Meeting Agenda #1: Start on Time

Our society is founded on the importance of meetings, and it seems that the higher on the corporate ladder one climbs, the more meetings he must attend. Indeed, one of Michele Sliger's coworkers calculated that the amount of time she spends arranging meetings, getting to meetings, and in meetings equates to almost her entire workweek-thirty-six hours on average. Even though we may lose track of time in meetings, we all are painfully aware of the time we spend waiting for everyone to show up. In this column, Michele Sliger explains some of the tactics she's seen teams use to ensure that meetings start on time.

With multiple back-to-back meetings scheduled throughout the day, it's inevitable that some will run long and others will start late as attendees fly around like busy, busy bees. There are a lot of problems associated with having so many meetings, especially since over-booked calendars leave us with little time to do any actual work. But for this article, let's keep it short and focus solely on how to get people simply to show up on time to the meetings they currently have.

Hi-Ho, Hi-Ho, It's off to Work We Go
One team decided that anyone who comes in late has to sing. Nobody much relished the thought of having his coworkers hear him warble and being teased mercilessly about it throughout the day. (Actually the teasing was a corollary to the first rule of having to sing if you show up late, and the teasing, like the workday, must end at 5 p.m.) The singing rule worked fine for a while, and everyone showed up on time, until the new director started joining the planning meetings.

He was always late, and it turned out that he enjoyed singing! The first time he was tardy to this team's meeting, the manager of the team graciously offered to let the punishment slide since the director was unaware of the team rule, but the director was happy to comply. He first sang "I'm a Little Teapot," a child's song, which he acted out with one hand on his hip as a handle and the other arm extended as the spout. Subsequent late comings meant the team was regaled with show tunes and pop songs, one of which included an excellent air guitar accompaniment.

Time Equals Money
Something as simple as a "tardy fee" can work as well. Fines usually range from a quarter to a dollar, and the money can go to a snack fund or to charity. Small amounts are not effective deterrents for chronic abusers, who often will throw down $5 and say "Here, I'm going to be late a lot." This is good news for the charity but bad news for the team.

For one group trying this approach, charging more was an option but seemed out of line with their goal of encouraging people to show up on time—not punishing them for being late. Executive managers liked the idea of fining people who were late, however, so they decided to charge each other twenty dollars. Hundreds of dollars later, it was clear that no matter the fee—$1 at the team level or $20 at the executive level—people weren't encouraged to show up on time.

So the incentives were changed. The executives gave $200 to each team that would go to the charity of the team's choice at the end of each quarter, provided everyone showed up to their meetings on time. If someone was late, one dollar was then taken out of the pot, reducing the amount of money that would go to the charity. Guilt, in this case, worked much better!

Crime and Punishment
Koosh balls are also a great way for good-natured teams to enforce the late rule. These are small, colorful balls made from strands of soft rubber tied together at the center. They are fun to play with, and getting hit with one doesn't hurt. One team kept a bowl full of Koosh balls in the center of the conference table. When the meeting started and it was clear someone was going to be late, everyone reached into the bowl to grab a ball. When the offender finally showed up he was welcomed with a hail of Koosh balls flung at him. Adding insult to injury, the offender was responsible for cleaning up the mess after the meeting: all Koosh balls returned to the bowl, cups and papers thrown away, etc.

One team decided that whoever showed up last—late or not—had to record the minutes for the next meeting. This can actually be a nice way to share the burden for some groups, as no one seems to particularly enjoy this responsibility. However if this method of encouraging on-time attendance isn't agreed to by all members of the team, it can backfire. Many who are forced to write meeting minutes won't do a very good job of it if they feel resentful, and this can lead to inaccuracies and incomplete notes in the final document.
Taking Back Lost Time
One friend of mine, deciding it would be fruitless to try to fight the system, just came to meetings prepared to spend the first fifteen minutes doing something useful. Like many of us, she would bring her laptop and continue working until everyone showed up. She actually found this the most productive time of her day, as she often had the room to herself for a few minutes and could concentrate better in the quiet, distraction-free environment.

The less subtle bring a book to read. And I'm not talking about a business book, but a dog-eared paperback with cowboys or space aliens or lovers on the cover. I watched one man pull his book back out in the middle of a meeting when a coworker showed up late and the manager stopped the meeting to update the late-comer with what had been discussed.

Topping this was a woman who would knit during meetings, not bothering to stop once the meeting was underway. She took a few notes here and there. Surprisingly, the constant clicking of her knitting needles was actually kind of soothing—almost as if someone were typing on a keyboard and getting real work done.

Whatever your group comes up with—whether late arrivals must buy bagels for the team or perform an interpretive dance—keep in mind that you'll probably have to experiment until you find something that works in your culture. Sometimes simply becoming more aware of the problem is all that's needed to fix it. Other times a big bowl of Koosh balls can really help!

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