Too Busy for Team Building?
You are busy. Your team meetings are already starting late and running over. How could you possibly have time for team-building at the beginning of the meeting? Taking 5 minutes out at the beginning of the meeting and still ending on time, not only seems elusive, it seems counter-productive; but what if taking time out made your team actually able to work better?
To explore this further, we’ve taken a closer look at meetings and why they are unproductive to begin with.
Meeting Impacts on Team Energy
Team members only have so much mental energy per day to do their work. A lot of research conducted on the optimal work output of the Ford workers, during the creation of the modern assembly line. And that research still holds up today with rote task based assembly lines. That’s where we got the concept of a 40 hour week in the first place. 40 hours per week was the optimal time that someone could actually work and keep the factory working at full capacity. Short-term gains were made by increasing hours to 60, but over the next 3 weeks results started to breakdown and the overall productivity was actually less than that of a consistent 40 hours per week.
We know this today as burn-out. And burn-out affects people in every industry when they are working past their creative and physical potential.
Science of Productivity and Optimizing Output
Since the time of Ford, the economy has undergone a major shift in production. Instead of physical goods and manufacturing, American industry is now primarily composed knowledge workers. These people work less with their hands and more with their minds. The optimal time to work has also shifted as thinking and planning actually takes more work than doing something known with known outcomes. It’s a wicked environment compared to a kind environment. And so the average knowledge worker, although working 40 hours per week, is probably at their maximum productivity at about half of that.
Enter meetings. On a factory line, meetings might have been held once per day or once per month. They weren’t as integral to the operation as they are in the knowledge economy. Daily meetings with knowledge working teams, allow plans to start to form and come together in a collaborative fashion. And they help hold tension on what needs to get done and what to do next.
But as we all know, there is a dark side to meetings. Meetings take up to half of the worker’s actual work time. And this might be on the low end. They are an interruption to the knowledge worker’s thought processes and tasks they execute before and after their meetings. And those tasks are likely mission critical tasks akin to the hands on work of the assembly line worker. So meetings are seen as a necessary evil and something that gets in the way of the actual work.
Working Time versus Productive Time and Burnout
With 50% of team member’s time consumed with meetings and up to 75% – 95% of the manager’s time – how does work actually get done? Sheer will and force. Cultures form around values like coming in early and staying late to get the actual work done. This creates an always-on culture where employees meet during the day and work at night at the expense of learning, health, connection with family and other team members. It’s a recipe for burn-out and the companies in today’s world are likely all working on a burn-out pace. Innovation and growth likely take a hit as a result. And it affects all types of workers from executives, to managers, to employees – no one is immune to burn-out.
We can also see the effects of this post-pandemic with people quitting or quiet quitting in droves and trying to find a better work-life balance. Something that allows them to preserve their ability to think and process in a way they could do better before burn-out set in.
If we go back to the Ford example, if the manufacturing company employee was burned out working 60 hours a week on his manual labor, then a knowledge worker’s burn-out probably sets in at about half that time. So 30 hours per week of dedicated thought and abstract conceptualization would be too much. And if the organization reduced hours they would get better throughput in the long-run. In other words, it’s much more sustainable to not be “high-performing” or running on all cylinders for more than a couple of weeks at a time. Anything above that threshold will likely result in going through the motions and mental burn-out.
Is This Meeting the Best Use of our Time?
Is this meeting really the best use of time? You are asking this question and so are your team members.
Many times, meetings become routine and the time they take to actually produce results increases while the results themselves diminish. These meetings could be held at the same time and place every week for years with no change to the timing, outcomes, or focus. And we think this is behind some of the burn-out. How could you possibly fit another meeting on your calendar? Likely you can’t and more likely you shouldn’t. Instead look for ways to reduce meeting time and increase focus on the outcomes.
Less is more when it comes to meetings. And techniques like Scrum Stand-ups and tools like Slack can help to reduce meeting times. It’s now easier than ever to collaborate in real-time outside of meetings. And boundaries are essential because it’s now easier than ever to have an “always-on” culture.
Hint: although it might sound nice, having an “always-on” culture isn’t possible and doesn’t serve long-term interests.
Effects of an “Always-On” Culture
We don’t have to look that far back to see what the effects of “always-on” are. Ford’s own research proved that working above your max productivity threshold for long was a recipe for failure and sub-optimal results. Otherwise, we would’ve built a 60 hour work week for everyone.
As time goes on we see the “butt-in-seat” culture dying. And it’s dying because time in position doesn’t matter as much in the knowledge economy. How many hours you work can actually have a negative impact on productivity.
Too few hours and you don’t get enough done or have a strong enough cadence to produce outcomes with a team.
Too many hours and you all become burned-out.
In a burn-out culture ideas die and the norm becomes going through the motions.
How much of your day is consumed by meetings can show you a lot about the culture of the organization you serve. And although managers and executives will have more meetings than their employee counterparts, having too many long meetings will effectively hold them back from bringing their best work and ideas to the company. And overtime, the team culture and accountability will break down as no one seems to have the time anymore.
Team Work is an Opportunity for Team Building
So what do you do about burn-out on your team? Stop meetings? Not exactly. We think meetings are fundamental to the knowledge economy and the ability to work together. So meetings are certainly necessary. But when was the last time you used your meetings for discussing anything but the work at hand?
Meetings are full of people who work together everyday, but don’t know the first thing about one another. The most impactful thing you can do with your meetings is set firm time tables and objectives so that the meetings themselves act as a touch-point not a working session or the only way work gets done in the organization. Borrowing from Scrum – Meetings can be a central point of team work in discovering obstacles and challenges and letting the team self manage dependencies and challenges together instead of being dictated by a manager. They are a way to level the playing field and break down silos.
Taking Forced Breaks Together and Opening Communication
Team meetings are a great opportunity to add in breaks for everyone on the call. Start off the meeting with a quick 5-minute activity that has nothing to do with the meeting itself. This will help to facilitate the mental break that is needed to switch between tasks effectively. By adding in a short break, you are actually giving back to your team in a meaningful way and shortcutting the mental transition and focusing process. If you do team based activities together, then you can actually start to build connections and help the team communicate before the actual meeting even starts.
Now your team is more connected, relaxed, and focused; and they are already talking to each other in a way that they weren’t before adding these breaks.
We think the result is that you’ll have better meetings and will be able to collaborate more as the team gets to know each other better. In a remote world this is even more important. Remote and “always-on” tend to go hand-in-hand. The likelihood of remote workers feeling isolated is much higher than that of workers on-site.
Facilitating Respect for Your Team Members’ Time and Energy
At the heart of great companies, teams, and relationships is the foundation of respect. Knowing more about how your employee’s feel, think, and work will give you insight – like Henry Ford had – as to what is the optimal cadence for work on my team? This will help you respect their energy and time better. And it will allow you to tailor your experience to help the team get the most out of every interaction together.
Respect your Team Member’s Time
Respect the team’s time by making sure that meetings start and end on time – always. Additional discussion topics can have meetings of their own that also start and end on time.
Respect your Team Member’s Energy
Respect the team’s energy by knowing when you are making a short-term hard push and understand the results of that mean that weeks 3 – 6 are likely going to be less productive. And respect their energy more sustainably by maintaining a consistent pace and knowing that consistency is better overall for everyone.
Respect your Team Member’s Ability to Focus
Understand the mental switching costs of hopping between work and meetings. Create a meaningful break that helps everyone make the transition. You can insert that break at the beginning or the end of your meetings to help everyone reset and connect better. Respecting our human nature means facilitating connection and dealing with the natural isolation in work – especially for remote workers and their teams.
Set the tone and help your team reconnect and refocus their energy. Remember, sometimes less is more and to set clear boundaries. Bring a fun, human connection element to all your interactions when possible.