The conference call productivity drain…

The following script is based on a real conference call. The names and times have been changed to protect the not-so-innocent but, other than that, it’s pretty accurate:

9:45 (15 minutes before the meeting): Reminder pops up, “snooze” it until 5 minutes before.

9:55: I’ll just finish writing this email… I wonder, was there any preparation required for this meeting? I haven’t done any but no-one else will have either…

9:59: Ah yes, that meeting – how long?! An  hour and a half! Dial the conference service. What was the meeting passcode again? Got it, I’m in. Ah, hold music.

10:00 (advertised meeting start time): “The chairperson has not arrived. Please wait…” more hold music.

Just after 10:00: Call is opened, just two people so far. Social chat about what’s going on.

10:01: Someone else joins the call. Say hello, bring them into the chat. More banter.

10:02: Two more attendees join. Roll call. Explain that we’re waiting for a few more.

10:03: More attendees. Almost quorate now. Roll call, just waiting for Michael and Stuart. Michael did say he would join but, in the interests of time, start the meeting.

10:05: Michael joins the call. Apologies for lateness. Quick roll call and bring up to speed on introduction. Start meeting properly.

10:07: Stuart joins the call. He’s in the same building as the meeting organiser and wants to join in person. He’s told the room number and drops off the call.

(call continues for another hour or so…)

This is “normal”?! Several middle-managers, not exactly inexpensive resources, waste time waiting for others to get themselves organised. A few minutes, multiplied by several attendees soon becomes an hour of lost productivity for the company.  I’ve even seen this on calls with hundreds of people (literally) waiting.

I admit, sometimes meetings over-run for good reasons. Only last week I had to delay a meeting and missed another two calls completely because an important issue arose which needed immediate resolution (a personnel issue – and people trump process in my mental rule-book) so I allowed a meeting to over-run. I tried to keep others informed though, rather than leaving them hanging on a conference call waiting for me to arrive.

But, in our organisation, people accept the sort of practice I’ve laid out above as normal (or at least, they tolerate it) and I’ve coined a term to describe the company timezone (which is 3 minutes after the real time).

The thing is, we’re not alone. That’s why I feel comfortable talking about this issue on a public forum – it happens in organisations all over the country – indeed, all over the world, all of the time.

Yesterday, Matt Ballantine published a blog post entitled “clock watching”, in which he suggests it’s not collaboration tools we need, it’s somebody asking “why are we meeting?”. Quoting from Matt’s post:

“Imagine if the workflow for setting up a meeting, rather than being ‘find a slot available for the attendees, book the meeting’, was more like:

– state the objectives and outcomes required for the meeting
– understand who might be active participants
– describe who should be informed, yet not necessarily attend
– validate that this will require a meeting to achieve the necessary outcomes
– plan out the activities for the session
– validate again that a meeting is the best route for the outcomes to be achieved
– work out the correct time for the meeting
– find an appropriate time slot for the meeting
– send out participant briefing notes to everyone concerned”

For a while now, I’ve been asking “Do you need me on this call? I’m not sure what value I’ll be adding”. In future I’ll be more strict. And I’ll be starting the meetings that I control right on time, rather than when we have most people on the call. If people realise that they miss things by turning up late, maybe they will be more punctual? Or maybe I just need to chill out?