TL;DR: Presence is such a driver in how much someone can offer value and how good the quality of their interactions are. How much you can give (or get) out of an interaction depends on how present you are.
A couple of things got me started thinking about presence. One was this instance in a brainstorming session. It’s a brainstorming session so as one would expect there are a lot of inputs and feedback being shared. It’s anything but a passive activity. But then there was this guy who appeared to be doing admin stuff — email and maybe some approval of overtime work. He didn’t end up joining any of the breakout groups which maybe why he wasn’t actively listening in the first place. It feels like such a waste though — to be there and not contribute, to have such potential to contribute (being a senior guy and all) and not contribute. This also just goes to show that your actual presence — not attendance, not just being there, but being engaged in the discussions — plays such a big part on how much value you can contribute.
Then there’s this other thing. A friend shared that her colleague was in a one-on-one meeting with her manager and her manager dozed off. Turns out, the same thing happened to my friend wherein the same manager fell asleep during the meeting. That’s a one-one-one meeting — a venue for you to raise your concerns, share successes if any, or just give relevant updates; and worse, there’s only the two of you in that meeting. Just how unimportant do you think that made those employees feel? Again, presence is such a key thing in the quality of the interactions.
Just to be fair, I don’t know their side so they might have some valid reasons, and I can’t really make excuses for them.
Now, useless meetings isn’t a new and rare thing (sadly) as there are memes and mugs on how a meeting could’ve been an email. But I’m not saying this to shift the burden or blame inattention to the organizers of the meeting. One one hand they do have that responsibility of making sure they get the right people into the meeting to make sure it’s relevant to attendees. But on the other hand, it’s really up to the attendees or participants how much they can give and get out of the meetings they attend.
So long story short: if you’re in a meeting (or more so in a conversation), and you can improve the conversation or you have the potential to add value with respect to that discussion, please try to do that starting with being actually present.
Time and again, my hate for useless meetings seems to keep on drawing me to Paul Graham’s essay “Maker’s Schedule, Manager’s Schedule”. (And also, I did tell a friend I’ll go share this link with her). Every time I read it, I couldn’t help but agree to a lot of the things he said. So much so that I find it hard to cite just one particular line to quote here in this post. You really just have to read the whole thing yourself.
To me, this essay is a pretty good reminder of what we should all be doing (just in case I’ve lapsed, and have been setting meetings or following up like there’s no tomorrow), and that is to respect my own time and other people’s time. In doing that, you make a more conscious effort to (well, if i can help it):
- avoid interrupting or disturbing people unnecessarily
- express gratitude when someone obliges you with their time
- be present in meetings where your inputs or feedback are actually needed
- set up meetings with the implicit target of not wasting people’s time
- decline meetings I’m pretty sure I won’t be engaged in
- decline meetings when they’re in conflict of personal commitments — Those are just as important (and sometimes even more) as work commitments
- honor commitments to yourself — Ages ago, I had to block of time just for my lunch or dinner, and I even missed that because of work. That just isn’t healthy. Also when you block off time to work on something, then use that time to be productive.
Discipline on how you manage your time or own your own calendar starts with one’s self. And how badly your time gets mistreated by others (and even by yourself) highly depends on how much you’d allow it. So for your sake, start respecting and managing your time.
A colleague asked me when was I free for a 30-minute meeting. I thought the answer should be pretty obvious and can easily be found out if he’d check my calendar. But then again, people don’t use the calendars the same way all throughout the company. So it might not have crossed his mind to check my Outlook calendar at all because he was using his calendar differently.
For my part, at the very least, I try to observe the following:
- Set the work hours in the Outlook Calendar. This can be set by going to File > Options > Calendar. The work hours specified more or less identifies the window when I’ll be available for work or meetings.
- When I need a particular time blocked off from meetings, I set an appointment to block it off. So just in case someone wants to set a meeting with me and checks my Outlook calendar, he/she can see that I’m not available during that particular time, and he/she can refer to my available blocks instead.
- I mark off local holidays as an all day appointment. Recently, I’ve been doing the same for my planned vacation leaves.
- When I receive calendar invites, I try to send a response (accept / decline / set as tentative) as soon as possible. This is so that accepted invites would already show up on my calendar to hopefully keep other folks from using the same schedule.
Essentially, I try to keep my calendar clean and up-to-date for my own reference, and for reference of other folks who might need to schedule something with me.
Last year, in my more personal blog, I ranted about meetings. Currently, I’m down to 3 regular meetings per week. For the testers’ meetings, I think they previously had the meeting manager role rotate across the members. But I opted to just preside over the meetings for now and so far we’ve been starting on time, I prepare beforehand for whatever needs to be announced or discussed so I reckon the meeting goes smoothly, and we end earlier if not on time.
So I mentioned I had ranted about meetings, here are just some excerpts from the rants…
[Jul] …What turns me off about meetings anyway. Here’s the stuff I loathe about meetings… all center on it not being done right:
- Meetings that don’t start on time. Time is eaten up waiting for everyone to arrive. And just as you’re about to start someone excuses themselves so that’s yet another delay.
- Meetings with no agenda. No point, no objective, no direction.
- Meetings without someone presiding well over it. When the discussion has gone off track, it simply continues to go downhill.
- Meetings wherein attendees are ill-prepared.
- Meetings wherein attendees are there but aren’t really present.
- Meetings with no minutes. Yes, commit everything to memory.
- Meetings wherein the same things are being said over and over again. This happens when folks aren’t really paying attention, or when someone comes in late and asks the same thing.
- Meetings that drag on for hours.
- Meetings that were set on a short notice without the slightest hint of apology for being called at a short notice. Yes, my life revolves around you — I have no other plans that would have to be moved around.
[Nov] …In instances like these, I feel penalized for actually being on time and for even bothering to book the conference room ahead of time. Which is weird because those should be as expected. So no more Ms. Nice Punctual guy. I’m setting some meeting policies.
- Be there on time! +/- 5 minutes. Especially if you’re the one who called the meeting.
- Notify! Notify in advance if the meeting is canceled. Notify if there are changes to the meeting. Period.
- One third to two thirds in and the meeting hasn’t started buys me the right to consider the meeting canceled.
- If the meeting location was initially set as TBD, let folks know where the venue is even before the meeting starts.
- If you’ve hijacked my room reservation, I can politely kick you out of the meeting room.