Cancel the meetings, shut down the e-mail!

Switch off!

It has been a few years by now. In 2012 Wolkswagen shut down their e-mail servers in Germany after office hours. You weren’t supposed to e-mail each other between 6 in the evening and 7 in the morning. Atos, the French IT company, went a few steps further when they introduced a no e-mail policy and within a few years managed to reduce the amount of internal e-mails with 60%. During the spring of 2016 there have been reports that the authorities in France want to legislate for the right to be disconnected. All initiatives of different ways to manage time thiefs, helping to improve prioritisation and in the end improve the well being of staff and thereby reach better results (as if that would be more important than healthy staff). I am attracted by these ideas, even though the solution I believe should not always be spelled prohibitions and limitations.

Still, how many don’t recognise themselves in having a never-ending mailbox of unfinished business and not-yet-completed tasks? Or who have been stuck in a seemingly eternal staff meeting which dwells on everything but the issues that help me to resolve my work tasks (“when will this meeting end, so I can get back to working”)? We are expected to work longer, more and faster. And pick up the kids in school and prepare food. Naturally we need to do some physical exercise and preferably have time left for some self-fulfilling hobbies on the side.

Meetings, meetings and meetings

When I worked as General Director at Médecins Sans Frontières in Sweden we conducted a couple of surveys to try to figure out what the managers spent their time doing and what the management team meetings looked like.

In 2011, a few months after assuming the position, I spent 41% of my time in meetings, 20% in various administrative tasks, 14% on strategy and 6% on e-mail. I wasn’t satisfied with this. Far too much time was spent on issues other than the core business and strategic matters. In an organisation that wanted to double its income from 250 to 500 million Swedish crowns in five years, it would require a completely different distribution of time. One component in this equation was already a given: my own time. I had eight hours per day to manage the work and set a target to not work overtime. Both because I wanted to be able to last throughout the assignment, but also to send a signal to my colleagues that I did not recommend anyone sacrificing their own health to work.

In the management team (MT) meetings, we noticed that we only spent 30% of our time on issues around the core business. The rest was spent on administration, organisational matters and such. These figures confirmed our feeling that we spent a lot of time on the wrong things.

The change

We decided to change the meetings. We shortened them, removed all administrative issues to another forum and through various tricks instead focused on the core business. One year later we had reduced the number of MT meetings from 43 to 23 in a year, and halved the time each of us spent in meetings (only this freed the equivalent to 40 working days per year to other work), and we only spent 9% of our time on administrative issues compared to mot 55% the year before.arbetstid_diagram

For my own part these changes, in combination with better methods for prioritising, to a much better distribution with 35% of my time in meetings, 30% on strategy, 7% on administration and 6% on e-mail.

Free up time!

A good question to ask the person who perhaps by default invites you to all kinds of meetings is: what do you want me to contribute with? More often than not the person calling the meeting realises that perhaps all those invited wouldn’t need to participate…

I believe many work places would do well by reflecting on what they spend their time, and how many of the meetings and e-mail messages that could simply be removed without actually risking the business, but perhaps the opposite – improve the business, free up time and improve the wellbeing of the employees.