Key differences between productive meetings and enormous time vacuums

While working for a well-known CRM archaeology firm, I was forced to take part in some of the most worthless meetings I’ve ever witnessed in my life. I won’t name where this took place, but many of you will immediately know the company once I describe the situation. At least every other Monday, my department had a standing “meeting” where everyone across the corporation got together and chimed in about what we’d done during the last pay period. Folks working at other offices called in via speakerphone. Nobody was immune unless you were in the field.

The conversation went from office to office, individual to individual. Each person provided an overview of what they’d recently accomplished, even if they didn’t have anything to work on. Department heads spoke about all the proposals they were going after. They also recapped the projects they’d lost, which was over 99% while I worked there.

We mid-managers and field techs simply told the bosses what they already knew: we were working on a project they’d given to us. Sometimes, we tried to solicit the assistance of others that were more knowledgeable. This was the only time the meetings seemed worth it. Whenever we didn’t have a project to work on, which was extremely frequent, we just said, “I’ve been keeping busy. Waiting for a new project to work on. Anybody know of anything?” The department head fell over himself to keep us placated (or, prevent mass defections) by assuring us that work was right on the horizon. Just hold tight and everything will be okay.

This was how we spent almost TWO HOURS of every Monday. Over the course of three years, this represented hundreds of man-hours of overhead wasted on unproductive chitter-chatter.

In the end, things weren’t okay. I ended up getting laid off. I can’t help but think that meetings like the ones I just describe above, A.K.A. time vacuums or time sucks, were a contributing factor in the reason I was laid off.

Turning on the Time Vacuum=Getting your Employees/Co-Workers Fired

Whenever supervisors request meetings, they should have a very clear reason for doing so. Senseless, standing meetings (those without clear objectives and resolved issues) are almost always a total waste of time and resources. You are ripping off your clients when you charge them extra just so you can have a needless meeting. You are also decreasing your odds of landing future projects because your overhead continues going up in order to pay for time vacuum meetings. Rather than keeping your employees billable by holding meetings, you should be encouraging them to save or bring in money or prestige for the company.

Getting sucked into time vacuums made me hate meetings in general. I started opting out of every single one I could escape. Other companies did the same thing. For instance, I once attended a TWO HOUR meeting about how to fill out the bag catalog properly. In order to fix the problem (i.e. two entries in the bag catalog were messed up), the lab director could have properly filled out a sheet and had us put that in our excavation manual as an example of how to do it correctly. I also WASTED FIVE HOURS attending a meeting about a new report outline that basically followed the outline format required by the state, which we were already doing.

I knew meetings didn’t have to be that way. At the first CRM company I worked for, we had 30-minute meetings every Monday. The boss quickly (less than 5 minutes) recapped the status of the company, current problems, and the efforts they were making to keep us employed. Then, we were all given about 10 minutes to chime in on how these situations could be improved. We were allowed to suggest potential collaborations or things that could improve efficiency. If it looked like it was going to take more than 10 minutes, the bosses suggested we schedule a meeting in the near future to address that specific topic. The last 10 minutes was us recapping what we’d done in the last week. Everyone had less than one minute. After that, we had coffee and cake.

These meetings were beneficial because they were inclusive and made us all feel like we had a stake in the company’s success. We were able to find avenues for future research and were encouraged to collaborate with each other. The whole affair was short and to the point. While there were no clear objectives, these meetings felt more like a collaborative affair. I always felt like I had an idea what to expect in the near future and how the company was doing, largely because of these meetings. I was also given opportunities to help my fellow co-workers and improve my company.

How to Prevent Time-Sucking Vacuum Meetings

I recently had a shocking revelation: many professional jobs are basically an endless stream of meetings and emails. This is readily apparent whenever I attend work meetings with construction companies, government agencies, and/or utilities companies. They’re usually aimless, round-robin affairs that usually result in scheduling additional meetings in the future. Nothing is addressed. Problems are rarely solved. And, they always go past their allotted time. Whenever I attend these meetings, I can’t help but wonder, “How can any of these people be satisfied with their careers? How do they feel when they reflect upon the events of their day?” No wonder it takes multiple years to fix the cracks in a sidewalk or resurface the freeway.

Fortunately, there is a cure for time-wasting meetings. I’m going to call upon the chapter called “Interrupting Interruption and the Art of Refusal” from Tim Ferriss’ book The 4-Hour Workweek in order to make some suggestions on how you make meetings better or, if possible, escape them all together.

  1. Meetings should be considered a last-resort activity– Unless you have an urgent need to meet with your co-workers, you should try not to waste their time with a meeting. Instead, send out an email or call them on the phone if you need advice/help.
  2. Use a management chart– Most meetings are simply ways for bosses to keep tabs on what their employees are doing. Rather than wasting the time of a dozen people that aren’t involved in the majority of projects, use a simple management chart that everyone contributes to on a daily basis. I use an excel file or white board as a writing schedule in order to keep track of my progress. A boss could simply create a similar excel file that is stored in a central location on a server or Google Documents. Each day, the employees could spend 60 seconds writing down what they did for that day and commenting on the project’s status. Employees could also note where they’re having troubles or might end up coming in over budget.
  3. Meetings should only be held to make decisions on a specific problem– Gandalf didn’t call together the Fellowship of the Rings just to make friends. They needed to stop evil from conquering their land. That’s the kind of situation that requires a meeting. (Note: They only had one brief meeting before setting off on their quest. Not dozens of pre-field time vacuums).
  4. Keep it down to a definite length of time– Thirty minutes is probably plenty.
  5. Have clear goals and objectives– Are you deciding the division of labor? Brainstorming a technical approach? Need help fixing an efficiency problem at your office? Work towards a clear outcome. Take notes and keep people accountable to the activities they’re assigned.
  6. Keep brainstorming/collaboration sessions focused on the project at hand– Keep the session focused on a particular problem/project. Take notes and, at the end, briefly turn relevant and doable topics into action points that individuals will pursue later. If possible, create a date when the action items will be completed and reported back to the group.
  7. If you can’t prevent time vacuums, do your best to opt out of them– Say you’ve got way too much work and can’t make it to the meeting. Have them email you the notes or recap what happened at lunch. Most of the time, you won’t miss a thing.

NOTE: There is a time and place for meetings that don’t have objectives or focus on a single problem. That’s when you are getting together with a group of acquaintances, colleagues, or peers in order to catch up or network. In my opinion, these aren’t really meetings. They’re simply get-togethers that do not necessarily need to turn into productive work.

For all other meetings, I feel like there should, at bare minimum, be an objective and a strict time deadline. Notes should be taken and made available to everyone that needs to know what has been decided or what will be done. Meetings should be conducted in order to solve problems. Otherwise, you’re simply wasting time that could be used to address the problems that will still remain after the meeting.

What do you do when you cannot get out of a time vacuum?

There will be some times when you can’t get out of a sh*tty meeting. In these occasions, you need to try and make something valuable happen or get some valuable information. Here are some tips for unavoidable time vacuum meetings (Although, Tim Ferriss would say there is no such thing as an unavoidable meeting).

  1. Take notes AND observations– Try to collect data not only on what is said, but also about the character of the other attendees based on their interactions at the meeting. Also, try to record the motivations and goals of the other attendees.
  2. Try to get others to list goals and state when they want them achieved– This will turn amorphous conversations into a meeting with objectives.
  3. Volunteer to help with other people’s projects– Only do this if you can actually help and have the time.
  4. Limit participation– If there is going to be another planning session or pre-field meeting with an agency or client, see if your company can send a single person. I think a single person taking one for the team is much better than sending the project manager, crew chief, and two techs all the way to a 4-hour meeting where your company will only get 15 minutes to talk.

If you can’t change the way these meetings go, try to get out of them. Tell your boss you have a lot on your plate or want to do a really good job on the project you’re working on. See if you can call in to the meeting. I mean, if its going to waste an hour of your day, why not just attend the meeting from your car while driving in to the office and sleep in a little later. Or, if you know your boss’ personality well enough, just politely tell them that the meetings never accomplish anything and the time could be better spent. Suggest that everyone check in via email using instant messager or contribute to a Google Doc.

It is really astounding to think back on all the hours and taxpayer dollars I’ve wasted on meetings that never resulted in any action items or solved any problems. With any luck, we can work together to end time vacuum meetings in cultural resource management, historic preservation, or heritage conservation.
If you have any questions or comments, write below or send me an email.


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