This was first published by the Huffington Post on 21st February 2014.
It was meant as a light hearted look at the serious topic of time wasted in meetings and some things you could do about it.
Not so smart
It’s not as if we didn’t notice: The ‘smart’ phone vibrated on the table as each message arrived. The sequence was always the same – a furtive glance at the message followed by some exaggerated nodding to pretend he was listening to the speaker before he then tapped out an email on the laptop in front of him. Finally, just as we thought the topic was done, he interjected with some point vaguely related to the topic that left everyone slightly bemused. And this was the team leader. This went on all day. Oh how tedious!
So many meetings are inefficient, ineffective and largely pointless due to either a complete disregard or a misunderstanding of what constitutes value or a misplaced sense of capability in being able to do two things at once.
It seems there are three problems at play in the scenario described. The first is:
a) Many people in business do not understand the price of what they are doing in terms of the sales that will need to be made to pay for their time
b) There is a mistaken understanding of how effective it is possible to be when multi-tasking
c) Technology is both an enabler and a severe constraint on effectiveness. We need to work out how to use it to enable high performance and avoid the distractions it offers
Meeting the cost
Let’s do some maths. Let’s suppose the ten attendees at the meeting described above were senior managers in a large supermarket chain. A one-day team meeting with 10 people in attendance is 80 hours of wasted time. If we assume they earn £75k including benefits and employee contributions and allow for holidays then the cost of the meeting in terms of their time is roughly £3200. This excludes room costs, travel etc.
Now let’s suppose the average basket of shopping is £30 (which it is for some of the leading supermarket brands) and the profit on this is 4% after everything has been accounted for (again, typical for the big supermarket chains). Then almost 2700 customers have to go shopping to make enough profit to pay for the meeting. Multiply this up by the number of pointless meetings held a year and it’s a vast number of shopping trips that need to be made to pay for very little value. This is aside from the opportunity cost. Inattentive behaviour in face-to-face meetings is very expensive. Face to face meetings do have substantial value.
Yes, video-conferencing, telephone conferences and the like have an important role to play in communication, but face-to-face meetings remain the most powerful mechanism for communication in business. A face-to-face discussion reveals so much more by way of verbal and non-verbal communication. It is far more effective in developing trust between team members. The advantages come from both the formal time spent in meetings and the ad hoc conversations that take place outside of the meeting. We should never lose sight of the fact that we are social creatures and need social interaction and contact with others.
Don’t forget, people can behave just as badly in virtual meetings as they do in face to face meetings – it’s just cheaper!
Next time you are faced with poor behaviour in a meeting, get the attendees to do the maths and calculate the cost of the meeting in terms of the profit from sales. Show them the price of their arrogance.
The nonsense of multi-tasking
I’ve had enough of people pretending to listen whilst interacting with their phones, so these days I don’t bother trying to have the conversation, I simply stop talking. If you ever want a demonstration of how people can’t concentrate on two things at once try it. Invariably they fail to notice for a minute or so before realising that the conversation has stopped. The way I see it is there is no point in talking if they are not listening, and if what I have to say is worth hearing then I need their attention.
In an excellent white paper on ‘The Future of Meetings’, authors McEuen and Duffy use the term ‘switch tasking’ to describe the way in which the brain does not parallel process both doing something on the phone and talking to someone else but instead switches between one task and the other. Given there is a constraint to how much information we can process at any one time, the outcome is neither task is done well.
It’s one of the very sensible reasons why mobile phone use is banned in cars. The evidence is overwhelming – when using mobile phones, our ability to process what’s going on around us is significantly impaired. This is the same as when we are unsure where we are going when driving in a strange town – we intuitively slow down, because we can’t read the street names, navigate the roads and drive safely at the speed we can drive a familiar route.
Don’t be afraid to stop talking when people are busy on their devices during a meeting. Have the confidence to know that despite what they may claim, they cannot process both the what you are saying and what’s on their screen effectively.
Technology as an enabler
I like to use an iPad to take notes. The notes are stored in the cloud and accessible for me easily after the meeting from whichever computer I am working from. This I find really useful. However, for some, this can be an excuse to covertly check emails whilst taking notes – I know – I’ve seen them do it (and done it myself). The technology also allows us to access quickly and easily our schedules, stored information and the like – all of which can be incredibly useful. So simply asking people to turn off their devices seems to be a case of throwing the baby out with the bath water.
Where I have seen it managed very well is by strong leadership from the team manager. Their example of leaving their phone in the bag and very obviously just taking notes onto their iPad set a strong example for others. They lived what they expected others to do. Such common sense is not common practice.
When the team manager is easily distracted by their devices then I’m afraid it’s down to your own self discipline. In time, greater use of devices like smart watches that meet the craving for being connected by displaying incoming alerts but without the distraction of a keyboard to ‘dash a reply of there and then’ will help. But perhaps there are some more radical things we can do.
Let’s make a virtue out of the problem
Stand up! Stand up for your meetings. It’s hard to use laptops, when standing. iPads or their equivalent are not much easier. Smart phones are the easiest of all but their use when standing is much more conspicuous than when seated behind a table. There is research evidence to suggest a significant drop in performance when attempting to use touch screen devices when standing when compared to being seated. However, they are still available to attendees should the need arise.
The benefits of standing go way beyond maintaining focus on the discussion at hand. According to some research done in the late 90’s stand-up meetings produce decisions just as good as sit-down meetings but in far less time. In 2012, Dunstan, Howard, Healy and Owen published an article called “Too much sitting – A health hazard”. It seems the amount of time we spend on our backsides is having a serious impact on our health. We need to be moving around more. In the Compendium of Physical Activities in which the effort required to complete everyday activities are compared against doing nothing, sitting in a meeting expends not much more energy than lying horizontal. Standing up increases the activity score, not by much, but every little helps.
Of course not everyone can stand and we should be sensitive to the needs of these individuals. For most of us, it’s not a problem. So give your backside a rest and your legs a chance and stand up for your next meeting. Watch how much more energy there is in the room and how much shorter the meeting is.
Stand up for better meetings. Stand up to get better value from your meetings. Stand up for better health. It’s a win-win all round.
Dominic Irvine © February 2014. All rights asserted.