Hybrid work team meeting
Image: Blue Planet Studio/Shutterstock

Meetings are a favorite topic of lament for every leader, with some of us even measuring our importance by how jammed our schedule is each day. The challenges become even more acute in a remote work environment, as time formerly spent commuting, traveling or even walking from one conference room to another is now fair game and only a click away. We’ve all experienced those days of lurching from one video conference to the next, feeling utterly spent before lunch, which someone has already overbooked.

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Unlike gravity, death and taxes, meetings are not an unassailable force of nature that must be tolerated. They’re a very human institution and one that’s very much in our control. Rather than letting meetings get the better of you and ultimately reducing the time you have to actually lead your group, try a few easy tips to regain control of your calendar.

Raise the meeting bar

Too many leaders happily accept hour blocks dropped on their calendar for meandering discussions or half-baked presentations. When a 90-minute “Chat with you about initiatives” meeting flops into your inbox, rather than blindly accepting, tell the person proposing the session that you want to come prepared to best assist them, and would like a pre-read with any background information, critical decisions they’re looking to make and a rough agenda of the topics they’d like to cover.

Too many people use meetings to formulate and focus their ideas, using their leader as a sounding board. While this is unquestionably part of a leader’s job, much of that formulation can be completed with a few emails and some “think time” on the requester’s part.

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Like all things, lead by example. Evaluate the meetings you’ve scheduled with your teams and others, and prepare a one-page pre-read with background information, topics to be discussed and the critical decisions you’re hoping to make. While this might seem like extra homework, 20 minutes of individual prep can usually save an hour of meeting time with several people.

Provide an out

In many organizations, individuals loathe hitting the Decline button in response to a meeting, subconsciously regarding it as being rude or perhaps fearing they’ll miss out on something. Mitigate this quirk of human nature by providing invitees with an easy path to decline if they’re not needed.

Put forethought into whom you mark as required and whom you put into the invite’s optional section, a broadly underutilized feature. In your meeting description, note the criteria you used to determine who was required and optional and explain why people were marked optional. For example, you might note that you invited several people from other projects to your status meeting since there are some overlaps, but you’re more than happy to include them in an emailed report after the meeting.

If you provide an “out,” many will take you up on the offer and start following the same trend.

Hold office hours on your time

Remote work during the pandemic eliminated the ability of people to physically drop-in for a few moments. Unfortunately, the response has generally been to create 30-60 minute check-in meetings that can quickly overrun your day.

Rather than blocking and tackling these requests, manage them on your terms by holding office hours every day, or at least every other day. Depending on your energy levels and how you like to work, this might be a block each afternoon when you’re losing your focus, or perhaps early in the morning before you settle into focused work.

If you’re back in the physical office, this is the time when your door is open. Anyone is welcome to drop in for a quick chat on any topic, with the understanding that if the discussion is going to take longer than 15 minutes to resolve, you’ll jointly agree to a meeting and the required pre-work to facilitate that meeting.

If you’re working remotely, use the tools of most video conferencing software to create a “waiting room” and allow people to drop in and out as needed. Plan the random administrative work, inbox cleanup or other short-duration tasks for this time, and you’ll be able to get those done between drop-ins while also providing focused attention to your team members.

In each of these three cases, simple behaviors can reduce your time in meetings. Rather than blocking your calendar 24/7 or via veiled threats, these techniques acknowledge the importance of human collaboration and seek to maximize its effectiveness for the benefit of your calendar and the quality of the ultimate outcomes.

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Discover the secrets to IT leadership success with these tips on project management, budgets, and dealing with day-to-day challenges. Delivered Tuesdays and Thursdays