Gregory (Scotland Yard detective): "Is there any other point to which you would wish to draw my attention?"
Sherlock Holmes: "To the curious incident of the dog in the night-time."
Gregory: "The dog did nothing in the night-time."
Sherlock Holmes: "That was the curious incident."
By referencing the above exchange between the famous sleuth and a Scotland Yard detective, I wanted to bring to your mind the proverbial "the dog that did not bark" case. It appropriately opens this blog post’s topic: the surprising importance of meetings that are missed (or should be missed) in our calendars because we have declined (or should decline) them for our own good.
Diagnosis: Suffering meetingitis during remote work
The current workplace is full of various distractions, and we often fight a futile battle in defending our time for things that matter to us. For white-collar workers, it's too easy today to get overwhelmed and exhausted by a continuous and never-ending stream of emails, instant messages, off-line and virtual meetings, notifications or phone calls. Meetings are an all-too-common distraction culprit. A sad fact is that the typical (U.S.) employee spends approximately six hours per week in meetings, i.e. 15% of her working time. If you are a manager, this increases to a disturbing 60% of your working time.
An unfortunate takeaway is that it seems - based on the data of some of our clients - that meetings took more rather than less of employees’ working time after COVID-19 pandemic forced many to switch to remote work. Many companies moved to work-from-home (WFH) mode in February 2020. The trendline of typical (median) time spent in both online and non-online meetings per employee, displayed in Graph 1, is higher after this date.
We can easily speculate about the causes of this trend. Among plausible hypotheses, there is the case for increased uncertainty, which calls for better alignment. Broken informal channels of communication are also a factor, e.g. quick exchanges at the desk, small talk around the coffee machine - most communication outside official meetings. There is also a greater eagerness for online meetings, given how easy they are to organize and conduct, in comparison with in-person meetings.
The first two hypotheses are supported by the fact that time spent in in-department meetings grew relatively more than time spent in cross-department meetings (or external meetings) after January 2020. Actually, the median proportion of time spent in in-department meetings grew at the expense of two other types of meetings (see Graph 2). The first two hypotheses can also be responsible for the increased proportion of time that employees spent in larger (9+) meetings after February 2020 (see Graph 3).
The third hypothesis is then supported by the fact that online meetings tend to be larger than non-online meetings (see Graph 4). This, unfortunately, counteracts their otherwise advantageous property of being typically shorter than non-online meetings (see Graph 5).
To decline, or not to decline?
Unfortunately, when it comes to meetings, quantity does not always go hand in hand with quality. People usually complain that they waste a lot of their time in pointless meetings that have no value to them. According to a survey conducted by Igloo software, 47% of employees consider meetings to be generally unproductive. It is thus more than appropriate to paraphrase Shakespeare's Hamlet:
“To decline, or not to decline: that is the question:
Whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of overpopulated meetings,
Or to take arms against the sea of discussions,
And by declining, shorten them?”
Declining a meeting invitation is one of the basic tools we have for protecting our limited time resources. Despite the ease and straightforwardness with which it can be used within our daily routines, it is highly underutilized. As you can see in Graph 6, the recent typical decline rate for our sample of companies lies between 4% and 7%, which is, given common complaints on meetings’ uselessness, a very low number. It is understandable that after switching to WFH the decline rate went down - people in uncertain times needed tighter connections with their colleagues and managers. Even before the WFH switch, however, the numbers were very low.
So why do people struggle with declining meeting invitations? Taking inspiration from Christian Rudder’s Dataclysm, we can use Google search to peek into the human psyche and get a glimpse of what thoughts and worries people have in their minds when they consider declining the meeting. Based on this data, it seems that people’s concerns are mainly about (not) being perceived by others as rude, uncooperative and/or idle.
Harnessing the power of social norms
Many employees feel uncomfortable about declining meeting invitations, even when they don't see the benefit of said meetings. So what can help? An effective and scalable solution might be to make such a behavior a (new) norm. We can be inspired here by the principles of behavioral change popularized by The Behavioural Insights Team (BIT). This team was originally a UK government agency, and is now a global social purpose company that applies behavioral science insights to inform policy and improve public services. To make those principles more accessible to others, the BIT came up with the MINDSPACE acronym, referring to nine factors that robustly affect people's behavior, based on the conducted studies (see Fig. 2 for depiction of those factors).
In the context of our topic, the most relevant is the factor of Norms that states that people tend to do what others around them are already doing. The psychology of this certainly applies when given the choice of whether or not to recycle towels in hotels - most of us conform when informed that most hotel guests opt to recycle their towels at least once during their stay.
In the case of declining meetings, we can apply this principle simply by explicitly stating that under some conditions it is absolutely normal, appropriate and desirable for an employee to decline an invitation to a meeting. It should be the expectation when said employee needs to protect her valuable time for high-quality work and well-being. Ideally, we should combine it with the Messenger principle (that refers to the fact that we are heavily influenced by who communicates information) and let employees with both formal and informal authority be a role model of this new, desirable behavior.
Boosting goal intention with implementation intention
To further enhance the chance that employees will comply with this new norm and expectation, it is a good idea to give them explicit guidelines on how to proceed when deciding whether or not to decline meeting invitations.
Here we draw from behavioral science insight that we can increase the probability of our success in dealing with difficulties on the way to our goals if we specify in advance our response to specific conditions. This self-regulatory strategy is known as implementation intention, which has a form of simple "if-then” rules that predetermine specific and desired behaviors in response to particular future events or cues. It has been successfully implemented for better goal attainment and habit and behavior modification in various areas, from voting behavior and medication compliance to emotion regulation or weight reduction. By specifying the when, where and how part of our behavior we can thus aspire to boost our rather weak goal intentions. A simple statement is not enough to fortify a result - just remind yourself of how successful you usually are with your New Year's resolutions.
Fortunately, using common sense in combination with some Google search, you can quickly find some reasonable rules that will help you with deciding whether to attend the meeting or not. Below are a few examples of such rules, specifying conditions under which one should not attend the meeting:
- The meeting doesn't have a clear agenda or timeline.
- The meeting doesn't have a goal or desired outcome.
- I haven't been required to bring any materials or present anything in the meeting.
- The meeting is not appropriate for me, there is someone else who should attend instead of me.
- The meeting is not a top priority and I cannot afford to put my other responsibilities on hold.
- The meeting is too long/has too many attendees to be really effective.
- The organizer usually isn't actually present in the meeting (relevant for recurring meetings).
- Attendees usually come unprepared and/or unfocused (relevant for recurring meetings).
But don’t just take Google’s word for it! Feel free to add other rules that are relevant based on your own experience.
Now declining a meeting is not only a science, but it’s also an art. You don’t want to come off as rude, disengaged, or just a slacker. Make sure to check hout Harvard Business Review’s article on how to respectfully decline a meeting. But in case you want a quick summary, here are some quick questions to ask yourself about a meeting, along with potential responses.
Questions to ask yourself about the meeting with potential answers:
Can I recommend someone else?
- “Thanks for the invite to this meeting. I don’t think I’m required at this point. If it’s alright with you, I’d like to send John as my delegate.”
Can I contribute in advance?
- “This is going to be an important discussion. I’m unable to attend, but I will find some time to share my thoughts so you can include them in the discussion.”
Can I attend for part of the meeting?
- “Would it be possible to cover the rebranding discussion as the first agenda item? I can’t stay for the entire meeting but I’d really like to contribute on that topic.”
No matter the choice you select, you are attempting to accomplish three goals. The first is that you’re setting a good example for others by using time deliberately. Second, explain your reasoning so that the meeting's organizer understands why you’re choosing not to attend. And third, try to accommodate, within reason, the organizer's meeting requests. If you initially decline the meeting and they followup requesting your prescence, then give them the benefit of the doubt and make sure to show up. At the end of the day, you want to treat your coworkers as you’d like to be treated.
The importance of what is missing
Our analytics platform helps companies to analyze and optimize the way their employees work on various collaboration platforms. The data paints a strong picture of what employees have done but offers less when it comes to what they have not done. However, as demonstrated by Sherlock Holmes’ story in the opening of this blog post, what is missing can sometimes be more informative than what is present.
Besides "the dog that did not bark" case, there is another motivating, and moreover true, story that even more convincingly shows us why it sometimes pays off to focus on missing things: During World War 2, the Allies mapped bullet holes in planes that had been hit by anti-aircraft shooting. They wanted to fortify the aircraft by putting the extra armor in the places that received more bullets. These places are shown as red dots in Fig. 3. At first glance, this seems to be a logical conclusion to focus on these places. After all, these were the most affected parts of the aircraft that returned from their flying missions. But Abraham Wald, the mathematician who applied his statistical skills to various wartime problems, had a different opinion. The red dots represented only damages to aircraft that were still able to return home. The air force thus should strengthen places that were free of bullet holes, because these are places where the aircraft would not survive the impact.
This phenomenon is referred to as survivorship bias (or selection bias) in behavioral science, and it happens any time one looks at the things that survived, when one should focus (also) on the things that didn't.
The meetings that didn’t survive
Can we, similarly as the aircraft analyst above, learn something potentially useful by focusing more on missing/declined meetings? Let's try it out by using Time Is Ltd.'s own calendar data from the last 12 months and compare the meetings that “survived” in our calendars with those that didn't make it.
I have decided to use for the following comparison meeting characteristics that are both computable - given the available calendar metadata - and potentially relevant for deciding whether to decline the meeting invitation or not - given my own and my colleagues’ experience and understanding of the reasoning and emotions that accompany declining a meeting:
- Type of relationship between meeting attendees: Some of my colleagues tell me that they usually decline meetings with their closest colleagues with a somewhat lighter heart than with “outsiders”, as they can align with them instead via an alternative channel. The hypothesis here is that in-department meetings will be declined relatively more often than cross-department meetings.
- Presence of superiors in the meeting: Given that superiors usually have to deal with various conflicting duties, the expectation here is that they are more prone to declining.
- 1:1 meetings: People usually perceive a 1:1 meeting as a special kind of meeting that, due to its importance and more personal nature, deserves special treatment and protection. The hypothesis here is that 1:1 meetings where superiors meet with their team members are less likely to be declined than other types of meetings.
- Meetings organized by superiors: As social creatures we are sensitive to signals of social status and hierarchy, and we take it into account in many social decision-making situations we encounter on a daily basis, both for our own good and to our detriment. Meetings are likely no exception. Meetings organized by a superior will be probably perceived by invited attendees as more important and thus less prone to be declined.
- Meetings conducted online: Online meetings are easier for us to organize, thus it logically follows that they are (psychologically) easier to decline. Despite all the changes caused by a switch to remote work, many of us still perceive online meetings as a barren substitute for real meetings, and therefore not deserving of the same treatment as traditional, face-to-face meetings.
- Recurring meetings: Recurring meetings have two disadvantages in comparison with ad hoc meetings. First, due to their fixed schedule they are more likely to come into conflict with other priorities. Second, many recurring meetings are status meetings without any real added value for their participants. Given these two characteristics of recurring meetings, we may expect a higher decline rate than ad hoc meetings.
- Meeting size: The higher the number of invitees, the higher the chance that the meeting will be in conflict with some of those people's other duties. This, together with the phenomenon of diffusion of responsibility (driven mainly by the size of a group of people one belongs to) leads to the expectation that the higher the meeting size, the higher the decline rate.
- Meeting length: In our company we try only to dedicate to meetings as much time as needed to solve the tasks in agenda, so there should be a positive correlation between meetings’ length and importance. Given this policy, I would expect that shorter meetings are easier for our people to decline.
- Meetings without agenda: Meetings without agendas create smaller commitments on the side of invited attendees, so we can expect a higher probability of being declined for such meetings.
- Meetings with specified location: In line with the implementation intention technique we can expect that providing attendees with information about the location where the meeting will take place will decrease the probability of a meeting being declined.
- Last-minute meetings: For last-minute meetings there is a higher probability that they will be in conflict with invited attendees’ other duties, so one can reasonably expect that last-minute meetings will be more prone to being declined.
- Meetings planned after hours: As the majority of people would agree that it is important to maintain a healthy work-life balance, we can assume that people will try to achieve such a balance, besides other things, also by declining after hours meetings relatively more frequently than meetings organized within standard working hours.
For an estimation of the relationship between meeting characteristics and probability of meeting being declined, I have used a binomial regression model. This model enables us to estimate the size and direction of this relationship for individual meeting characteristics, while controlling for the effect of all other meeting characteristics included in the analysis.
So what are the results? Do they support the hypotheses described above? In Graph 7 you can see the posterior distribution of estimated strength and direction of relationship between the meeting’s characteristics and its chance of being declined. After inspecting the graph (for its more detailed explanation see the description below the graph), it is clear that with exception of after-hours meetings, online meetings and type of relationship between meeting attendees there is some evidence in favor of our hypotheses.
In plain language, these results suggest that at Time Is Ltd. we show the following behavioral tendencies when it comes do declining meetings (listed in the order of hypotheses described above):
- We seem to be slightly “nicer” to “outsiders” than to our own - we hesitate a little less when declining in-department meetings than cross-department meetings.
- Presence of supervisors in meetings makes these meetings more likely to be declined.
- We respect the special status of 1:1 meetings and try to not decline them.
- We decline meetings organized by superiors relatively less often.
- The format of the meeting does not seem to be important for our decision - online and face-to-face meetings tend to be declined with the similar probability.
- We tend to find it easier to decline recurring meetings, in contrast to ad hoc meetings.
- The more attendees the meeting has, the higher is the probability that somebody will decline the invitation to the meeting.
- We decline the shortest meetings (30 minutes long and shorter) the most.
- If the meeting has an agenda we are less prone to decline.
- We decline relatively less often meetings that have a specified location.
- Planning a meeting well in advance (i.e. minimally 24 hours ahead) makes us less prone to decline.
- Meeting time (outside or within standard working hours, i.e.from Monday to Friday between 8h00 and 18h00) does not seem to play a huge role in our decision to decline.
What can such findings be useful for, besides satisfying our curiosity? Primarily, we can use it to inform potential interventions in support of, or against, collaboration habits - with the consequences to employee productivity and well-being in mind.
For example, we have discovered the rather weak relationship between after-hours meetings and a meeting decline rate at Time Is Ltd. This information should be combined with information about how frequent after-hours meetings actually are in our company, and also with related opinions and attitudes of our employees, identified via employee surveys or focus groups. Based on these inputs, the rules and expectations regarding overtime may need to be reconsidered (given well-proven detrimental effects of overtime on employees’ mental and physical health).
Some final takeaways
As already mentioned in one of the previous blog posts, when it comes to better time management, we already possess the tools we need to make a change.The issue lies in utilizing them. Fortunately, even for this challenge there are tools that can help us with that. The MINDSPACE framework for behavioral change and implementation intention mentioned in this blog post is an example of such a tool. Don’t hesitate to use it to master “the art of declining meetings” in your own company.
See you soon in the next blog post. Or maybe not ;)
At Time is Ltd., we measure digital collaboration and productivity, without ever sacrificing employee privacy. We provide an advanced analytical SaaS platform that delivers a holistic view of an organization collaboration patterns. We measure your team’s digital footprint to improve communication, productivity as well as save precious time. Our approach only aggregates meta-data from a variety of data sources, to show how your teams work with your collaboration tools so you can get them more productive and motivated.
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