We all can agree that we have too many meetings. From the one-off event to the weekly check-in with an employee, meetings are taking an increasing amount of time in our daily work. But removing meetings from your calendar isn’t always the best way to take back your time.
When faced with an onslaught of regular meetings, many managers fall into the trap of believing that they’re too busy to keep their one-on-one meetings with their direct reports, figuring that these sit-downs are not as important as all the other items they have on their agenda. They assume these meetings can be substituted with an email exchange or an open-door policy, whereby people can stop by with a quick question, instead of demanding a 30-minute chunk of a day. But this strategy is highly inefficient. It’s true that canceling one-on-one meetings can appear to open up more space on your calendar, but in my experience as a time coach, I see again and again that not taking the time at the front end to effectively manage your direct reports leads to a lot of wasted time on the back end.
There are some obvious issues that come from cancelling these meetings with regards to your direct reports’ work. Not having a predictable scheduled time with you can lead employees to work on something incorrectly, which can cause unnecessary emergencies and wasted time fixing errors. Or it can lead to a decrease in productivity because employees are confused and unclear about their priorities and therefore don’t accomplish much.
But the costs of not keeping one-on-one meetings — and not running them effectively — are in fact much, much higher in terms of your own time management and productivity. When you don’t commit to specific time with boundaries when you will devote your attention to your direct reports, they need to find other, much less effective ways to connect with you. They may start sending you lots of e-mails because, as questions come up, they’re unsure of when they will meet with you next. They may hover outside your office trying to catch you in between meetings. This is not only a waste of their time, waiting for a response or hanging out like lobbyists in hopes of catching a few distracted minutes with you, but also this leads to you feeling no sense of control over your schedule. You’re constantly distracted. You never know when someone will be at your door, so you don’t feel like you can plan to get your important work done (or even answer e-mails) in the gaps between meetings. If they knew they could count on their one-on-one time with you, they could save those questions and go through them with you all at once.
When you cancel one-on-ones and compensate with an open door policy, your time investment mimics that of a call center employee who takes requests in the order they are received, instead of an effective manager and executive who aligns his time investment with his priorities. Yes, giving feedback and support is part of your role, but it’s absolutely not all it takes to operate in an effective way in your position.
To help reinstate a sense of predictability with your direct reports, get in place weekly or biweekly recurring meetings. Make a commitment to do whatever possible to keep them, even if it means you connect by phone instead of in person or for a shorter amount of time.
Then, as you increase your level of commitment to your employees, require that same level of commitment from them by holding them accountable for the effectiveness of their interactions with you. Request that tracking documents are updated in advance of your meetings and reports on action items are sent in advance for you to review quickly. This teaches your staff to think activities through, anticipate issues, problem solve on their own, and effectively leverage your time instead of dropping by whenever questions come up. Your one-on-one time can then be spent on answering questions, problem solving, and strategic thinking instead of status updates. This is also an opportunity for you to offer direction on priorities and strategy, since with your uninterrupted open time, you can think strategically about what’s happening and communicate that to your direct reports.
This also means that you want to create the expectation that all nonurgent items will be covered in your scheduled meetings and that it’s not acceptable to drop by on a frequent basis with questions that could easily be covered in a one-on-one. You can also save your nonurgent e-mails and reply to them all verbally when you meet.
To maximize the effectiveness of this strategy — especially when you’re retraining your staff — you may need to close your door during some portion of the day so you can focus on the activities you need to get done, whether it’s strategy work, prep for a presentation, or simply pounding through some e-mail. Closing your door isn’t saying you don’t care about people or their work problems, but it is saying that you honor your commitments to yourself and other important work. Your direct reports are less likely to violate this uninterrupted work time, since you’ve shown them the respect of making and keeping your one-on-one meetings with them. They should have what they need to move forward with their own projects, so you can focus on yours without concern that you’re the bottleneck.
Of course, I’m not suggesting that you keep your door closed all the time or that you never accept questions in between one-on-ones. But by creating a culture where these regular meetings are respected and dropping by is the exception, not the norm, you create a much more respectful, efficient, and effective culture in which everyone has a better ability to align their time investment with their priorities.