Presence Culture and the Treasure of Lost Time

4 minute read

Hi there! It’s been a few day since my last blog post, but this one really made me think and rethink the matter at hand.

COVID-19 forces many companies to move at least parts of their workforce into home offices, including the company I work for. Although this has been a productivity boon for me, as mentioned here, it has also amplified the problems that a presence culture brings with it.

By presence culture, I mean the omnipresent assumption that all potentially-impacted parties must be present in a face-to-face meeting, be it remote or in an actual office.

If one’s colleagues practice this culture, this costs a lot of time and therefore productivity. And I don’t mean only the time one spends in the meeting room. For any meeting to be meaningful, a certain amount of preparation and follow-up work needs to be done. Also, in order to do all this, another activity often needs to be interrupted, and a context switch needs to happen. This also costs time. All this time, comprising attendance, preparation, follow-up, and context switching, is hopelessly lost if one’s attendance in a meeting is insignificant.

Meeting Math 🧮⏱️

Let’s do the math here for a one-hour meeting to which we’re invited as a required participant. Since the meeting actually takes place, we can assume it is about something important, so this needs preparation. If we’re lucky, the invitation includes an agenda or we can find one in the corporate wiki. Reading and understanding the context takes some time. If we don’t have access to an agenda, we need to guess what the meeting is about and speculatively prepare for that. After the meeting is done, we refill our coffee mug and start our recap. Maybe there’s something that needs to be written down. In any case, we need to check the meeting’s minutes. Oh, we don’t have any. Well, let’s just write something up and hope we don’t forget anything of importance. We end up with:

  • 1h for attendance
  • 10min overtime because people were unprepared or late
  • 45min preparation
  • 45min recap

This adds up to a total investment 2 hours and 40 minutes for a one-hour meeting. For one person. If we assume that this scales about linearly with the number of people involved and the duration of the meeting itself, we end up with a huge investment of time, productivity, and ultimately company money.

I’ll just assume six people that each cost the company about 30 EUR per hour (for easier calculation). That’s a total investment of 480 EUR for one meeting. And I didn’t even account for context switch times. Also, I think I for a meeting to be worth the energy that six (!) people invest, the preparation time should probably be longer, depending on how simple it is to find the necessary information.

Now, if I assume six of those one-hour meetings a month, I arrive at a total estimated investment of about 2880 EUR in our six-people scenario. Of course, one could object and say that you could cut more than half of the cost if you just don’t prepare and recap. But it should go without saying that if a meeting participant would do that, they should just stay away from the meeting, as this leads to time not being invested but wasted. I’d make an exception here for people that just joined a company or team, but I’d expect those to start preparing for meetings rather soon – else they can’t at least follow along.

Meetings And Working From Home 🏘️

Let’s recap that presence culture thingy from above. I claimed that having being a remote team thrust upon you amplifies the problems. How so? Well…

  • People tend to be even later than usual because there’s less external cues for a meeting being about to start
  • People tend to be more distracted because it’s easy to do other screen stuff during the meeting
  • People tend to be more distracted because they might need to share their workplace with their spouse or kids
  • People tend to be more distracted because they see interesting stuff in their colleagues’ backgrounds
  • People tend to be more distracted because the small chitchat that happens on the office “side channel” now happens in the first minutes of a meeting
  • People tend to be more distracted due to technical difficulties

This all leads to meetings taking more time when the participants aren’t used to a remote setting.

Please don’t get me wrong - I don’t want to rant about people not handling these extraordinary circumstance perfectly. In fact, I admire how well my coworkers handle it! Should any of them read this: Kudos to you. 🙇 Especially if you had/have to watch your kids while working. And even if someone has their fair share of problems dealing with this new situation, that’s totally okay! Neither of us had a choice, so neither of us should be judged.

Conclusions 📊

I just want to suggest being more diligent when it comes to these decisions:

  • Do we schedule a meeting for $THIS?
  • Whose attendance is needed?
  • Whose attendance is not needed but would be truly beneficial?
  • What should I include in the agenda/invitation that would help my colleagues prepare?

And most importantly:

  • Do I accept this meeting invitation?

Ask yourself these questions whenever you’re tempted to propose or accept a meeting. Not every hour spent in a meeting is wasted, but every hour not spent in a meeting is probably not wasted. Lots of meetings could be a small (!) series of e-mails or chat messages. Try experimenting with an opt-in culture!

The Future 🔮

In my team, we’ve started to experiment with changes to our meeting habits. I’ll keep you posted on interesting results!

Thanks for reading and see you next time! 👋