Back-to-back meetings. Constantly running late. No time to prepare. Spending the first 10 minutes trying to establish the purpose of the meeting. Spending the next 10 thinking you shouldn’t be there. Such is the life of the average executive, especially in a remote environment.
According to the 2021 Microsoft Work Trend Index report, the number of meetings scheduled on the Teams platform was up 148% since February 2020.
While an obvious solution is to reduce the number of meetings and improve the quality, that change alone won’t address the root cause. To get to the heart of the problem, knowledge workers must stop relying so heavily on meetings as the primary mechanism for advancing work.
MEETING TIME HAS A REAL COST
Let’s start with an example: too often, the first step in a project is scheduling a kickoff conversation. This is a proven best practice. What should happen prior, however, is confirming the project outcomes and assumptions with the sponsor, mapping out a preliminary approach and milestones, and drafting roles and responsibilities. The purpose of the kickoff, then, would be to align the project team in a shared understanding of these pieces. Instead, what typically happens is the project leader assembles the team and assumes everyone will figure it out together. But this is sloppy leadership masquerading as collaboration.
A little meeting math can help illuminate the point. Imagine a meeting with 10 executives who receive an average salary of $200,000. Using 2,000 hours as a simple proxy for the number of working hours in a year, each person is paid $100 per hour. So a meeting of those 10 individuals costs the organization $1,000. How many of your meetings can you truly say are worth that much?
INDIVIDUAL WORKING TIME IS CRITICAL
High-performing, collaborative teams balance three ways of working: individual working time, asynchronous collaboration, and meetings. Individual working time is the most critical of the three because it is essential to creating leverage for others. Unfortunately, many of us have forgotten how to do it. Why?
• We use meetings and email to guide our days and don’t know what to do otherwise.
• We lack clear priorities and don’t know how to appropriately allocate working time.
• It has become the norm to squeeze in thinking work—building presentations, doing analysis, writing performance reviews, etc.—around the edges, and we no longer deem it appropriate for normal business hours.
• There’s always another fire drill waiting to happen.
But it’s a critical skill for us all to re-establish. When someone invests time in building a thoughtful and concise pre-read, for example, it enables everyone else to participate fully in the discussion because they have a shared starting point. Creating a first draft of a presentation or analysis, even if it’s rough, accelerates the collaborators’ ability to jump into the meat of the discussion. Laying out the pros and cons of a decision before gathering everyone together to weigh in uses the group’s time efficiently rather than revisiting well-worn territory—again!
EMBRACE ASYNCHRONOUS COLLABORATION
Asynchronous collaboration is the other solution to meeting overload. It also provides much greater flexibility to individuals in different time zones or those with family responsibilities that fall in peak meeting hours. There are a few prerequisites to making offline collaboration work well:
• Select a platform and use it consistently. If you sometimes send materials via email and sometimes post them, the team won’t trust the platform and usage will falter. Make a commitment to using it as a transparent environment for sharing work-in-progress materials.
• Give collaborators adequate time to review and make comments. Typically three business days is the minimum.
• Help reviewers understand the type of comments that would be useful, such as: “I’m interested to hear your perspective on the feasibility of this approach and whether we’ve tried it anywhere else in the organization.”
• Each collaborator must operate with generosity. Rather than simply providing comments, great collaborators integrate the comments that have been made prior to their review. This lessens the burden on the document owner and helps advance the deliverable forward, rather than simply raising questions that must be addressed in a synchronous conversation.
TAKE CHARGE OF YOUR CALENDAR
If you want to free yourself from the meeting trap, make it a top priority to block work time on your calendar. This will enable you to prepare appropriately for your meetings and be a strong contributor to asynchronous collaboration. While it can feel selfish to carve out time for your own work, when everyone does it, the quality of output goes up across the board and your team has the power to deliver their best work.