Dear Effective Communicator,
I recently undertook an informal audit of my Outlook calendar. My suspicions were confirmed. I’m meeting more often than I was before the pandemic, but I’m not feeling anymore productive. How can I reclaim control over my calendar?
In Meeting Mayhem
was zoning out in a Zoom meeting the other day when I happened to look out the window and see a half-dozen goldfinches feasting on the black-eyed Susans I’d left standing in the garden. I couldn’t look away. Before I knew it the meeting was wrapping up. I’d spent a full fifteen minutes distracted by their bright bellies and busy beaks.
We know about birds, even though most of us only really ever see them a couple of times a year. Meetings, on the other hand, occupy entire days and weeks. What kind of resources are we putting into studying and understanding them?
More than I thought.
To find out, I reached out to Dr. Joe Allen, an Industrial and Organizational Psychologist and Professor in the Department of Family and Preventive Medicine. Allen is also director of the Center for Meeting Effectiveness—yes there is such a thing! And we are lucky to have one, the ONLY one. For many professionals and managers in organizations, meetings occupy up to 75% of our work lives, so understanding what they do, how they work, and how we can make them better is critical.
Allen suggests three things you can implement now to improve your meeting effectiveness (virtual and face-to-face) and reclaim control of your Outlook calendar. I’ll briefly introduce you to these data-driven recommendations. Then, over the coming weeks and months, Allen will publish a series of articles that really drill down into these workplace rituals.
1. Start your meetings with small talk.
This is especially important in a virtual environment, Allen says. Chit-chat has a humanizing function that sets us up to be more forgiving of each other and the hundred oddities of our pandemic realities—like dogs and toddlers showing up on screen, long hours caring for ICU patients, or helping our children through the school day.
2. Be good stewards of each other’s time.
The average workweek has increased by about an hour since the pandemic began. And we are having two to three more meetings per week. Our commutes may be shorter, but we are filling that time by logging on early and logging off late. Allen and most organizational psychologists call this phenomenon work-life spillover, or the way work creeps into the non-working parts of our lives. An extra work meeting may take away from family, hobbies, or leisure activity that we need for wellbeing and long-term productivity. Ask yourself if you really need to meet. If not, cancel the meeting. Allen says that adding that simple question to your meeting scheduling routine has been shown to reduce meeting load (i.e. number and time in meetings) by as much as 15% or up to 3 meetings per week.
3. Give yourself (and your participants) recovery time.
Allen’s recent research suggests that people need about five minutes to recover from a good meeting. The recovery time for a bad meeting is an astonishing 17 minutes. Most of our meetings fall somewhere in between. Allen suggests changing our 60 minute meetings to 50 minutes, and our 30 minute meetings to 25 minutes. Doing so allows participants time to recover and prepare before for their next task (in many cases, the next meeting). There is longstanding precedence for the approach: from junior high through college, classes end before the hour, giving students time to physically and mentally transition to the next class. The principle still applies, and originates in meeting science, neuroscience, and cognitive psychology.
Back to my goldfinches: Those hungry birds were a welcome distraction during a lackluster meeting. While the natural world may always be more interesting than a meeting, incorporating Allen’s advice into your next meeting will in the very least make it shorter, more pleasant, and more productive. And maybe even give you more time to look out the window this winter.
You got this,
The Effective Communicator
The Effective Communicator is Isaac Holyoak. Isaac is a contributing editor for Accelerate and leads communication for University of Utah Health Medical Group. He received a Master's in rhetoric from the Brian Lamb School of Communication at Purdue University and taught speech, argumentation, and debate to undergraduates in Indiana and Texas in his pre-health care life.