Respect Thy Time: How to Stop Calling Meetings That People Hate

column | Professional Development

Respect Thy Time: How to Stop Calling Meetings That People Hate

By Stephen J. Valentine (Columnist) and Reshan Richards (Columnist)     Jul 12, 2017

Respect Thy Time: How to Stop Calling Meetings That People Hate

As much as possible, the work of educators should be clear of interruptions. That is, teachers and professors should be able to spend most of their non-teaching time, energy and attention on writing lesson plans, assessing student work, conferring with students, and collaborating with their colleagues.

Instead, we often spend our time in committees, inboxes or calendar programs; starting at screens or tapping on phones; that is, anywhere but where we should be: knee deep in the process of challenging and supporting young people in order to quicken and ensure their transformation into engaged, curious, lively, and future-minded citizens.

School leaders who understand this—and who believe that it is their job to respect the time and talent of their colleagues—work relentlessly to discover, adapt, and apply the best available tools for organizing work in their schools.

Let’s take one of the most basic possible examples to show a cellular level version of the kinds of choices that often go unexamined in schools. Each week, school leaders are responsible for calling meetings. (Or they are responsible for someone who is responsible for calling meetings). There are several ways to approach this particular problem, but they are not all equally respectful of the people who will ultimately attend the meetings.

One way to call a meeting is to digitally force an event onto people’s calendar. This choice assumes that you can see, and have access to, your colleague’s calendars. Yet recognize that if you simply grab the first spot that works for most people and schedule a meeting without speaking to them, you are serving yourself.

Another option for calling a meeting is to email everybody on the team and ask them for times when they are free. We’ve seen this kind of invite frequently, and it often leads to a dozen or more emails as people “Reply All” and the person calling the meeting reacts and adjusts—all while cluttering up everyone’s inboxes. Asking people to continually check their calendars and get back to you is also a phenomenal way to break their concentration, repeatedly, with micro-interruptions.

A third way to handle this task is to send a Doodle Poll or build a simple availability table in a Google Form or Google Doc. Using these tools, people indicate their availability and then you have a set of data to make a decision. People hear from you just once when you ask for input and once when you announce the meeting.

Sample poll created on Source

Option 3 is optimal because it is the choice that most fully honors the time and talent of the group. It limits interruptions and models tidy information exchanges. Organizations that are really taking care of people, really respecting their time and talent, should never allow small organizational tasks to detract from the real work of educators.

And what about the meeting itself, the one you worked so hard to schedule? Once you’ve called a meeting, you then have to decide what you’re going to do with the meeting. For many school leaders, this planning entails writing an agenda, which is the basic prerequisite for running an effective meeting. We encourage leaders to adopt a pre-prerequisite, though, by asking themselves if the desired outcome of the meeting can only be achieved by having a traditional meeting. If the answer is yes, then by all means, run a traditional meeting.

But it’s possible that other options exist. For example, you might be able to seed information via a Slack message and then collect responses from people. (Sure, this requires building new habits around new tools, but such habits could improve the nature of work and communication in your school.)

Or you can record a video message, telling people exactly how long it will take them to view, digest and respond to it, and the deadline by which you need to hear from them. This option allows them the maximum amount of control over their own schedules as they can complete the task when it suits them. Similar to the Doodle example above, the leader can then collect, aggregate and synthesize the responses. When it makes sense to call people together, they will be several steps into the work and recognize that being in each other’s presence is the only way to get the task done. In other words, the need for a face-to-face meeting will be baked into the meeting itself.

Calling a face-to-face meeting by default, because it’s the easiest way for you to solve the problem of holding a meeting, can be self-serving; over time, people will start to catch on. The use of technology, too, can send also give the wrong impression. It can mean you don’t want to walk down the hall to deal with something face-to-face. (Not great.) It can be impersonal. (Not great.) It can quickly and easily convert humans into data points. (It depends.)

But not using technology can send messages, too. For those who know that a solution is available that can save time, sins of technological omission are deeply frustrating. A good way to experience this frustration firsthand is to attempt to compile a planning document with a colleague who refuses to use Google Docs. As versions of Word Documents fly back and forth and revision histories are buried in individual laptop folders, your patience and goodwill will chafe against the knowledge that a more eloquent solution exists.

The same holds true for students. Maintain a sloppy learning management system and students will spend too much of their time talking with each other about what’s due for your class and why you don’t seem to care about all their time that could be spent on more meaningful actually learning.

Get rid of unnecessary obligations that get in the way of the kinds of teacher and student interactions that lead to learning. Rethink your communication protocols. You are not serving your teachers (who in turn serve your students) if you call them to meetings in ways that require too much effort on their part, or ask them to address problems that can be solved outside of a face-to-face, time- and land-locked gathering. Modern leaders work on the edges of what’s possible, always trying to take friction and waste out of systems, always trying to establish the conditions for amazing learning to happen.

Leadership that ignores such efforts is not fully respectful of people’s time and talents. And in the world we work in, with all that we have available, not being curious about tools is a sign of either an overworked leader or a leader who is simply not asking enough of the right question.

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