Pilita Clark: lateness at meetings must be banished
It is thought that at least 37m meetings are held each day in the US alone, and up to 45% of them probably start late
A friend and I were chatting after work a few months ago when I mentioned my devotion to Ocado, the online grocery delivery service.
“No!” she shrieked. “You have to stop using it. Haven’t you read about Tim Steiner’s divorce?” I ignored her. I had seen that Steiner, Ocado’s chief executive, had left the mother of his four children and taken up with a Polish model many years his junior.
But as far as I was concerned other people’s marriages were a foreign country, and Ocado was the only source of my favourite pumpkin soup. More crucially, in all the years I had used it its delivery drivers had never once been late. If they even suspected a delay I would get a text explaining why and by how many minutes. In a world of lateness it was a rare, glittering star.
I thought of this again last Tuesday when Steiner finally got around to speaking about a more recent thing he has done to irk female customers: attend the men-only Presidents Club charity dinner, exposed by the Financial Times. I doubt his critics will be placated by him saying he had been shocked to read of “totally unacceptable” behaviour at the event.
But I am sticking with Ocado, and not just because of the soup. Regardless of Steiner, the company treats me with respect. By showing up on time it behaves as if my time is valuable. It seems to understand a great truth of modern life, namely that punctuality is an underrated virtue.
Nowhere is this more evident than at work, where opportunities to be late are endless. It starts from the time of arrival but is worst in that grim office mainstay, the meeting. It is thought that at least 37 million meetings are held each day in the US alone, and up to 45 per cent of them probably start late, says Steven Rogelberg, a US professor who has studied meeting lateness.
He is close to publishing research indicating lateness is not just annoying, rude or a sign of job dissatisfaction but affects the quality of a gathering itself. A meeting starting up to five minutes late can still be productive but this changes once the wait gets close to 10 minutes and people start to display what Prof Rogelberg calls “negative socio-emotional” behaviour.
In other words, they get increasingly hacked off, and start criticising, interrupting or whispering to a neighbour.
I was slightly unsettled by this since I have been guilty on all counts myself, mainly because I never wanted to go to the meeting in the first place.
It turns out that one reason meetings start late is simply that they are held back-to-back, without enough time for people to take breaks in between. When Larry Page became Google’s chief executive again in 2011 one of the first things he did was cut hour-long meetings to 50 minutes. Some experts now swear by the 50:25 rule: keep hour-long meetings to 50 minutes and half-hour ones to 25.
Still, if I had to make a list of solutions to the late meeting problem, I would start with a ban on pointless ones. One of the joys of working for a daily newspaper is that meetings rarely drag on. Deadline pressures require them to have a clear purpose, like deciding what to put in the paper next day or on the website in the next hour.
I am also a fan of standing meetings, having once had a boss who brought them in for a weekly meeting. The discomfort forced people to stop blathering and encouraged early arrivals, all hoping to speak first and make a speedy getaway.
Finally, I would ban a major cause of bad meetings and therefore potential lateness: pointless participants. There is no easier way to make a discussion irrelevant and dull. This requires tact. When Steve Jobs was running Apple he was about to start a meeting when he spotted a woman he did not know and asked: “Who are you?”
She said she had been invited to discuss a topic on the agenda. Jobs told her she was not needed, and, as she began a long walk to the door, he carried on as if nothing had happened. The execution was awful but the principle, I am afraid, is unimpeachable. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2018
Previously published in The Irish Times.
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