Graham’s WFH Tip #11 – Meeting Management – Recognise your emotional responses

There seems to have been a lot of chatter about meetings recently.

Some of the discussion being prompted by a set of tweets, followed by statements, from those involved in Shopify. They are seeking to radically decrease the meeting burden on people:

I have a lot of sympathy for the idea that meetings are bugs, most of them are not desirable and add little value. Like bugs meetings have consequences.

If you read the linked article you’ll realise that the tweet isn’t quite as radical as it may seem on first reading, but to be fair, the proposal is quite radical including meeting free days, large meetings limited to certain days, and an automated deletion of all recurring meetings with more than three attendees. This latter activity being a one-off thing to clear out people’s diaries.

Previously Microsoft published some data on the change in meetings with the switch to home working during the COVID pandemic:

Meetings are still consuming a lion’s share of our time. Since February 2020, the average Teams user saw a 252% increase in their weekly meeting time and the number of weekly meetings has increased 153%.

Great Expectations: Making Hybrid Work Work (microsoft.com)

What? That’s a huge increase.

Why such a massive increase just because people are working from a different location?

There are, of course, many reasons for this swing, some of them practical, many of them emotional. It’s those emotional responses that I want to think about for a little while in the hope that we can start to see them for what they are.

Now that you are working from home you have huge flexibility to join meetings of all sorts of shapes, sizes, priorities, and subjects. The emotional cues have changed though, your viewpoint on the plethora of meetings is limited to what you can see, and something is nagging in your head reminding you that you can’t see everything anymore. You can’t get a general feel of who is meeting who in the way that you could when everyone was in the same office. Your emotional response to meeting invites has changes. You treat every invite as equally important when you know that it can’t be true. How do you respond differently to the noisy person, or the person who calls something “URGENT:” and “CRITICAL:” or the one I’m seeing increasingly “MANDATORY:”

There’s an additional stickiness to regular meetings. I’ve seen this cycle happen hundreds of times – a regular gathering of a small group of people takes place. You add someone into the meeting to talk through a particular subject and they remain on the invite list. Others get added for other subjects. Before you know it there are meeting invitations flowing backwards and forwards, upwards and downwards. The small, focussed, meeting now has an invite list of 60 people and regularly has 40 attendees. The small 5 person catch-up has grown from 30 mins three times a week, to every day at 6pm, for an hour – most contributions are still provided by the original 5 people. The value of the meeting hasn’t changed but its costs have spiralled.

As an invitee to one of these meetings, how do you decide whether you should attend? Do you ask for an agenda and only attend when the subject is something that is your responsibility? (Agenda? What’s one of those? :-)) Do you trust the person who organises the meeting to stick to the agenda? What do you do if there is no agenda, which is increasingly common? What happens if someone asks a question about your area and you’re not there? How will you know if they discuss something that impacts your area, and you don’t pick it up in the minutes? Can you ever trust minutes anyway? But the minutes are now a video, and who has time to watch the videos. What if you miss something important? How much of this is an emotional response?

You tell yourself that you’ll join the meeting, even if you don’t get any value from it, because you’ll use the time to catch-up on some emails. You know this is practical folly, you know that this type of multi-tasking places a huge burden on your productivity. It’s not practical considerations that are driving you, this is an emotional response. You’d rather take the significant hit on your productivity than face the potential of missing out.

Working from home has taken away many of the people interactions that you used to value. Joining a call, any call, includes a certain amount of social time. Having spent an hour listening to whale music and trying to read a 50 page report, you are ready to talk to someone, anyone. You know that the social side of this meeting is going to be minimal, but it’s better than nothing. You want to be sure that you haven’t been forgotten. The last thing you need, in the current climate, is for people to forget who you are.

Let me give you some simple advice here – by giving in to these worries that are going around your head, you are compromising your ability to do excellent work. Most of those meetings that you attend do not add value to you and you should remove them from your calendar. You may miss something important, but you are paying a massive price to mitigate that fear. Remember, you survived, just fine, with fewer meetings before you started working from home.

Here’s my tip to you (sorry it’s a bit long): Decide to manage the load that meetings place on you. Recognise the emotional responses to meeting invites and resist the temptation to join everything and anything. Be particularly cautious of regular meetings, do an audit and cull the low value ones. If you aren’t speaking at most of those meetings it doesn’t need you to be there.

Header Image: This was the scene on my regular morning walk today – cold, crisp, misty, and beautiful. There was fun moment though, there’s a big iron gate at the end of this path which was frozen shut. Thankfully, a short detour and I managed to find a gap in the fence.

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