Scheduling Ourselves to Death

"Time is more valuable than money. You can always make more money. You can never make more time." -- Meeting Maker Web Site

by Karen Coyle

It can be difficult to schedule meetings in an office or institution. If you need to get three or five or eight people together in the same place and time you probably spend a great deal of time on the phone or communicating with them all via email to try to find a mutually convenient time. And once you have everyone agreed on a time you have to find a place where they can meet. And of course some significant part of the time you end up meeting in someone's cramped office because there isn't a meeting room available at the time of your meeting. It may take more time to schedule the meeting than the time that will be spent in the meeting itself.

This is such a common problem that there are many different brands of calendaring software available to solve it. Calendaring software is marvelous stuff; everyone in your office or department or institution is registered on the software. Everyone can see their own calendar on their computer, and you can see other people's calendars. But even better, the software allows you to call meetings with just a few keystrokes. You choose a meeting time on your own calendar, then add in the names of the people you would like to have attend the meeting. With a click you find out if they are available at that time. For hard-to-schedule meetings, you can ask the software to find a time in the future when all of your attendees have an open time on their schedules. Then you can find a schedule a meeting room for the same time slot.

Meetings that have been scheduled show up on your personal calendar and you can see at a glance where you will be when. Here's a typical week from my calendar:

Fig. 1

This happens to be from a software package called Corporate Time, which is what my office uses, but there are many other brands to choose from. In this software the meetings show up as yellow if you haven't replied to them, green if you have, or red if you have declined to attend the meeting.

Here's a rather busy week from my work life:

Fig. 2

The software not only allows you to schedule meetings, it lets you schedule repeating meetings in a wide variety of patterns. You can schedule a meeting for every month on the same day, every week, every third Thursday... the possibilities are endless. Here's a week from my calendar three months in the future:

Fig. 3

I'm scheduled for meetings for up to a year from now. I'll probably be scheduled for meetings after retirement. Heck, I'll probably be scheduled for meetings after death.

OK, clearly there's a problem. Before we got this software, I went to three or four meetings a week. Now I spent from 25% to 60% of each week in meetings. When I complain about this to my colleagues, they reply that I should just put time slots on my schedule for getting work done. This makes sense to them. I think there's something very, very wrong.

What is wrong with this software is not only that it makes it incredibly easy to set up meetings. That's bad enough. No, what is wrong with it is that it has built into it some assumptions and some limitations, and these do not reflect reality.

The main assumption is that if you are not in a meeting, you are available for a meeting. That is, the day is broken up in two "states": 1) in a meeting 2) not in a meeting. So this software doesn't know about things like, well, work. Any time that you are not in a meeting you are simply not in a meeting. It's binary; off or on; true or false. Essentially, your time at work is measured only by meetings. There are no lunch hours, unless you take yours as a meeting. There are no comfort breaks. There's no time to do the work that the meetings are supposedly about.

You can tell that there is something wrong with the software because people invent ways to thwart it. When they need to get work done, they create a "meeting" that reserves the time they need for their work. So in order to avoid getting scheduled for a meeting, you pretend to be in a meeting called something like "Getting work done -- do not disturb!" If you want to leave early on Friday you create a meeting from 3:00 p.m. to 5:00 p.m. that is called "Leaving early." If you want to be undisturbed during your lunch hour each day you can create a repeating, one-hour, daily meeting called "lunch." In the limited mind set of a computer program, all activities are reduced to meetings; and in the damnably adaptable way of humans, we learn to interact with this software using the "meetings" language that it is all it knows.

Because, in the end, the software has one goal, and only one goal, and that is to fill in all of the available daily slots, even if some of them read: Not in a meeting.

Fig. 4

So, for the computer scientists out there, I present a challenge: an intelligent answer to scheduling meetings. Here are some things it could do:

- It would be possible for each user to limit the percentage of their time that is taken up by meetings. Bosses should like this, since we all know that meetings eat into productivity.

- The meeting software should notify users with a message that states who is creating the meeting and what it is about. Anyone notified should be able to ask questions about the meeting, request documentation, etc. before deciding if they will attend or not.

- Speaking of documentation, wouldn't it be nice if the meeting software helped you take minutes and organize the meeting's documents?

- There should be more than one category of meeting invitation. I'm sure that a lot of the people whose name is added to a meeting are there on an "FYI" basis. It would be nice to know whether you're just more fodder for the meeting or if it can't take place without you.

I'm sure that there's more, much more, that would be needed to constrain the flood of meetings that this software lets loose. User training is also necessary. It's interesting to me that people add "productivity software" to their offices without thinking about what kind of change in their behavior they are seeking through this means. I can say for a fact that when we added meeting software to our environment no one was thinking: "Hey, this will help us fill up all of our time with meetings!" And few managers would answer "yes" to the question: "Would you like your employees to spend more time in meetings?"

So it really is up to us, the humans, the superior beings, to make sure that our time is not turned into machine time; that our days do not become defined by the meeting syndrome.

©Karen Coyle, 2003
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