After taking time off from GotDegrees (partly because I needed to take time to live life in order to have something to write about, partly because I needed to take time to survive selection season), I’ve decided that I need to cut back on posts for a while- but not by much: Starting in March, I will be posting TWICE a week– on Tuesdays and Fridays. Every now and then I may post a few surprise pieces outside of the general schedule, but I feel like it’s a good idea for me to slow down so I don’t burn out and so I don’t burn you all out as readers.
Now, back to our regularly scheduled programming:
What did you do between the hours of 8:00 AM and 5:00 PM yesterday? If you’re currently working in any capacity, particularly if you’re working in student affairs, I’m willing to bet my next check that you spent at least a third of that time (maybe more) in meetings. Meetings with students, with your colleagues, with campus partners, parents, vendors, community stakeholders, supervisors, so on and so forth. Meetings to talk about projects, staff performance, collaborations, “learning opportunities” (read: any and every stupid stunt students can pull that result in conduct cases), etc. This is part of the work we do, and part of being a white collar professional in America. Sometimes strenuous, sometimes frustrating, but it’s how things get done in the workplace. Such is life, right?
So why do we complain about it so much? If people have to write articles and in some cases entire books about having better, more productive meetings, something is clearly rotten in the state of Denmark no matter how many of us claim to love what we do.
Why Does This Matter?
This topic came up for me a few weeks ago and was the focus of my second PHEATURE Phriday because as much as I love the work I do, I find that I often feel like I’m part of meetings to set up other meetings to talk about the content of more meetings; a good friend and colleague often says that at my institution “we have conversations about conversations,” and rarely, if ever, does anything actually come out of this endless loop of talking. Granted, change in higher education usually moves at a glacial pace, so I can’t say I’m surprised, but I can say that I’m over it happening without being questioned, especially when my personal and professional time is involved. One of the articles I posted in the aforementioned piece noted that professionals spend nearly 9 hours a week in project update meetings, and I actually think this figure is quite low for SAPros- I can spend that much time in individual staff one on one meetings alone so it’s W closer to 15-20 hours for me.
In most cases, I can deal with this- I love meeting with my students and catching up, or checking in with colleagues on projects we’re doing together and in these instances these sessions are as much social as they are professional (more on this later). However, there are many, many cases where I feel like my time might be better spent elsewhere- and clearly this is a sentiment shared by folks in and out of higher education. At a time where we are dealing with decreased funding and resources, fewer staff doing more work, and an increasing sense that accountability to stakeholders is necessary, why are we fine with sitting in rooms for hours at a time, wandering down winding paths that lead to nowhere? We don’t have time for this, nor do we have the energy to dedicate to this project- especially if we want to help our students and ourselves. Higher education is often served with a heaping side of bureaucracy, and it’s no wonder that students can often feel like we don’t hear them or see them and their concerns and needs- we’re too busy sitting in the conference room next door discussing how to do the work instead of doing it! I imagine that this trend also contributes to burnout among staff- another issue we don’t need when most of us already do the work of multiple professionals.
Why is this happening? How did we get here? How do we fix the problem and save ourselves from the scourge of infinite meetings?
Why Do We Have So Many Meetings?
Let’s be honest- if I really knew the answer to this question, I would be a public intellectual selling books on the national stage and hiring a staff to run this blog for me (life goals?). There are a million reasons why we may have an excess of meetings that pop up on our calendars and why we allow them to take over, and there’s no way I can cover them all here. I do think that there are some common ones that I’ve seen that really grind my gears (in the words of Peter Griffin) and that I think we can work on. In no particular order:
- Disorganization and Miscommunication. To an INTJ like me, wasting my time is like spitting in my face or insulting my mother- there are few things you can do to me that will anger me more. When we have meetings to update others on projects, make decisions, or otherwise do the work needed in our organizations we end up meeting the most when we don’t dedicate the time to prepare beforehand. Think about the last staff meeting you had to attend- did you actually read through the notes from the last meeting or the required readings or materials to discuss? If you didn’t, on behalf of the people who did, you should probably know someone likely resisted the urge to throw something at you- or worse. Other questions I have for you: Did you set an agenda? Time limits? Action items at the end of the meeting? If professors can do it for classes, why can’t we do it as professionals? Not communicating that you didn’t meet expectations, or providing updates that may change the nature of the conversation is another major issue here that can further make more work for others (also not a good look).
- Desire for Social Interaction: Remember above when I said that some of the best meetings can be times for social interaction as much as they are for professional development? Don’t worry- I haven’t changed my mind on that and I really do believe it. However, the problem lies in the tendency for the scale to tip in the favor of the social side and not to do enough in the way of professional work. In most cases, people who work in student affairs are naturally social- even if they tend to be more introverted, they usually (hopefully!) like helping others and working with others so it’s natural to get caught up in conversation, even if it is professionally stimulating. However, staff meetings are rarely the best time to do this- in the case of my student staff team that meets from 8:00-9:30 PM (usually split into two halves each for 45 minutes), the LAST thing they want to do is to sit in a room late at night so keeping it strictly or mostly business is highly preferred. Coffee dates, lunches and happy hours are better suited for non-work related chit chat- save your best energy for the tasks at hand in the workplace.
- Reluctance To Set Limits: This works a couple of ways- for one, I think we’re reluctant at times to cut conversations off and to ask people to hold their thoughts for more appropriate times or places, either out of a fear that we’re stifling discussion or that we’ll upset someone. This leads to meetings that have no agendas, fluid agendas or agendas that get tossed out completely and to meetings that run way over the scheduled time. No one wants to be the person who cuts off others or makes others upset- but by allowing folks to talk unchecked and for meetings to go on and on, you’re far more likely to upset people by wasting time. The other way that limits are needed and often neglected is by using one type of meeting to address multiple concerns and levels of concerns instead of being strategic about time. In our roles, we have many minor needs, some day to day concerns, major crises and emergent situations, and long-range concerns- spending hours having a larger conversation about strategic direction when you really need to figure out what’s happening in the office this week makes no sense and can severely impact your office’s ability to move forward in meeting any challenges at all. It’s true that in our profession we are often overworked and have to do the work of what should be two or three professionals- but in doing so, we need to prioritize what’s important, learn to say no, and spend the time we do have in the right places.
How Do We Fix This?
So here’s what we know so far:
- Meetings are often crucial to our success as SAPros.
- They’re also a huge drain on our time and energy.
- We’re partly to blame for some of this due to bad habits.
Clearly, we can’t do our work without meeting together- so how do we do it better? Some suggestions from me below:
- Be realistic and efficient about time and resources. If you only have time for a 60 minute meeting, don’t pull together material for 90 minutes or more- realistically you should be setting aside at least 10-15 minutes of your time for any unexpected issues, questions, concerns, announcements, etc. My personal rule is to have enough content to fill 75% of your time because you’ll more than likely run over. If you don’t have enough to talk about or if your topic can easily be covered in a quick e-mail exchange or through stopping by someone’s office, avoid putting another meeting on your calendar. Respect the time of whoever you’re meeting with- students, staff, faculty, or otherwise- and don’t overbook.
- Set an agenda- and actually follow it. I don’t have large staff meetings unless I have some set agenda planned- make sure you know what you want to get out of times together and do your best to share that with folks in the meeting (bonus points if you do it beforehand). NEVER schedule a meeting longer than 10-15 minutes without an agenda- it’s way too easy to get off track and lose focus.
- Do your homework BEFORE the meeting- or be honest about it if you didn’t. If you need to read something or review notes beforehand, DO IT. It’s exhausting and infuriating to have to take time out of my schedule to sit in meetings where I spend time watching others do things they could have done before they got to the meeting. I get that this can’t always happen- the nature of our roles requires flexibility, but me allowing you to disrespect me and my time isn’t being flexible- it’s being negligent. If you can’t adequately prepare, let whomever you’re meeting with know so you can reschedule- don’t be the office douchebag who always comes in empty-handed.
- Make sure to end the meeting with takeaways and action items. This one is harder to do. We can’t always ensure action on everything we discuss. It’s still important to work towards having concrete takeaways and towards giving folks work to do afterwards- it can curb the need for more meetings and provide opportunities for professional growth.
- Connect with colleagues on your own time. Notice that I didn’t say that you can’t be social in meetings when it’s appropriate. Some degree of this is necessary and you do need to get along with your colleagues when working together so it’s to be expected that you’ll want to catch up. However, dragging out a meeting when others have important work to do isn’t a good look- and for the introverts in the room who run on lower reserves of social energy, it’s draining to be stuck in endless social interactions. If you’re spending longer than 10 minutes a meeting doing this, consider setting up a separate time to check in or making that part of the meeting optional.
- Check your ego at the door. SAPros like to talk and to get their opinions and thoughts out there- again, not a surprise- but talking just to hear yourself speak or to avoid making a decision isn’t being collegial. Be willing to take the space you need and to make space for others and to consider your office or department’s shared goals, mission and values in making decisions. Resist the temptation to place yourself and your wants above your students’ needs.
- Consider reorganizing your meeting structure. One of my favorite professional reads of the past few months was Patrick Lencioni’s Death By Meeting. One of his suggestions is to implement varying levels of meetings to best use time. A quick 5-10 minute check-in at the beginning of each day can give everyone a sense of the daily agenda and any emergent issues coming up, while a weekly staff meeting can be used best for project updates and more ongoing concerns. Larger conversations or summaries can be done in monthly progress meetings while strategic decisions are usually best saved for quarterly off-sites or retreats. However you choose to do it, be thoughtful about when and where you spend time so you don’t get caught up in larger issues and ignore the day-to-day dramas.
Again, I’m not opposed to meetings in general- if I was, there’s no way I’d survive as long as I have in a career that requires so many of them. However, if we’re going to avoid burning out, angering each other and neglecting our biggest stakeholders- our students- we’ve got to rethink how we do them going forward.
Hope you’ve enjoyed this piece and got something out of it! Please share your thoughts on whether you think our meeting culture is excessive, as well as any tips and tricks you use to run great meetings. I’ll be back later in the week with a very long overdue PROTIP Phriday- thanks for reading and as always please, please, please like, comment and share with your friends! See you again soon!