Why do we waste so much time in meetings and on email?

Effective leadership is a skill that is nurtured.  Just as is the case for successful sports people, it takes practice, analysis, modification, analysis and repeat.  Some argue that leadership is a natural talent whereas it is something that people can learn and shape their style of leadership.  Self-analysis is key to performing as a successful leader.  The greatest skill a good leader has is his or her ability to communicate.  A good leader does not have to be charismatic, provide motivational speeches and / or doing ‘high fives’ on a regular basis.  What are absolute requirements are investing time in communicating and ensuring that communication is effective.  That means taking an objective approach to time management. 

Good leaders are not those who are brutal in how they spend their time.  Teams notice almost everything managers and directors do so leaders need to choose wisely and be careful about how much information is shared about decision making.  Everything a leader / boss does is scrutinized, good or bad in the eyes of team members.  It is harsh, maybe unfair, but a reality, so just accept that as a starting point that there is a practice called ‘boss watching’.

That does not mean managers should put at the heart of their decision making ‘keeping employees happy’ at all costs.  The great and good of management experts will talk extensively about keeping staff members happy, but what is key to successful management is to continually focus on meeting the strategic objectives of the organization.  Of course, a happy workforce will achieve those objectives but not at the expense of meeting key targets.  Always remember that managers are judged on the results of key performance indicators and other management statistics.  What makes for an effective leader is clarity of thought, which happens by being able to see the bigger picture which only happens when a leader has time to see the bigger picture.

There are so many demands on the time of a manager, so many people to please and it may seem to be a necessity to be in so many places to ensure that the right decisions are made.  Ok, let’s stop here and evaluate.  It is time to decide what is important and what is not. 

The greatest demands on a manger’s time are meetings and emails.  The best place to start is to carry out a quick count on how much was spent last week on meetings and emails, including travel and preparation time.  Calculate separate figures for each action.  Now set a target to halve that amount of time spent within the next 2 months.  Roll your eyes if you want to and tell yourself how good you are in managing your time and that everything you do has to be absolutely completed by you, but that figure you just added up is real and is a large amount.  Surely you cannot justify spending that amount of time on meetings and emails?

COVID-19 has presented challenges for organizations to continue to function and flourish.  National and local lockdowns globally have meant that people have adjusted how they work with many office workers working from home and utilizing digital technologies to conduct tasks, produce management reports and make decisions.  Applications such as Zoom, WhatsApp, Microsoft Teams, Google’s Meet and many more, have hosted meetings.  Whilst digital technologies have evolved for meetings to take place using these and similar platforms long before COVID-19, the global health pandemic it caused has vastly increased the use of platforms that were already available but only just by a small fraction in 2019 compared to the usage in 2020. 

Anecdotal evidence has found companies experiencing reduced operating costs, increased efficiencies in productivity by office workers, reduced travel and subsistence expenses.  Widely reported are the positive impacts on the environment specifically the reduction in air pollution levels.  As are reports about workers who are working from home and with young families who have been able to manage their work-life balance by having extra time through not travelling to from the office.

So now you can celebrate saving some time because of social distancing requirements, however that number of hours spent on meeting and emails is still a high number of hours.  What next?  It is time to start analyzing what activities are getting your attention and managing time.  A good strategy is to apply the principles of Pareto Analysis.

Pareto was an Italian engineer, philosopher, economist, businessman who observed similarities in human behavior, economies and businesses.  He found that 80% of the wealth in Italy was owned by 20% of the people.  This became known as the Pareto Distribution.  It was applied in businesses to set priorities and manage resources.  Using a simple everyday example, take your own wardrobe of clothing, whether small or vast, you will wear approximately 20% of your clothing 80% of the time.  That is how most people operate with exceptions.

Using Pareto Analysis in time management, 80% of a manager’s time should be spent on 20% of the most important aspects of your role.  These tend to be the first 2 or 3 roles identified in your job description.  If you are the business owner then your time needs to be focused on the 20% key strategic objectives ensuring that is where 80% of your time should be spent.

Now take the figure you have calculated for the time spent on meetings and emails and put these into categories linked to key strategic objectives of the organization.  Whichever figure is highest out of emails or meetings, then start there. 

Email Management

There is a strong likelihood that more time is spent replying to emails than attending meetings.  Do you need to respond to each email you receive?  Create folders, color code your system, whatever it takes in our management of emails, depending on which system you use.  My email folders are reference by numbers with 1 – 9 folders starting with the number 1, 2, 3 etc. up to 9.  There is a golden rule which is, no more than 7 folders starting with the number 1.  Most email folders are set to default sort alphabetically, therefore the number 1 folders are together, as are the number 2 folder etc.  If you have more than 7 folders starting with the number 1, you need to go back and demote folders to another number until you have cut back to a maximum number of 7.  Be brutal and only also allow yourself 7 folders starting with the numbers 2 and 3.   Over time you will discipline yourself to reduce that number of folders to 3 – 4 per number category.

Obviously, this is simplified but it really does help.  Also, those folders starting with the number 1 are easier to find.  By being at the top of your email folders means that you have a discrete reminder of what is important in your work life. 

Meetings Management

Meetings are the most challenging organizational activity that needs careful management.  There are some important factors about meetings that must be recognized:

  • Status symbol
  • Volume of attendance

There are perceived status symbols attached to attending meetings based on who is the host; which organizations are involved; a specific department is involved; a key director / manager is in attendance, or even better hosting; value of the contract, a celebrity will be there or a political leader.

There is a misconception that people who are continually attending meetings are busy and important people.  How many times have you heard people say something along the lines of “I’m so busy today I’m back-to-back with meetings”?  Those people really do need to get better organized or are unintentionally, or intentionally, avoiding their day job duties.  There is no need for anyone to have so many meetings in one day, apart from if they go to the office once a week and that is their only day to meet people face to face.

In the 21st Century there is no need to meet people face to face to make decisions, progress activities and problem solve.  Anyone who cannot function otherwise, with all the digital technology available to us, needs to go on a communication training course rather quickly.

The types of meetings are:

  • Briefing
  • Decision making
  • Partnership / bonding
  • Problem solving
  • Innovation

Briefing

Some meetings are named as such but are really briefings.  Attendees at briefings are not there to actively participate but to receive information.  It is advisable to be honest about whether a gathering is a meeting or briefing if you are hosting.  It might save time and avoid raising expectations.  Briefings have clear functions of information sharing especially in times of economic difficulties, changes in strategic direction or changes of ownership but should not be overused.  Staff resent having their time wasted and can make people feel undervalued, especially if the message goes out that it is mandatory to attend.

Meeting Attendance Checklist

When deciding which meetings to attend key factors to consider are:

  • Who is hosting the meeting / briefing?
  • Is the subject matter related to strategic objectives – organizational or yours?
  • Is there a clear agenda?
  • Will outcomes be communicated?
  • How much time will be required to attend including travel time?
  • How many people will be in attendance?
  • Can you attend via video or phone?
Briefing  
Who is hosting?   Who is hosting and whether or not the subject matter tend to go hand in hand, however, sometimes who is hosting overrides all other criteria.  An egotistical boss may not be able to cope without your attendance.  So this should be a temporary problem as hopefully this person will move onto pastures new or you find another job.  It is sad that there are some people we have to pander to their insecurities and inadequacies.  Just ensure that you only tolerate this on a temporary basis.  Set a target of no more than 1 year.    If you are that egotistical, shallow, insecure boss, get some therapy or get some training or find another job.  
Is the subject matter related to strategic objectives?   Briefings should only be for announcements and if these occur on a regular basis then something is very wrong in how the organization is functioning.    If the briefing is related to strategic objectives, you probably should attend but do bear in mind the factors shown below.  
Is there a clear agenda?   Not all briefings will have an agenda especially if the announcement / information sharing is commercially sensitive or involves organizational structural changes.   
Will outcomes be communicated?   Often regular briefings are followed up with written confirmation.  So you probably can get away without attending including those announcing information relating to strategic objectives.  
How long including travel time?   Time in attendance as a proportion to travel time is considerable factor.  Distance travelling to attend meetings is becoming increasingly important in the decision-making process.  You could come across as naïve or ineffective for travelling distances to attend briefings unless specifically instructed.  Likewise ensure that members of teams that you manage are selective in their attendance at briefings.   
How many people will attend?   A large number of people in attendance means that it might not be noticed if you do not attend.  If you will find out what was announced through emails and your assistant that you might be able to get away with missing this briefing.  
Can you attend by video / phone conferencing?   If the briefing is short, you can attend by phone or with your camera off, you can get on with administrative tasks while listening in.
Decision Making  
Who is hosting?   If the host is someone you manage then give them some trust and let him or her get on with running the meeting.  They can feed back what was discussed and you can provide them with requests / instructions about how the meetings should be conducted with some absolute decisions that cannot be made or should be made.   If the host is your boss or someone of influence still consider whether or not you should attend.  Are you just trying to be in the same room and share air space?  If yes, then please do not be that shallow.  You could put at risk your reputation with this boss for not being bright enough to work it out for yourselves.  You have other tasks to perform get on with those.  Time is of the essence and those targets are not going to be achieved by wasting it.  
Is the subject matter related to strategic objectives?   If the meeting is related to strategic objects you still must consider who else will be in attendance.  Is there a direct link with your job description and targets? 
Is there a clear agenda?   Insist on only attending meetings that have agendas.  Encourage your direct reports to instill this practice within their teams.  There may be resistance but organizations that perform well operate with good governance, good communication, good record keeping and traceability of decision making.   If the host habitually does not provide agendas and you really do need to attend that some gentle persuasion.  If that does not work, then a conversation needs to be had higher up the responsibility chain.  You really should not have your time wasted like that.  
Will outcomes be communicated?   If meetings are backed up with minutes decision making might be easier to achieve and may well be worth-while your time.
How long including travel time?   Any meeting that takes longer than 90 minutes is going to be wasteful.  If the meeting has to take longer than 90 minutes and you have to attend, use your influence to get the host to put times against topics e.g. no more than 10 minutes per agenda item.  
How many people will attend?   If more than 7 people are in attendance decision making will be difficult.  In some instances, a framework is in place so a longer-term tactic will be to get the framework changed.  In the mean time encouraging the host to time limit decision times will be helpful.  
Can you attend by video / phone conferencing?   Most decisions can be made with participants contributing via video / phone conferencing unless the decision is about a physical object that needs to be demonstrated in the room.    Digital and similar technologies avoid gossip and chit chat time at the start and end of meetings.  Only one person can talk at any one time so avoids splinter conversations that can often happen when all participants are in the same room.  
Partnership Development / Bonding  
Who is hosting?   Partnership development is often critical for a leader to be successful.  You still need to be selective.  Have you already made connection with this organization / body / department?   This is a challenge for new starters.  Be clear that you are attending just to familiarize yourself.  If the new starter reports within your responsibilities, ensure that they do not get too attached to some regularly scheduled meetings.   Try to host / encourage bonding sessions amongst your teams.  Provide cake, it might not be healthy but your team will appreciate the gesture.  Let them have a regular down time once a week for an hour.  It will prove to be productive.  You do not have to attend for long.  
Is the subject matter related to strategic objectives?   If yes, then attend, if no, then absolutely not.  Do not attend as a just in case you make a new connection.  Given your responsibilities you really do not have the time to waste taking that risk..
Is there a clear agenda?   As above
Will outcomes be communicated?   This is not scientific because a lot depends on whether or not you are clear about which of your strategic objectives will be met by attending this meeting.  Contrarily do you want to partner with organizations that are not that efficient and effective … unless it’s a potential customer.   
How long including travel time?   Time invested will dependent on the balance between on the length of the meeting and the strategic significance.
How many people will attend?   This may not be an issue if partnership development is key.  The more the better really.
Can you attend by video / phone conferencing?   Partnership development is more difficult to achieve using digital technologies although businesses are increasingly able to develop contacts through social selling so it might be worth a go.  Do be selective again about how well organized the host is.  
Problem Solving  
Who is hosting?   If the host is someone you manage then give them some trust and let him or her get on with running the meeting.  They can feed back what was discussed and you can provide them with requests / instructions about how the meetings should be conducted with some absolute decisions that cannot be made or should be made.   If the host is your boss or someone of higher up in your organization, consider whether you should attend is your attendance based on your ability to really make a positive contribution or you looking to improve your profile within the organization.  People will work that out if that is the case.  
Is the subject matter related to strategic objectives?   If yes, then attend, if no then stay away.
Is there a clear agenda?   As above
Will outcomes be communicated?   As above
How long including travel time?   Your attendance will need to be linked to the strategic significant and the level of the problem that needs to be solved.  Do not attend if you wish to self-promote.  You will get in the way and annoy other participants.  
How many people will attend?   Decision making is difficult with more than 7 people.  Avoid if the number is high, unless there is the strategic significance.  
Can you attend by video / phone conferencing?   Only attend if you can make a positive contribution to solve the problem.  Otherwise you are wasting your time and that of others.
Innovation  
Who is hosting?   Does the host have the ability / authority to make the innovation move forward.  If this meeting is just to produce a wish list then stay away.  
Is the subject matter related to strategic objectives?   Even is this meets strategic objectives consider if you can join in the discussion when ideas have been shaped and bad ideas have been dismissed.
Is there a clear agenda?   If yes, consider going based on the above two points.  If no, do not bother.  You will be wasting your time. 
Will outcomes be communicated later?   If yes consider the top two points.  If no, as above.
How long including travel time?   As the above comments
How many people will attend?   If more than 7 are in attendance it is unlikely that anything will be decided and if it is of significant value decisions will be communicated at a later date.
Can you attend by video / phone conferencing?   Only attend if there is a strategic significance, you can genuinely contribute, the host has the authority to drive forward ideas.

Adopt these principles and motivate your teams to be more selective about meetings they attend.

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