a small gift box held out on the palm of a man's hand

'Giving Back Time' and Other Lies We Tell Ourselves About Meetings

August 04, 2022 Digital Workplace
Laurence Hart
By Laurence Hart

There are too many meetings. This was true before the pandemic and is more so now, with scheduled meetings replacing impromptu hallway discussions. All these meetings limit the ability to get actual work done. Relief is the common response to when a meeting gets rescheduled for another day because your day is just packed.

The problem is that time is a fixed commodity (at least until time travel is invented or I get struck by lightning like the superhero The Flash). When a meeting is rescheduled, it improves one day’s schedule at the expense of another day’s schedule.

Then there is the meeting that ends early. Just the other day, someone “gave me six minutes back” when our meeting ended early. I’ve been given three, five and 10 minutes in the past week. Giving time back is meant to sound benevolent. However, it implies the time was stolen in the first place. We aren’t being given the minutes back, at least not in their original form. If you want to give people minutes back, schedule fewer and smarter meetings.

You're Giving Back Damaged Time

When I was given back those six minutes, I considered what I would do. What can be done in six minutes? If you are in a string of meetings, it provides an opportunity to grab a snack. You can possibly check email before the next meeting, though you don’t have time for any meaningful responses. If you are lucky, the extra minutes are the beginning of a block of open time. I used my time to refill my coffee, ponder my lunch plans, and check on the status of a document under review.

The problem is that those six minutes were damaged. They couldn't be used for anything beyond context switching and handling a few biological necessities.

If there had been at least a free hour immediately following that meeting, the six minutes would have been a gift. Given the number of meetings on people’s calendars, that is a rarity. While a meeting ending early is a good thing, time is not being returned, at least not in the same condition in which it was originally taken.

Related Article: The Speed of Work Today: More, Faster, Now

The 30-Minute Curse

“I’ll give you 30 minutes back.” That's how a different meeting ended a few weeks ago. My first thought was wondering why the meeting had been scheduled for such a long time. I was happy with the extra time, but I couldn’t take full advantage of it. There was another meeting in 30 minutes that had originally been scheduled to be back-to-back with the preceding meeting. The question arose again: what can I start and complete in 30 minutes?

Context switching takes time. It is not instantaneous. Switching between meetings is a challenge, but everybody else is facing the same challenge. Thirty free minutes, when anticipated, tends to be planned out. It isn’t enough time to work on a large task, but it is often adequate to handle a few emails and perhaps grab lunch.

A better option would have been to schedule a shorter meeting from the beginning. Unless it is a complex topic or a working session, 30 minutes is typically plenty. If more time is needed, schedule a follow-on meeting, typically with a smaller subset of participants.

Related Article: You've Recorded Your Online Meeting: Now What?

Want Better Meetings? Plan and Communicate

If you want to truly gift people time, spend more time planning your meetings before sending that invite. Book only for the needed time. Not every meeting has to be in 30 minute increments. Try 15 or 20 minutes. And cut that hour meeting in half.

Devote some time before your next meeting to creating an agenda to keep the meeting focused. Keep the number of attendees down. Most importantly, recognize when a topic needs to be moved offline. I’ve seen meetings with three people talking in circles around the wording in an important document while 20 people pretended to listen while surreptitiously checking their email.

I had a weekly 30-minute touchpoint with a large group of people. It used to be an hour, but we determined we didn’t need that much time with the entire group. We then cancelled half of the meetings, instead writing up and sending out an update email. That meeting is now biweekly with an email update on the off week if there is significant news.

Related Article: Beware These 3 Remote Work Collaboration Traps

Change Is Hard, But Fewer Meetings Are Worth It

To make a real difference, your entire organization must make changes to how they work. That's never easy, so start simple. Look at your recurring meetings. Are they over an hour? Can you shorten them? Can they be made less frequent? Could you combine two meetings into one, shorter meeting?

Looking at your current meetings with a critical eye will help you pick alternatives. You may need to try different options before finding the solution, but you can reduce the time spent in meetings.

Replacing a meeting with an email or a quick online chat is a true gift. Take better control of your meetings and you’ll find time to get more work done.

About the Author

Laurence Hart is a director of consulting services at CGI Federal, with a focus on leading digital transformation efforts that drive his clients’ success. A proven leader in content management and information governance, Laurence has over two decades of experience solving the challenges organizations face as they implement and deploy information solutions.


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