. They have either turned off their video and are working on something else, or their head is thinking about something else. Or consider blocking time in your schedule to devote energy to your projects. Microsoft has a feature that allows you to schedule focus time for yourself, allowing you to show others in your schedule that you are not available.
Meetings are incredibly useful to manage the organization’s mission and maintain the vision's alignment. However, if we become complacent with them and lazy on our preparation work, we will be burning a lot of excess energy. So next time you schedule a meeting or change when a meeting is going to occur, consider its impact on your organization.