Meetings

Five Benefits of the Work From Home Model

The coronavirus pandemic is now shining a light on the work from home concept. Organizations large and small are sending their people home, either as a preventative measure, or while they disinfect their buildings. Working from home, once seen as a concession or as a luxury, is now coming to the fore as a leap forward. Why? For the very same reason it has been largely ignored over the past decade: trust.

For much of the past decade, the work from home model has relied on a laptop computer and and email connection. This meant that knowledge workers could do much of their work from their own kitchen table or home office, checking in on occasion, but working largely in isolation. This has not been its most greatly appealing feature. And one of the reasons for this is trust. Managers will ask, how can I trust that my employees are actually working and not watching TV? But this attitude is perfectly human, but perfectly wrong.

It’s a human thing to do because people still bank a great deal on face-time. It is assumed that if people are at work, they are actually working. Although most of us know that is not entirely true. Entire TV series, like The Office, reflect the realities of office life. A great deal of time is spent not working, sometimes out of boredom, sometimes du to the need to socialize, and sometimes due to the hard fact that the human brain and body cannot work at full production for hours on end. We zone in and out based on energy levels, sleep, hunger and the natural rhythms of the human body.

Eve the most diligent and dedicated professional, pounding out material hour after hour on the keyboard will end up with substandard work sooner or later if they don’t take a break.

Smoke breaks, coffee runs, even meetings and training days are great opportunities for people to take a vacation from work while at work, and the addictive call of social media is always just a flick away, whether hidden temporarily on a browser tab, or on an employee’s phone. No one can truly prove they have put in 8 full hours of work in an 8 hour day. It just isn’t possible.

But still, the idea of someone working from home in their jammies, just doesn’t seem like real work. So  here are five reasons why managers should relax and let at least some of their people work from home as part of ongoing management and future proofing your company.

  1. Not trusting your employees is not healthy. Leaders and managers take all types of courses and consume all kinds of books dealing with leadership and team management. To then turn around and dismiss the work from home model as being untrustworthy because people might not actually be working reveals a mistrust that will permeate an entire team. If our manager doesn’t trust people to work from home responsibly, what else might this manager have problems with? Leadership and trust go hand in hand. People need to trust their leaders and leaders need to trust their people. When this doesn’t happen, and things revert to command-and-control, the good people leave. The old expression has never been more true. People don’t quit their jobs. They quit their managers. In this age of increased career mobility, where having three or more employers on your résumé per decade is no longer a bad thing – but actually a good one – it is no longer a issue or daring an employee to quit. It’s about daring them to stay.
  1. Trusting your employees is very heathy. Whether it’s a work from home thing or something else, like delegating work, or giving people free reign to run their projects their way, a clear demonstration of trust is a powerful way to build loyalty and productivity. Most people take pride in their work. They look to their managers for opportunities to grow and develop. They want to show what they can do. Most people, when given the chance to fly free, will return to the corporate perch because that’s where the freedom comes from. Demonstrating trust in an employee is like the adrenaline for a project. Establishing a culture of trust again reverberates through the entire organization. It’s not just for the work from home people.
  2. So what if a work-from-home employee does watch some TV? Or goes and takes the dog for a midday walk? Or stops by the store to go pick something up? That’s part of life, and it’s the same type of break that employees do at their workplace already. Knowledge workers are paid for the application of their knowledge to tasks and projects. They research, they write, they plan, and they do. And unless the project at hand is a crisis event that must be resolved in an hour, a responsibly measured break within the workday actually supports high productivity by focusing it into the hours when a person’s mind and body are best attuned to it. When it comes to knowledge worker, metrics of work is not the hours spent sitting at a desk, the way sweatshop workers are assessed to this day. The metrics must revolve around quality, accuracy, promptness and relevance and these are better handled on a responsibly managed flexible schedule.
  3. Access. So, what about the meetings? The spontaneous interactions in the hallway? The office chats and feedback? These things are fundamental to team management and office life. But now they are just as available, even remotely, through applications like Slack, Zoom, Skype Microsoft Teams and Cisco Webex. Video conferencing is no longer just for formally scheduled boardroom meetings. They are available whenever and however – the perfect visual version of the intercom.
  4. Finally, the people who are able to work from home effectively are definitely the ones you want to keep on your team. They are motivated. They know how to get things done. They know how to manage their time and their technology. And in many cases, thanks to the fact there is no commute, they are able to deliver more than a day’s worth of work per day even with a lunchtime walk with the dog included. When this is rewarded with trust, you stand to retain the best of your disciplined and motivated employees simply by letting them work where and how it fits their life better.

Of course, not all employees are suite for work from home. Many like to interact with their colleagues and may find work from home to be too isolated and quiet. OK, so those people are best staying at the office. During crisis times such as the current pandemic, they will need some training on how to do it effectively.

Many managers fear that one bad apple who will sleep through the day and abuse the trust and privilege that work from home offers. Yes, those people exist, but the reality is they exist in the office as well. But they know how to hide it. It becomes a strategic management choice as to whether to forfeit the entire remote work operation and its benefits on account of such individuals.

Finally, there is the comfort level among managers and team leaders. Many people grew up professionally during a time when remote work did not exist as a viable option. So it does not seem right, or feasible that people can get work done from home. It is difficult to shake off those preconceptions. Yet when one looks at what knowledge workers actually do, their time is often spent between keyboard work, meetings and email, all of which can now be done – including the communications part from anywhere. Private, focused time is easier to get when you are in the privacy of your own home, yet direct, fluid conversation is also available in video and chat form whenever its needed.

It’s not about replicating the office experience – it’s about redefining what work is. What productivity is. Frankly professional work is about quality and output, not time served. Even if you bill hourly, your capacity for maximizing productivity and profitability comes from a balanced approach to work and life. Even those professionals who are able to bill out at hundreds of dollars an hour know that if the quality isn’t there, sooner or later the customer is going to question that bill.

Here are a couple more things to think about. According to a recent survey conducted by CareerBuilder nearly 80 percent of American workers say they’re living paycheck to paycheck. Many people in the workforce have little backing them up. Not all of these workers are knowledge workers, of course. Many belong to the service industry or manufacturing, or places where interaction with customers in a central place is essential. But for those we call knowledge workers, who can do their work equally well from anywhere, the opportunity to work from home even some of the time provides an economic benefit in the best of times, and may be a life saver on days where absence would be the only alternative. Snow days or teachers strikes for parents, or days when you are sick, even with normal colds or flu.

But in addition, it must be noted that people of all ages are becoming aware that work, as essential as it might be to life, is a different beast than it was 20 or more years ago. Professionals are growing used to life online – many have grown up with it, others have grown used to it. But the ability for work to be done anywhere at any time is far more attainable than at any other time in history, and it’s an attractive part of the entire employment decision.

As such, the decision to not only encourage working from home, but to develop it as a skill can be seen as a highly proactive and timely investment in the future of any organization. An idea whose time has truly come.

This is the transcript of the CoolTimeLife podcast entitled Five Benefits of the Work From Home Model. If you would like to listen to it, you can check it out at our podcast site here. or search for it on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher, etc. If you would like to review other podcasts in this series, visit my podcast page at stevenprentice.com/podcast.html

The Calendar Crisis

What is a crisis to you? Usually when people think of the term crisis, they think of a bad event – a point where something is going to break. People can have an emotional crisis or a financial one. A city or company can have a leadership crisis. A country can have a civil crisis like a revolution or an environmental or industrial one.

In all cases, they represent points of urgency in which the boundaries that help keep normalcy normal are becoming stretched to the breaking point.

In day-to-day life, we can also face workload scheduling crises. These may not sound as significant or tragic, and of course they usually are not. But they still represent a breaking point and an urgent need of repair.

In its simplest form, a scheduling crisis takes its meaning from the world of project management. We are looking at a new, unexpected task that comes out of nowhere, must be taken care of right now, and as such imposes itself upon your already crowded calendar, forcing you to put other tasks aside until you take care of it.

This type of crisis might appear as one of the following:

  • a meeting that suddenly gets called
  • a new request from your boss or a customer
  • someone calls in sick and cannot do their part of a project that needs to be done today

None of these things sound terribly bad. This is not an issue of workplace violence or a cyberattack, but they are related. Because when an unexpected thing hits your calendar, a few things happen.

  • First, yes, you have to react. And reaction triggers a mild fight-or-flight response that tends to move people towards doing things without clearly thinking them through, just to get them out of the way
  • Second the new, urgent task forces other work to be pushed to the side, yet that work still has to get done, which causes a ripple effect across the rest of your calendar and generally spills out into personal time
  • Third, it sets a precedent of normality – an ergonomic inflation that forces you to accept that this is how things are. Just more and mor stuff to deal with, without pushback or delineations in place. This only leads to an inadvertent complacency and a willing to continue to do the same – to accept workload crises without question, and just deal with them.

That’s not ideal. It’s the reason why we accept so many emails and so many tasks. We accept the unexpected because, as humans we are hard-wired to react, and proactive planning does not come naturally to us.

But every time one of these unplanned events comes at you, it upsets everything, not just your work, but your diet, and even your sleep cycle. It’s a disruption that comes at great cost.

Let’s Take Stock

One of the things project managers do a lot of is quantify. Count. They count everything. Every task that goes into a project. How much time and how many resources they will need and for how long. It’s part of project planning. So, let’s quantify the calendar-related crises that have happened to you.

How often does a crisis happen to you? How often does an unplanned activity force its way in to your nice, organized day? Once per day? Once every couple of days? Once per week? And how, long, on average, does it take for you to handle this crisis? Remember a crisis could be anything from a network crash to an email requiring you to drop everything and do something.

Now, Let’s Plan For Them

If, for example, you recognize that every day, an unplanned event – a calendar crisis happens – something that forces you to shove everything else aside to handle it – then you what you actually have there is an expectable activity. If you can expect an unplanned activity to happen every day, then yes, you can expect it. And that gives you proactive, conscious power. Instead of dreading it, hoping against hope that it won’t happen, you can plan for it. You can even enter it on your calendar as a recurring activity: 12:00-1:00 every day: crisis of the day.

Now let’s be clear, of course no-one expects the crisis to happen exactly at 12:00 each day, but the point is, you set the time aside for it now, you budget time for it, and when the crisis actually happens, you can drag that block up or down the calendar face to where it’s needed. By creating this appointment as a real appointment, even before it happens, this helps defend your calendar from becoming overloaded, and hitting that critical path where work spills over into your evenings and weekends.

Think about how restaurants work. They can expect a lunchtime rush, so a smart restaurant manager is going to make sure there are enough staff on hand to handle the peak volume. Similarly, the kitchen staff will have enough food ingredients to satisfy the customers’ requests, and they will have pre-cooked a great deal of the foods – pastas and potatoes etc. anticipation. This is called being prepared. Even when no-one can guarantee how many people will enter the restaurant that day.

When you think of it, it’s also how private parking spaces work. Imagine who much more effective it is when you know you have your own parking space, at work, or maybe in your condo building, or better yet, at the mall. The space is put aside and everyone else must steer around it.

By planning for your crisis of the day, you reserve time in your calendar for it. You create a parking space for it. A tangible block of time. A block of time that says – to you and everyone else, “one hour of today is reserved for the unplanned event that know is coming.” This gives you enormous leverage to defer or negotiate the other activities of the day – meetings, travel, research and so on. If you do not reserve the time for this unplanned event, that time will automatically fill with other stuff, and there will be no space for the unplanned event to fall into. By blocking that time on your calendar now, you are reserving an hour of your day, which can be applied to whenever it is needed, with other tasks moving around it like a game of Tetris, even to be negotiated and deferred to tomorrow. Or later. Or never.

Having this pre-planned space means, when the crisis occurs, you will also have the mental acuity to handle it efficiently. Thinks always unfold better when you come at them with a cool, unflustered, fully fueled mind. There is an expression that says, a stranger is a friend you haven’t met yet. Well, a calendar crisis is simple an appointment you haven’t met yet. An appointment that does not yet have a name, but for which time and space has been reserved for it to pull into, as part of the expected – NOT unexpected – part of each day.

The Postmortem

The other thing about unexpected events, though, is why they are there at all. If you have to put aside something in order to handle an unexpected other thing, why does this unexpected other thing exist? What brought us to the point of having to address something unexpected.

Despite what I have described above about putting aside time for the crisis of the day, there will still be times when yes, despite the best of intentions, something comes along when you have to just drop everything and take care of it. It happens. But as the Dos Equis most interesting man in the world might say, “I don’t always say yes to unplanned requests, but when I do, I always ask for a postmortem.”

A postmortem. An after-action review. In project management, this is known as the closure phase. In short, I will say, yes, I will help you with this emergency, but once it’s over, we must discuss it. Why did it happen? How did we let it happen? What can we do to ensure it doesn’t happen again?

We can learn from our mistakes. If we forgot to proof-read a document before it went to the printer to be bound in a book, why was that? What can we do to make sure we don’t forget the proof-reading task next time? If my boss drops a report on my desk that he or she forgot to give me last week and now it’s last minute, what can I do in the future to head these types of snafu’s off at the pass. Maybe a Monday morning huddle with the boss to discuss what’s going on this week? This, by the way – this act of proactive management with the boss should never be perceived as a critique. It’s called managing up and is a crucial skill, one I will be giving time to in another episode.

Firefighters, athletes, performers – all kinds of people take the time to review their work after the fact. It’s the best way to ensure continuous improvement and to stop these types of mistakes from happening again.

Crises happen. It’s part of life. But unfortunately, we humans have been designed to be more willing to react than to pro-act. Effective management of crises is a pro-action. Schedule time for them if they are a regular part of your day and insist on follow-up and improvement if they are rare or infrequent.

As I mention many times, time management is made up of two words, the second if which is management. Management is not about coping with what IS, it’s about scripting what should be. And the more you can do that – the more you can proactively write the history of your future, the less you will get caught up in unexpected events – the calendar crises.

This is the transcript of the CoolTimeLife podcast entitled The Calendar Crisis. If you would like to listen to it, you can check it out at our podcast site here. If you would like to review other podcasts in this series, visit my podcast page at stevenprentice.com/podcast.html

CoolTimeLife Podcast: The Box of Time

This blog comprises show notes and script for my CoolTimeLife podcast entitled The Box of Time. It describes how to maximize productivity and influence people by taking advantage of a simple technique of delineation – something that speaks very clearly to human instinct – which means people will take notice of it.

Steve Prentice - Bonsai Tree

A bonsai tree is an example of an organic entity constrained by hard edges.

The box of time. It’s not a science fiction reference. It’s an incredibly powerful way to manage time by managing other people. But to do this, we must first talk about bonsai trees. This is what a bonsai tree looks like. A bonsai is a perfectly normal tree, genetically speaking, that has been placed in a pot to restrain its growth. The pots are usually a few inches wide and because a tree will only grow as far as the roots can extend. The hard edge of the pots stops the roots from going any further and therefore stops the tree from growing any taller.

So, the art of a bonsai tree is to maintain a perfectly healthy, genetically pure tree in small scale. There are two different styles, generally speaking, being Japanese and Chinese. Japanese style generally favors shaping trees in a dramatic, windswept look whereas the Chinese style focuses more on symmetry. But regardless, it’s a perfect tree. A perfectly natural being, just held in check by the solidity of its surroundings.

So, what does this have to do with people and time management? There is a substantial parallel here. People and trees are both living creatures, and human beings also need and respond to delineations. Delineations help define limits, which helps us stay alive.

Which is the Least Evil of these Two Statements?

Let’s go back to high-school gym class for a moment. Imagine yourself standing out on the soccer field on a frosty November morning for first period gym class. You hear the gym coach telling you one of the following two commands; either:

“Go out there and give me 12 laps around the field,” or “Go out there and start running until I tell you to stop.”

Which is the least evil? The least threatening? Most people say the first one is less evil, because it is finite. you can gauge the amount of energy required to get through this exercise. And that’s a very important point. It’s a “known.” People need to know the delineations of things in order to progress through them safely. People need to know, for example, when things will be over.

Applying the Box of Time as a Tool of Influence

If you want to motivate and influence people to work with you, to show up to meetings on time, to leave you alone, to supply their pieces of the project you’re working on, to log in early and be ready for your on-time video or telephone conference – any time people need motivation the primary lever to get them to do what you want them to do is a delineation. This is a fixed line in the sand – a fixed “box,”

Let’s apply this to a phone conversation. One of the greatest wastes of time in the working world is the game of email ping pong. I send one to you, you send one back to me, I’m in a meeting o I send one back to you later, I don’t quite understand what you said, so I send one back… The conversation just keeps on spinning its wheels because email is not an intuitive communication technique. There’s no subtlety, no context, it’s a very sterile medium.

So many situations could be much better handled if only we had the time to speak live, one-to-one, face-to-face, or voice to voice, over the phone. Whether this is to solve a problem, or being creative – working on something together, the synergy of conversation, of two or more minds meeting, gets things done far more effectively than emails ever could.

But what’s the problem? It’s the Fear of the Unknown

People are afraid of having that conversation. They’re afraid of taking that call. One of the main reasons for this fear is this: you don’t know how long it’s going to last. So instead we use excuses. “I’m busy, I don’t have the time to take you call, so let it go to voice mail, or send me an email.”

The fact is, though, that a five-minute or even ten-minute phone conversation will yield more creative, problem-solving output than any number of emails you could possibly send. So, to motivate and inspire, and to generate interest in having a call or a face-to-face meeting, it’s not the agenda that’s most important, it’s “when it’s going to be over.”

I can deliver far more credibility by saying to you, “let’s have a call tomorrow at 2:00 for ten minutes. I will call you.” That’s all they need to hear. This becomes the box of time. It’s a message that says, “ten minutes – you can handle that. It will be over in ten minutes.” This is a specific message that replaces the unknown with a “known.”

It’s not something vague like “I’ll call you tomorrow.” That never works because that puts people on the hook of uncertainty – not knowing how long it will last, not knowing when the call will happen, not even knowing what it will be about.

If you want to motivate people to get things done, give them something tangible and something closed. This is the box of time, replacing the fear of the unknown with the manageability of the known. It’s a major component of successful time management, but as you can see, it’s about managing people and their expectations.

Replying to Messages on Personal Time – Conditioning to Your Own Detriment

Have you ever felt compelled to respond to a work-related email message at 11:00 p.m.? Do you know what that does to the person who sent the message? It conditions them to expect the same level of response and behavior from you consistently, regularly and forever. What might seem to you to be simply clearing an email from your inbox quickly, or perhaps providing excellent customer service condemns you to a lifetime and a lifestyle of constantly being available, 24/7. You are conditioning people through your actions to expect this same kind of behavior.

Some people like to live and work this way. If you like it, then great. But remember what you’re doing here. You are leaving yourself and your time open to ownership by others.

Once again, the box of time comes to the rescue

You can set up a schedule and message response that says something like:

“I am available between 9:00 a.m. and 6:00 p.m. Monday through Friday. If you send me a message outside of these hours, I will get back to you between 9:00 and 10:00 tomorrow.”

By setting up a boundary, and managing the expectations of the message sender, including a box of time in which they can expect response, everyone will be happy. The specifics of this message are up to each of us individually but setting up a box of time gives people a known field of expectation – something they can work with.

This is like water flowing around a rock in a stream. The water will move around the rock to find a path of lesser resistance. Your availability and non-availability are the rocks in your stream. People can move their actions and expectations around these blockages providing there is something else they can hold on to.

What a Dental Appointment Can Teach About Influence

People get conditioned to expect based on what they see. If you return an email at 11:00 p.m. you set a precedent that is very difficult to live up to. But these same assumptions can be overruled. For example:

Photo credit: Frank May / NTB scanpix

Someone asks you, “Can we meet tomorrow at 10:00?” and you say, “Sorry, I have a dental appointment.” It’s very unlikely that anyone will say, “No problem! I’ll come with you and will sit int the chair next to you while you’re having your treatment, and we can chat there.” No. They’ll wait until you come back, because a dental appointment is a suitable and acceptable rock in their stream. They can move around it. They can live with it. Life goes on.

The same principle can apply to other things. If you have some work you need to get done, you need some focused time – you really want to focus without being disturbed. Or you want to go home at a reasonable hour. Set up these boundaries and condition people by first publicizing and communicating these boundaries, and secondly, respecting them yourself. This means not falling prey to the temptation of responding to messages outside of those boundaries.

Everything you do conditions other people. Whether it’s action or inaction, it’s still conditioning.

Remember also, humans generally like to be led, they like to be guided. This is your chance to guide and influence other people through a box of time.

Bad News is Better than No News

No one likes to give bad news. No one likes to receive bad news. But there’s a good thing about bad news: human beings are extremely good at taking bad news, turning it around, and working with it.

Huge amounts of procrastination happen because people avoid what they fear. Fear is the most powerful emotion of all, and people are ruled by emotion, not logic. So, we tend to spend a lot of time hiding from or even running away from those things that scare us.  But the fact is we are very good at taking bad news and and saying, “OK, what’s next? Where do we go from here? What’s my next step?”

So once again, the box of time concept reappears. If you suffer from procrastination, if you are putting something of because you fear it, that’s perfectly natural and understandable. But the truth is, the delivery or acceptance of bad news is the launch point for the next step. It is like the box of time because it is tangible and real. Its real-ness helps overcome the instinctive fear of the unknown.

When you bring facts up to meet the fear, it allows you to move forward with the next steps. The box of time concept is about giving people something tangible to overrule their fears and move on.

Assumptions

People will always assume things if you do not give them the facts. People, if unassisted, will come to their own conclusions simply to fill the void. This means you actually have an obligation to deliver hard facts to people, if only to stave off their own incorrect assumptions.

For example, if you are spending time focusing on your work, and you don’t say “Hi” to people as they walk by your desk, the assumption is, “she’s having a bad day,” or “he doesn’t like us,” or “not a team player.”

People will make their own assumptions if they are not addressed. They need to be introduced to your concepts, they need to be led and guided. So, if you are looking to schedule some focused time in your day, or you’re looking to have some time away from carte blanche meeting availability, or you need to leave at a certain time, you must deliver the hard facts, the ideas. This might be in the form of a meeting or a memo, an infographic – whatever works for your team, to remove the instantaneous assumptions that will otherwise fall in to fill the void.

The Bottom Line

The bottom line with all the concepts above is that the known is always better than the unknown, but that the human mind will seek an answer wherever it can find it. If you are looking to guide people, give them a box. Give them a fixed, finite duration. When you are calling a meeting, the agenda is not the most important item – that should already have been dealt with as the justification for the meeting’s existence. The most important thing that will make people show up on time, ready and engaged, is in answering the question, “when will this be over?” That’s what will give them the energy and stamina to get through this event, just like the 12 laps around the field.

That is the primary motivator of human action.

This is the transcript of the CoolTimeLife podcast entitled The Box of Time. If you would like to listen to it, you can check it out at our podcast site here. If you would like to review other podcasts in this series, visit my podcast page at steveprentice.com/podcast.html.

If you feel you derived value from this blog or the adjoining podcast, please consider supporting our work by sending a small donation of $1.00, $2.00 or $5.00. It helps us give more time to research and prepare the episodes. The secure PayPal link is available on the podcast page at steveprentice.com/podcast.html.

The Law of Sharp Edges – Maximize Synergy by Framing a Conversation

There are many times when communicating via text or email is insufficient. The dynamics of human creativity are not one-dimensional. Thoughts and ideas must be echoed and bounced off one another so that we may experience and interpret the patterns that reverberate around us. Think, for example, how much more productive it is to “talk it out” with someone, rather than merely texting back and forth. Think also about how damaging it can be to keep feelings bottled up inside, or the complications that can arise from someone misinterpreting the tone of a text message. Creative thought thrives on the positive interference patterns that happen when two creative forces intersect. It falls away when given only a unidirectional track upon which to work.

Live conversation is essential for situations where there is something that needs to be created, agreed upon, resolved, or worked through. There is no real substitute.

When people contemplate getting together, whether face-to-face or over the phone, the thing that often puts them off is the fear of getting trapped in a conversation filled with small talk and irrelevancies. But it need not be that way. I use what I like to call The Law of Sharp Edges, which states that if you give someone a clear delineation – a guideline as to where things start and end rather than just a vague idea, they will be more likely to accommodate your request or behave as you would like them to.

Here’s a bad example: “Can I call you tomorrow?”

Here’s an excellent example: “Can I call you tomorrow at 2:00 for a 10-minute chat about the ABC project?”

The bad example puts people “on the hook for the entire day.” It’s like being on call. You know the event might

happen, but you don’t know when or for how long. This has a profound impact on your entire internal self-preservation system. Your instinct fears the unknown, and it’s not an overstatement to point out that something as simple as a vague phone call commitment is indeed an unknown. As such your body reflexively tenses itself for the interaction to come.

The excellent example removes the unknown and delivers three essential knowns – when it will be, how long it will last and what it will be about. It makes it a far more appealing thing to commit to since there are sharp edges surrounding the event. It is constrained and finite.

Such simple techniques will make a huge difference in productivity and process, by merely allowing the dynamic creativity of live conversation to flourish without fear. The many tools we have to facilitate live discussions, from meeting rooms to phones, video-conferences, online collaborative chat apps, even virtual presence devices like the Double (pictured) or Beam, still need to win someone’s attention through the most basic of concerns: “how will this hurt me and how will I benefit?” Once you can get such instinctive self-preservation needs out of the way, your conversation is free to do what it does best: make progress.

CoolTimeLife Podcast: The 55-Minute Meeting

This blog comprises show notes for my CoolTimeLife podcast entitled The 55 Minute Meeting. It describes how to maximize the value of every meeting by focusing on some key human elements of physiology, focus, and influence.

What do you think is the most important ingredient for a successful meeting? I’ll give you a hint: it’s not the agenda. It’s not even the second most important item. On this episode, we’re going to talk about meetings.  Most specifically about a highly successful concept we have developed called the 55-minute meeting and how this can be a way to not only make your meetings more effective, but make them more pleasurable, too. This episode is packed with ideas and suggestions for making your meetings more successful, time efficient and even enjoyable.

Meetings are considered by many to be the single biggest time waster in the workday.

  • There are too many of them
  • Many are unnecessary
  • They don’t start on time or are held up due to late arrivals
  • They have unclear agendas
  • They go on for too long
  • The wrong people are invited
  • People introduce irrelevant topics
  • People “tune out” and do other work on their computers/tablets/phones
  • They conclude with vague ideas and unresolved issues.
  • They end late

These are all powerful disincentives to view a meeting as anything other than – at best – a vacation away from the desk, or at worst a stress-inducing delay added to an already overloaded day.

So if the Agenda is not the most important or even second most important item of a meeting, what fills these two top spots? And why isn’t the agenda most important? Well, let’s start with that.

A meeting must justify its existence. It must have a value that exceeds the sum of the individual hourly rates of the participants. It must have a bottom-line dollar value greater than all the things the invitees could otherwise be doing. A meeting must prove that it will advance the cause of a team or an organization in some way, or it should not occur at all.

So, whether you are looking to:

  • coordinate action
  • to exchange information
  • to motivate a team
  • discuss issues, ideas or problems
  • and/or to make a decision

…the meeting must achieve this in the shortest time possible. That’s the purpose of the agenda.

The first questions to ask should be these:

  1. Does this topic need the input or attention of other people?
  2. Does it seek to do one of the things I just described above?
  3. Is a meeting truly the best option? There are other alternatives.

If you have decided that it is essential to have a meeting, then its legitimacy has already been established. Creating an efficient agenda then supports the way in which these things will be discussed. So it is an important component of a successful meeting, but it is not the MOST important.

The most important element of a successful meeting is getting people to show up on time and to be engaged.  You do this by promising to keep the meeting as short and as interesting as possible, and then publicizing this fact. It has to focus not on the agenda on the motivations and concerns of the people involved and this includes managing the fear of the unknown.

We talk about fear quite a lot in the CoolTimeLife podcast series because humans are dominated by emotion, with the strongest emotion of all being fear. The fear of the unknown attaches itself to concepts like, “how long will this meeting last.” These types of uncertainties make people hesitant to prepare or participate. It makes them procrastinate to the point of arriving late or just dropping the meeting entirely.

The Solution: Bring up the facts to Meet the Fear

Give people something they can work with to overcome the fear of the unknown, and confidently move into a situation that they fee in control of, and that they can see an end to.

Our solution is something we call the 55 Minute Meeting. Its success comes from placing priority on three key concepts:

  1. The human attention span
  2. The fact that the meeting is finite
  3. There is a palatable gap of time – five minutes – between the end of the meeting and the start of the next hour.

1. The Human Attention Span

A good for dealing with people generally is that most adults can only stay tuned in for an hour before they need to move on to something else. So any meeting should never exceed an hour, if at all possible. A meeting should last only as long as is necessary, no longer. A meeting of 20 minutes can often achieve as much, if not more than a meeting of an hour.

So why a 55 minute meeting? Let’s go shopping to find out.

2. Take a Lesson from Retail Therapy

Imagine you have two competing stores in a mall, each selling the same item of clothing. One store sets the price at $20.00. The other store sets its price at $19.95. Who will sell out first? It will most likely be the cheaper store. Not because of a mere five-cent difference in price, but in the perception of a deal. It’s a whole “bracket” lower.

The same applies for larger items like a car. A car priced at $19,995 will sell more quickly than one priced at $20,000.

It gives people a sense of getting a deal, and it is what we want to put into the motivation principle behind successful meetings, including influencing people to show up on time. A meeting that starts at 1:00 and ends at 2:00 appears to step into two “hour blocks.” Even if id does end on time exactly at 2:00, it has pushed into the 2:00 hour block and becomes an emotional barrier.

But when a starts and ends within the same hour, such as from 1:00 to 1:55, it gives people a sense of a deal – there is a gap at the end of the hour. The meeting isn’t even an hour. It feels much more attractive.

This short time period encourages focus and engagement, again because it is both finite and short. This is something can and should be advertised in your meeting announcement. I use that word advertised specifically because that’s what you must do: entice people to arrive ready, prepared and at their best for the entire duration.

This should cut down substantially on late arrivals and disengaged or distracted attendees.

3. Keep It Finite

A 55-minute meeting can only cover a set number of items, realistically. It represents a finite duration and a hard stop that allows people to work toward a conclusion without letting the meeting itself drift on into extra time.

An ideal structure might look like this:

 

55-minute-meeting

It starts with five minutes for housekeeping, and concludes with five minutes for closure and action items/next steps.

The rest of the time depends on what the meeting is about – whether you have one, two, or three agenda items to discuss, or one single one in a brainstorming fashion.

What is your wireless policy?

Everyone has a wireless device with them. When they use them during a meeting, do you find that rude, or simply normal? How do others feel? It is worth finding out, since annoyance can become a major saboteur of productive meetings. There are options:

  • Old school – request that people turn everything off and face the meeting chairperson until the meeting is done. That might work, but it might not. Most people do not like being kept away from their devices.
  • An alternative would be to use a data break. This is basically a two-minute pause between agenda items that allows attendees to check their texts, emails and so forth. Although some people might feel that anyone should be able to survive an hour without checking in, the truth is, for most of us, that is not the case. The resulting tension from not being able to check emails results in distraction, and in some cases, outright mutiny. This is another example of managing people’s expectations by giving them what they need to feel comfortable. It allows pressure to be released during those periods where real focus and participation s required.

Hopefully, the majority of your meetings will be eventually replaced by collaborative online environments, but there will always be time when in-person interactions are beneficial. Just remember, every meeting must have four things going for it:

  • It must exceed the sum total of the per-hour value of the participants
  • It must result in a new development: an idea, a plan or knowledge level
  • It must conclude with a clear action item
  • It must be brief and clearly finite

A meeting is an example of strategic application of planning and influence. The task of getting people to the table and keeping them engaged and alert is dependent as much on your knowledge of human motivation as with the topic of the meeting itself.

The Power of Silence – the Six-Second Rule

Meeting should be about allowing people to bring forward their ideas, their contributions and their insight. This gives them an opportunity to contribute in a meaningful way. One of the biggest problems with meetings is the fear factor, this time in the form of silence. Many times during a meeting there is insufficient opportunity for people to speak up.

Often the chairperson gives only a second or so for people to react: “Are there any further questions? No? Then we’ll move on.”

To encourage great participation, and to add more depth and color to the meeting, remember to count silently to six after asking the “Any further questions?” question. This long pause gives people a chance to recognize that no one else is speaking, that they indeed do have a question, and that they have the opportunity to actually speak up. This always adds to the quality of the meeting, by adding their thoughts and ideas.

So, even though we live in an age of high speed in which we are bombarded by information from every corner, every second, silence can become a major contributor to the quality of a meeting.

HOWEVER –

The “any further questions?” question should never be asked during the last quarter of a meeting. So, in a 55-minute meeting this might be at the 40-minute mark. Why? Because when a question is asked at the very end of a meeting, remember, everyone wants to leave, and you promised that they could. When you ask your group for questions at the end of a meeting, you guarantee that the meeting will run over time and not only does this make the meeting run late, it jeopardizes your reputation as an excellent and trustworthy leader.

Not All Meetings Need Meeting Rooms

There are numerous alternatives to meetings:

  • Collaborative environments like Slack and Yammer, where people can talk back and forth just like texting on their phones.
  • You could deliver information by way of an infographic or a video.
  • You could have a telepresence virtual meeting using Skype, Zoom, or Webex Meetings, to enjoy the sense of face-to-face connection without the travel.
  • You could also move your meetings away from your office environment by having it in a local coffee shop, using the curtain of ambient noise from the customers around you.

The Physical Meeting Environment.

As I mention above, the agenda of a meeting is a moot point, once the it has been agreed that a meeting about a certain topic should happen. It doesn’t mean you don’t need an agenda, only that the agenda should by now have already been decided upon.

So, the primary priority is the duration, 55 minutes or less.

The second-most important priority is the meeting environment itself. A meeting room should be considered to be an equal member – another invitee.

The room often gets overlooked by people who are simply looking for a convenient space. But when you think about it, a bunch of people in a room, the need creature comforts in order to survive and thrive. Is it physically comfortable? Is it warm enough yet cool enough? Is there good air circulation? Is there natural light – essential for maintaining energy and focus.

By contrast, a meeting held in a windowless room in the middle of the afternoon, you are depriving people  of the light stimulation at precisely the worst time of day.  So, look for a room that has:

  • Air – good air and if possible, windows that open
  • Large windows with a southern exposure with plenty of natural light
  • Quiet HVAC
  • Climate controls for heat/cooling
  • No distracting ambient noise or noise bleed from adjoining rooms
  • Comfortable furniture that does not squeak.
  • Good healthy food – especially protein-generous snacks

Anytime you can hold out and find the idea meeting room with as many of these items as possible, you provide an idea environment or focus, concentration and engagement.

The Exercise Break

For long meetings, especially those in the afternoon, consider adding a low-impact exercise to the meeting agenda. This could include stretches or even deep knee bends. These should not need to break a sweat and should be designed to consider people who are alternately abled, or who might have chronic pain conditions – but the objective is to invite everyone to use their muscles to move blood and oxygen around the body.

You can also encourage people to get up and walk around while the meeting is going on.

The Bottom Line

The most successful meeting strategy of all is the one that makes people want to show up and want to participate. That’s how you invest in a high-quality meeting.

This is the transcript of the CoolTimeLife podcast entitled The 55 Minute Meeting. If you would like to listen to it, you can check it out at our podcast site here. If you would like to review other podcasts in this series, visit my podcast page at steveprentice.com/podcast.html

If you feel you derived value from this blog or the adjoining podcast, please consider supporting our work by sending a small donation of $1.00, $2.00 or $5.00. It helps us give more time to research and prepare the episodes. The secure PayPal link is available on the podcast page at steveprentice.com/podcast.html.

What does Time Management Have in Common with Football?

2nd-Edition-Cover-FrontHumans are social creatures by nature, so we tend to invite and enjoy conversation, distraction, and mental stimulation: the joke-of-the-day-email from a friend, the water-cooler chat, social media. These things provide a few moments of leisure, but they do come with a price, for after they have passed, the work still remains to be done, and we are then forced to stay late, take work home, or make other sacrifices to catch up.

Most of us are trained in a skill and then join the workforce. We continue to learn though training and professional development courses, as well as practical experience, hopefully building a stable career and putting food on the table. However, another, more sinister type of learning also happens. While we integrate ourselves into the corporate culture of the company, we start to adopt the habits and norms of our peers, including many latent, long-established time inefficiencies are passed on through osmosis.

Consequently, it takes us by surprise when we learn for the first time that most people “work” for about one-third of the hours that they spend “at work,” meaning they actually will get only 3 hours of measurable work done in an eight- or nine-hour day.  Though this at first seems to be an affront to our ambitions, it doesn’t actually refer to a lack of dedication or drive. The average business day is littered with productivity roadblocks such as meetings, email, and drop-in visitors, conflicts and staff issues, technology problems and crises, all of which, though they may be considered as part of the work for which we are being paid, occur in irregular and unpredictable ways, breaking up the momentum of work and stretching tasks further and further along our calendar. The difference between how much we think we’ve done and how much work we have actually achieved is surprising.

But three hours? That’s a small fraction of a day to be counted as productive work in the purest sense of the word. It’s like taking a stopwatch to a football game. Over the course of a four-hour game, between the downs, the line changes and the time-outs, the ball is actually only in play for about twenty minutes – a very small segment of the game’s entire span.

During the course of a workday, these things happen:

  • 25 percent of people’s time is spent doing actual work;
  • 15 percent of the day is spent responding to email and voicemail;
  • 15 percent of the day is spent on the phone;
  • 20 percent of the day is spent in meetings and conversations;
  • 25 percent of the day is spent preparing for those meetings or dealing with the follow-up.

The fact that such a relatively small amount of the workday is spent doing actual planned work is often overlooked until the time comes that someone is called upon to make an estimate on the delivery date of a project. In an attempt to please a potential new client, it is easy for you or your boss or your sales rep to say, “We can have that to you by Thursday.” In fact, if you had nothing else to do, and could work on this client’s needs exclusively for eight uninterrupted hours a day, you probably could have it ready for Thursday. But that’s being way too optimistic, and that’s where the problems happen. We have to be realistic, and even a little bit pessimistic. We don’t know what other crises might happen between now and Thursday, but we can count on a few simple truths:

  • Things always take longer than you think, and a lot longer than you hope.
  • If someone asks you to do something and includes the word “just”, as in “can you just…” you’re already in trouble.
  • There will never be a perfect time to get it done.

Time management is a two-word term, and the second word is “management.” We need to exert proactivity and  influence over people and activities if any progress is to happen. The good news is, this is both possible and quite easy.

This is an excerpt from my book, Cool Time: A Hands-On Plan for Managing Work and Balancing Time. If you would like a copy, hop on over to my Books page. If you would like me to come and speak to your group, contact details are available on my Speaker page. Either way, you will win back time and money. It’s just practical common sense.

If you are interested, we have a newsletter –  a real brief monthly one – that discusses issues around productivity and explains how my keynotes can help. Sign up through Constant Contact here.

Bonsai and the Law of Sharp Edges

2nd-Edition-Cover-FrontBonsai is an ancient Japanese and Chinese art form in which trees are grown and nurtured inside low-sided pots. Their branches are shaped by way of wires that guide their growth and shape, and they are kept small through careful pruning of roots and branches, along with the most influential factor of all, the pot itself, which essentially tells the tree there is no more room for the roots to spread out.

Since the spreading roots of a tree have profound impact on its ultimate size and life, the bonsai pot stands as a real-world example of the Law of Sharp Edges, which states that delineation of an event allows for positive control of organic relationships.

In terms of time management strategy, a conversation works much better if both parties know how it is intended to last and what it will be about. Meetings and seminars work better when participants know when the breaks and wrap-up will be. Delays in subways and on planes are better managed when frustrated travelers are given some idea of when things will be fixed. Why? Because at the root of all of these situations is an unknown. People fear the unknown. It’s natural. So, as a tool of proactive time management and influence, if you give people a sharp-edged delineation of an event’s duration and content, they will be far more likely to play ball with you.

This is an excerpt from my book, Cool Time: A Hands-On Plan for Managing Work and Balancing Time. If you would like a copy, hop on over to my Books page. If you would like me to come and speak to your group, contact details are available on my Speaker page. Either way, you will win back time and money. It’s just practical common sense.

The Future of Meetings

This blog post was originally written for HP’s Business Value Exchange and was posted at CloudTweaks.com.

Meetings have been a scourge on business productivity for many decades. British comedy genius John Cleese released a corporate training film back in 1976, entitled Meetings, Bloody Meetings, which not only became an instant classic, but spawned a sequel in 2012. The problems inherent in meetings are timeless and universal. And sadly, they take up way too much time. But things are changing.

A combination of factors now places the traditional meeting on the endangered species list. People no longer have the time or patience that they used to, and for the new generations of employees and managers who have grown up with sophisticated video gaming and unconstrained access to online resources, a tedious one-hour or longer meeting often fails to prove its worth. When that happens at the outset, engagement is sure to evaporate.

We have moved well past the era in which the only way to share ideas with a group of people was to corral them in the same room. Numerous options now exist from the good-old teleconference, to multi-screen video chat, through to virtual meetings using VR tools; but this leads to a conundrum: how important is physical presence to the efficacy of a meeting?

Many of us have participated in tele-meetings where Internet-based video conferencing– was available, but in which the participants still chose not to use the video component, opting solely for voice. For small meetings, this might be due to shyness or vanity – we don’t always look the way we want to, especially when working from home. There is also something decidedly disturbing about the “downwards glare,” where inexperienced video conference attendees look at the onscreen images of the other participants, rather than looking into their own camera. This creates an immediate sense of disconnection between people and points to the importance of eye-to-eye contact during discussion.

In multiple participant teleconferences, additional frustration comes about through the lack of body language cues, especially in regard to the rhythm of an actual conversation. We use facial or body gestures to signify comprehension of a point, as well as to signal our desire to speak. Such subtleties are lost when the visual component is missing or inadequate.

This does not mean that virtual meetings should not happen – they should. In fact, they should happen more often, since they save enormous amounts of time and money, and can actually be more productive than their analog counterparts, in most cases. What is critical is that the chairperson of a virtual meeting delivers and enforces an updated set of rules that ensure optimum behavior and synergy.

Firstly, if a company has access to a high-end video telepresence setup – using good video cameras and a bank of screens showing the other participants, then book this well ahead of time. These types of premium virtual meeting rooms are generally available in large organizations with numerous offices locations. They are not available to everyone, but they are worth it, since they offer the chance to see other people as if they were sitting across the table from you, and the 3D sound and video quality is generally superb. When these are not available, a phone or VOIP teleconference can do just as well, but the rules must be adjusted accordingly.

  • Go for “visual” whenever possible. Humans place greater trust in people when they can see who they are dealing with. They can also read body language cues, and frame the dynamic of the conversation accordingly. Instruct participants to spend a few minutes preparing, prior to the call. This doesn’t mean calling the stylists and makeup artists in, is simply means just allowing adequate light and establishing a desired visual look.
  • If video is not possible or not desired, then ensure photos are available. This could be as easy as inserting participant’s pictures on the meeting agenda (sent by email or posted in a meeting space.) A photo is a more controlled version of a person’s image, and although it does not allow for visual cues, it still flavors the dynamic of the conversation in a more human way.
  • Set up a system for side chats. It is very disturbing when people need to make a side comment while another person is speaking. Whispering is impossible on a conference call, but texting is easy. Whether this is done through an onscreen conference hub, or just texting to each other’s phones, this is an essential component of meeting dynamics that reduces interruptions while boosting synergy. It can also be used as a way of “raising your hand to speak,” by texting the chairperson from miles away.

There will always be some occasions which necessitate pulling people physically into a room for a meeting, but these are becoming fewer and fewer. The technology exists to bridge the obstacles put up by distance, time and money, but what is needed now is a revised mindset, that focuses pro-actively on the dynamics of human communication, and curates the available technologies to achieve the meeting’s intended goal. This way, Mr. Cleese will not have to make another sequel in 2018.

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The Future of Employee Engagement

This blog post, written for HP’s Business Value Exchange , entitled The Future of Employee Engagement is available for review at CloudTweaks.com. This post looks at collaborative environments, face-to-face communication, and how these activities influence engagement and productivity.  Click here to read.

CloudTweaks

Where is Your BYOD-WiFi Meeting Policy?

April 23, 2014

Picture this. You are attending a meeting in a boardroom with ten other people. One person is standing at the head of the table, talking and pointing to the obligatory PowerPoint projection. You look around the table. Most of those in attendance are not looking at the presenter or the PowerPoint image at all. A couple of people are typing on their laptops, three are texting on their phones. Another has a tablet perched on his lap and is busy looking at something. One person who did not bring a computer is doodling a complicated pattern all over the margins of the meeting agenda.

What do you think of this? Is it rude? Bad meeting behavior? A poorly-run meeting? The result of ineffective planning, a weak chairperson or undisciplined employees? Most people would agree and express that such behavior is rude and shows no respect. But others might disagree.

What if one of the people typing on their laptops was taking notes? Not everyone takes notes with pen and paper anymore. What if the person with the tablet was fact-checking or seeking additional information based on what he had heard the presenter say? What if one of the people texting on his phone was putting out a fire in his department that would otherwise force him to withdraw from the meeting? And what if the guy who was doodling was doing just that – doodling? People process information differently, and doodling – which has been around a lot longer than portable technology has – might certainly indicate boredom, but might also indicate a need to keep moving while listening; a type of kinesthetic learning in which the body and eyes need to stay occupied while the ears listen. If one of the three people in this scenario who appeared to be texting on her phone was actually playing Angry Birds instead, would that be construed as meeting truancy or new-age doodling?

For centuries people have convened in physical meetings because, prior to the advent of electronic communication, this was the only way to share ideas collectively and in real time. To this day, people still get together in boardrooms and classrooms to talk and to listen and to learn. Human beings will likely continue to meet in person for as long as the species exists, for there are many benefits to physically assembling that simply cannot be replicated anywhere else.

However people do not have the time that they think they used to have; it is not as easy to commit to a one- or two-hour meeting and essentially block the rest of the world out for that period. Most people now ride a continually cresting wave of priorities and expectations, and to ignore them for the better part of an afternoon might bring more trouble than it is worth.

Yet the meeting mindset hasn’t changed much. In many organizations it is expected that attendees arrive on time, that they turn their cellphones to silent and that they sit, face-forward, ready to deliver their undivided attention. Maybe this is still the right way. Or maybe it isn’t. That is largely up to each individual company to decide.

Once that decision is made, what is then needed is a universal policy. If an organization is to stay “old-school” and require that everyone turn off their devices and face-forward, then this needs to be communicated as “meeting policy,” and not be merely expected or assumed. Employees today make their own assumptions. They prefer to use their own tools at work (a concept now called BYOD – bring your own device), so that documents, email and social media interaction arrive on the phone or tablet they themselves have bought, rather than the standard company issue. Hand-in-hand with this concept is the new-age flex-time attitude in which team members of all ages recognize that blocks of work can be done in many different ways at many different times: while standing in line at Starbucks, on the train, from home, at 2:30 p.m., or even 2:30 a.m.

This approach to mobility and self-determination inevitably leaks into corporate meeting culture to the point that it becomes automatic, as in “my phone is there to be used, and I am at this meeting to keep pace while – not instead of – doing something else.” Therefore if a company chooses to silence these devices, it must consciously and unambiguously re-introduce this silence.

On the flip side, if a company wants to play it cool by allowing people to bring and use whatever devices they desire into a meeting, a similar policy must be developed and broadcast, not only to ensure these technically-inclined people actually do agree to pay attention and to produce the required results by the end of the day, but also to inform those who may not share this technological enthusiasm, that bringing devices into a meeting is not rude anti-social behavior, but is in fact the new norm.

In both cases it is essential that people on both sides of the ideological fence are made aware of whatever rules the company decides upon. Rude behavior after all can best be defined by what it is not: it is behavior that does not align with social convention. But unless that convention is explicitly defined and universally recognized, there is nothing for people to refer to.

Ultimately it may be said (and has in fact been said many times) that nothing short of absolute forward-facing focus yields a productive meeting. However there are two factors that can substantially undermine such a blanket statement. The first is that meetings in general have held the title of the greatest time-waster in all of business for many decades, including those that preceded the advent of personal technology. So whatever we were doing prior to the arrival of the smartphone wasn’t working either. There was more doodling and smoking, but not necessarily more productivity.

Secondly, the fact is, these devices are here to stay. Companies that struggle to attract bright young professionals or indeed to keep their current star players cannot afford to expect that these highly mobile people, already well-versed in a high-speed multi-screen environment and used to receiving by-the-second feedback will be willing to sit stock-still for any period longer than 5 minutes. And why should they? Business moves at the speed of thought and if today’s employees don’t match up to the model of the traditional meeting scenario, it will have to be the meeting manager who blinks first.