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Prevent Thoughtless Habits From Squandering Your Team’s Time

We are scrupulous about managing our budgets, jumping through hoops (and filling out countless forms) to get approval for every expenditure, whether it’s for a $300 printer or a part-time contractor. And yet, even though we may say that time is money, few of us show the same kind of scrutiny when it comes to managing our team’s time.

In a recent Harvard Business Review article, “Your Scarcest Resource,” authors Michael Makins, Chris Brahm and Gregory Caimi say that most companies have no real understanding as to how their leaders and employees spend their time. While they complain about the number of unnecessary (and unproductive) meetings, meandering con calls, duplicate reports, constant IM interruptions, and ridiculously long email chains, few organizations have confronted these “time thieves” head-on. Instead, they leave it up to individuals to manage their own priorities as best they can.

The irony is that those who attend their company’s time management courses can’t realistically apply the techniques and tips they’ve learned, when the system they work within continues to follow the same broken practices. In reality, individuals are not often given the option to decline certain meetings, to refuse to spend hours writing a report that no one will read, or to defer responding to an “urgent” IM for information that will take hours to find.

In this edition of Communiqué, I offer leaders a few ways they can help their teams avoid the most common time traps by creating unambiguous guidelines and making systemic changes. The result: People will be happier and more productive by having more time to do things that really matter.

  • Validate the need for all those meetings.  Just because technology makes it easier to hold more meetings than ever before, it doesn’t mean you should. Challenge your team by asking questions like: What other means do we have to achieve our goals? Can an asynchronous discussion substitute for a real-time meeting? How much can we get done via email, IM, individual calls, or other ways? (Warning: Replacing meetings with a steady stream of emails can often lure you into another of the biggest time-traps! See email tips later in this article.) As a team, establish some kind of “meeting justification” checklist that all can use when deciding whether or not a meeting is required. During your team meetings (if you’ve determined that these are in fact vital!), ask people to share instances where they have circumvented the need for meetings, so all can draw inspiration from successes.
  • Keep meetings brief, when you can. A weekly status update may not really need 60 minutes, most times. (On the other hand, a discussion to evaluate several complex options may require a lot more than 60 minutes!) Ask your team to determine how much time certain meetings really need, and ask them to state the assumptions they’re making along the way. For example, a regional update can be condensed into 30 minutes instead of the usual 60, if everyone posts their reports in a shared area at least 24 hours in advance. A global brainstorming session can take just 45 minutes, as long as participants have joined an online conference area to share ideas in advance. Make sure everyone is on the same page by sharing the results in writing, and encourage people to stay within the agreed-to time limits, absent any extenuating circumstances.
  • Be respectful of people’s time. Invite people sparingly. Just because someone appears to have nothing else scheduled during your planned meeting time, it doesn’t mean their time is fair game. Make sure everyone understands why they’re being invited, which may require some 1:1 emails or conversations. Offer alternate options for participation if needed.
  • Enforce healthy meeting norms.  If meetings are regarded as necessary, your team needs to establish norms for meeting behavior to make sure the time together is productive. Dysfunctional behavior by just one or two has a way of irrevocably hijacking even the most meticulously-planned meeting. (Nothing saps energy and wastes time like a meeting when half the people are multitasking!) Even if your overall organization already has established meeting norms, encourage your own team to establish norms as an “overlay” to existing norms. When your meetings include people from other groups, take a few minutes to call out your norms and gain agreement before you begin. Encourage team members to share responsibility for enforcing norms to keep meetings focused and as brief as possible.
  • Use instant messaging judiciously. Some people thrive on (giving and getting) constant interruptions, while others require intense periods of focus to get work done. Ask your team to establish ground rules as to how and when IM is most productively used. (This may vary with each person.) Examples: Team members making requests via IM should indicate the relative sense of urgency so people can decide whether they really need to drop everything right this minute.  Truly urgent requests should be called out as such, and should be attended to within a certain amount of time (say, two hours). The number of such “urgent” requests should be kept to a minimum. People need to indicate when they can’t be disturbed, for whatever reason, and are not obliged to reply during these times. Those who are making a request of several people should send a group IM so everyone knows who else might be working on the same request. Capture your team’s ground rules to share, checking in periodically to make needed adjustments.
  • Minimize the number of reports you really need. Writing reports (and sometimes multiple versions and formats for different audiences) can easily consume several hours each week. Reconsider the purpose, recipients, usefulness, and formats of the reports your team creates today. Are they all necessary? (Are the reports even read?) Is all of the content needed, or just a portion? Can the reports be generated less frequently? Are there better ways to prepare and convey the content? Can some of this work be automated? Consider, too, the time people spend poring through these reports. By assessing the value, content, format and distribution of your team’s reports, chances are, you can help your team recover a lot of lost time. But don’t stop there: Have this same conversation with those who request reports from your team. It might be that the current reports are overkill, or perhaps not needed at all.
  • Question when “collaboration” is really needed. There are many instances when collaboration really makes sense. On the other hand, collaboration for the sake of collaboration can sometimes impede progress. Do you really need a dozen people working on that big proposal, or is a subteam going to be more effective? Challenge your team members to think through what they hope to achieve by inviting others into the conversation, and make sure other participants understand their roles. Your team may find even more instances where collaboration may lead to a better result, or they may find that working independently, at least at certain junctures, will actually accelerate progress.

While the incremental costs of 1:1 or 1: many communications may have declined over the last decade according to authors Makins, Brahm and Caimi, the sheer number of total interactions has multiplied exponentially. While our inboxes are as full as they’ve ever been, we now must attend to other communication channels like IMs, virtual meetings, wikis, blogs, and portals.  And the more layers in an organization, the more dense, complex and time-consuming communications become.  Leaders who help manage how the time of their teams is best spent will achieve superior results. And their employees will be a lot happier, too.