Scheduling Meetings - Art or Science?

Scheduling meetings is one of the most common tasks in the modern workplace. In earlier days, the time-consuming tasks of scheduling meetings, typing up agendas, and taking minutes was the domain of the office secretary. With the advent of computer technologies and flatter hierarchies, the task of setting up meetings is a chore for all but the highest of executives, and even they get their hands in it from time-to-time.

Democracy works great in politics most of the time, but it doesn't work well in the division of labour. So the reality is that many organizations have high-paid staff doing work that used to be done by lower paid staff. And as any good secretary will tell you, what looks easy when they do it doesn't work so easily for the rest of us.

So why aren't sensible organizations hiring more secretaries to take up this task? Part of the problem is that all of the other work that secretaries used to do has also been absorbed by the rest of us. So, we type our own letters, try to create professional agendas, and blunder our way through meeting minutes. Computer technologies have given us a false sense that we can do all things well, but each of these tasks requires specialized knowledge and skills.

Scheduling a meeting really is not as simple as it looks, even with scheduling software. A lot of judgment is involved, and there is a real sense of propriety required. In bringing any group of people together, there are so many factors to take into account. It could be that there is a certain pecking order, and some people have to work around more important peoples' schedules. Or, some people can best be contacted by phone, some by e-mail, or some through a third party such as a secretary or administrative assistant. Decisions about where the meeting is held are important as well, and very political. For some meetings, a simple announcement will do. For others, participants will need to be polled for their availability and then confirmed later.

The complexity doesn't stop there. Let's look at the kinds of situations that often arise in scheduling meetings -- you'll probably recognize most of them.

The following are common problems when attempting to schedule meetings:

  • A date and time is announced, only to discover that some important participants can't attend, and then another date has to be found.
  • Participants are polled about their availability for a meeting, but are given so few choices that no common date can be found.
  • A meeting is confirmed, but then needs to be changed.
  • A meeting location is specified in one message, then changed in another, and those who miss the second message end up at the wrong room.
  • So many messages fly around about a proposed meeting that there's general confusion about when and where a meeting is.
  • Someone tries to use an intranet-based scheduling which is fine for work teams, but can't invite outside participants.
  • A work team decides to use a common scheduling system, posting and updating their schedules on an intranet, only to find that after the initial enthusiasm, people get lazy about updating their schedules, or resent having to show their availability to everyone else -- and eventually less and less time becomes available to meet.
  • Someone goes through all the trouble of scheduling a meeting then finds out the location they were planning on using is already booked.
  • No one sends a reminder about a meeting, and sure enough, several people forget and don't show up.
  • You get invited to a meeting but the organizer forgets to say where it is, how long it will last, or even what it's about!
  • People get so frustrated trying to set up meetings that they just stop doing it, or won't take the responsibility. It's rare to see anyone volunteering gleefully to set-up a meeting these days.

What are some of the results of this?:

  • lots of time wasted
  • inefficiency
  • money down the drain

Worst of all, there's an opportunity cost as highly paid workers waste their time performing low skill work instead of higher value activities. But didn't we imply that setting up meetings is not such an easy task? True, but it's not rocket science, and rocket scientists shouldn't be wasting their time, and neither should secretaries.

All of us need solutions to make scheduling meetings more efficient and less of a hassle. Unfortunately, there is not one solution for everyone, and there's no substitute for judgment and common sense. In scheduling software we address the former, but let us look at a few good common sense ideas when scheduling a meeting...

Helpful Hints

First, determine if you should schedule the meeting, or if it should be delegated. If delegated, make sure you give clear instructions. Some of the things you'll want to be clear about up front are:

  • which participants must be there, and which are optional
  • is it o.k. for participants to send a designate (someone to go in their place)
  • whose schedule do you need to work around most, and will others be expected to change their schedules to accommodate
  • is it more important to find a common time where everyone can meet, or simply a time when most people (including the required attendees) can meet
  • what kind of room or facility is needed and what a/v or computer equipment is required
  • will the meeting require catering, either coffee and tea or a full lunch?

As you're beginning to see, there are so many details involved in scheduling a meeting. It's no wonder that when we think of scheduling as a simple matter of making a few calls and sending a few messages...things can go awry. What seemed like a simple task becomes a frustrating game of cat and mouse, no-shows, location foul-ups, and general disorganization.

So what are some of the solutions?

Once you've realized that organizing a meeting will take some planning, and you've made some choices about how you're going to proceed, there are several options to help you make things go smoother.