Deliberate Rest

A blog about getting more done by working less

Tag: meetings

Clockwise and the challenge of taming meetings in favor of focused time

For my next book, Shorter: How The 4-Day Week Can Save the World (not the exact title necessarily), I talked a lot to companies about how they fit 5 days’ work into 4. All of them talk about getting meetings under control: making them shorter, corralling them into particular parts of the day (and never letting them escape), and making sure that the minimum viable number of people are there.

One of my favorite clocks— a screen with a video of someone painting the minute hands, then wiping them off, then painting the next minute, on and on.

So I was interested to read about a new company / product, Clockwise, that is “using machine learning to make the calendars we already have work better.“ The basic idea is to use Clockwise to consolidate meeting times, so rather than have meetings scattered throughout everyone’s day, people can compress them into particular blocks of time, leaving them more “focus time”— that is, time to work uninterrupted on other tasks. As one of the investors explains,

Clockwise can figure out which meetings are movable (like weekly 1–1s) and which aren’t (like staff meetings), and can rework your weekly calendar to give you back time to think & time to work.

I’m not sure why some kinds of meetings aren’t movable (maybe they are only if everyone involved is using the product?), but it’s certainly an interesting approach. I would note a couple things, though.

The Corpus Clock

First, most of the people I’ve interviewed talk both about improving meeting discipline— making them shorter, requiring agendas, etc.— and changing norms around interrupting other people. Focused time doesn’t just spring up like a jac-in-the-box; you have to make sure that people respect each other’s need for focus, and that you see your own good behavior as essential to the solution. (As traffic engineers say, you’re not in traffic, you are traffic; all that frustrated honking at everyone else who’s clogging up the roads while you’re rightfully trying to get somewhere obscures the fact that you’re part of the problem. Likewise, recognizing that everyone’s attention and time are valuable, and acting accordingly, is really important.)

If companies have shorter meetings, but the culture of the office says that it’s okay for people to interrupt each other a lot, you’re not going to get much improvement. You need to do both.

Scenes from Tokyo

Second, while the animation shows meetings all migrating to the morning to reserve focus time in the afternoons, this runs counter to what everyone I’ve interviewed shoots for. All the companies that have migrated to 4-day weeks or 6-hour days reserve the mornings for focus time, and leave meetings until the afternoon (unless you’re in sales, and even then you try to get better control over your time). This is a small point, but given how many studies indicate that we’re more capable of focusing hard in the mornings, it might be good for people to have to override “afternoon meetings” as the default.

Finally, the other thing everyone does is make meetings a lot shorter. There’s no facility for this yet, but it would be an obvious thing to try to figure out how the system can learn enough about different types of meetings to suggest meetings lengths, rather than just default to 1 hour (which has become a default for reasons no one remembers any longer).

Anyway, it’s promising to see a company take this approach, and it’ll be interesting to see how it evolves.

Roombot and meeting scheduling

In my study of how companies shorten their workdays, one of the things I’ve consistently seen is companies shortening meetings, and doing a number of things to make meetings more effective: requiring pre-circulated agendas and goals, sharing background material beforehand, having walking or standing meetings, and making sure that conference call phones and other tech are running smoothly before the meeting is scheduled to start, so you don’t spend the first 10 minutes looking for dry-erase markers or punching in conference codes.

They also use tools to signal when meeting times are up, or when the group only has a few minutes left. The most popular tools are kitchen timers and smartphone alarms (unless your company bans devices in meetings, which is another popular thing), but a couple have taken a more high-tech approach: using Philips Hue lightbulbs and some locally-sourced code to have the room itself signal when you should start wrapping up.

I first heard about this tool at IIH Nordic, a Copenhagen-based SEO firm that moved to a 4-day week, but others use it, too. Philadelphia design firm O3 World calls their RoomBot, and explains how their system works in this video:

It’s a cool system, but the important thing is to have some kind of external tool that announces when your time is up.

Calendars, concentration, and creativity

Via Lifehacker, a nice little essay on "the chokehold of calendars," and how we've accidentally (or thoughtlessly) designed them to kill our productivity and concentration:

The idea of a calendar as a public fire hydrant for colleagues to mark is ludicrous. The time displayed on your calendar belongs to you, not to them….

The problem with calendars is that they are additive rather than subtractive. They approach your time as something to add to rather than subtract from. Adding a meeting is innocuous. You’re acting on a calendar. A calendar isn’t a person. It isn’t even a thing. It’s an abstraction. But subtracting an hour from the life of another human being isn’t to be taken lightly. It’s almost violent. It’s certainly invasive. Shared calendars are vessels you fill by taking things away from other people.

"I’m adding a meeting" should really be "I’m subtracting an hour from your life."

Amen to that….

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