Time for a change: Rescheduling the way we work

Are we overscheduling in the workplace? Tech expert Paul Armstrong reveals all.

Paul Armstrong runs TBD Group, helping clients see around corners through its advisory, intelligence products and events

Overscheduling is undermining productivity and trust in workplaces globally, costing the economy nearly a trillion dollars. The misuse of scheduling tools not only distorts employers’ perceptions of employee productivity but also pressures workers into a cycle of counterproductive behaviors. Fueled by a misguided pursuit of peak productivity, this systemic issue leads to burnout, disengagement, and corporate deception. It’s time to rethink our approach to scheduling, recognizing its impact on the organizational trust and the genuine productivity it was meant to enhance.

Overscheduling: A global problem

'Do more' text on an Apple Mac screensaver

Now, don’t get me wrong, you can’t manage what you can’t measure is as accurate as it is overused, but creating an environment that encourages staff to mislead employers isn’t smart and also pressures employees into a cycle of other counterproductive behaviors, ultimately working against the organization’s interests. Factor in data from Atlassian suggesting that the average employee considers 50% of the time spent in meetings wasted, and we have a global problem.

The post-peak pandemic business environment is a jittery bag of nerves, foaming at the mouth with the never-ending search for peak productivity fuelled by tech bros, companies like Calend.ly, Acuity, hustle culture and economic uncertainty. Businesses don’t want to be in such disarray, but the problem has become almost systemic. The hunt for perfect productivity above actual results is the crack, and leaders are hunting for their next fix while simultaneously overscheduling workers into burnout, malaise and worse, corporate deception – that’s right, businesses would rather pay employees to lie to them about their output than fix systems and weird ‘busy is best’ badge-of-honor policies. 

Technology has made it easier than ever to schedule a person, but they don’t consider multiple elements that go into meetings: who, why, length, result needed, output needed. From the ‘cover all’ meeting that includes everyone but really needed three people in it to the ‘should have been an email’ meetings where the update was one line but miraculously needed to be a full 30-minute meeting with a PowerPoint. Calendars are being filled, but we’re not having better meetings. Instead, the tools are tattling on employees and being used as virtual whips either virtually or when review time comes around. The issue at hand? Trust. Most companies simply don’t trust their employees to do their jobs and lack the structure and leadership to correctly monitor workers and ensure everyone gets what they need to succeed. 

A colleague on a Zoom call at work

I am under no delusion that most businesses exist to make money and produce value for shareholders, but increasingly, we’re seeing that model fall down by its own hand. We don’t need to start from scratch, but there’s science and intelligent information that helps everyone win. The science is clear: continuous meetings without breaks lead to diminished attention spans, reduced engagement, and decision fatigue.

Rethinking productivity in uncertain times

The tools are only partly to blame; they are, after all, only doing what ‘we’ tell them to. Often, the ‘we’ there is senior management. The issue is we don’t set up these tools with rules dripping in science or the individual’s favor. Microsoft’s Human Factors Engineering Group found that back-to-back meetings reduce productivity and focus, but do any of the tools alert people to the fact they just booked a meeting, which means they have no time in the day to go to the loo? No, they do not. Imagine if your calendar was a tool to maximize your impact and not just hours worked – a healthy productivity coach. AI will help with this, expect that trend to emerge over the next 24 months. We’re already seeing green shoots of this behavior, with people adding screenshots of their calendars into tools like ChatGPT and asking for advice on improving their scheduling.  

A company team meeting taking place at the office

Now fast forward to a time when tools come built-in with productivity rules that actually help the employee create their best work and not just look busy. Imagine being quizzed when you fire up the laptop about how you are feeling (or having wearables that already make those decisions for you!). Could we automatically shuffle and reschedule meetings based on bad sleep the night before? We’re moving towards a more covertly thoughtful workplace thanks to generative AI and machine learning fields of artificial intelligence. 

The crux of the issue lies in the misconception that a bursting calendar is a sign of indispensability and productivity that is often doubly bad during poor economic periods. A belief system incentivizes employees to fill their schedules with meetings, often back-to-back, without sufficient consideration for the actual work that needs to be accomplished outside these engagements. The result is a workforce that appears busy but is likely less effective, as critical tasks may be sidelined for the sake of appearances. 

The trust trap

The more significant point here is trust. Businesses need to stop viewing non-work as not working. Breaks between meetings should be viewed as imperative and not labeled as non-work. Bosses need to spot back-to-backers and work with them to ensure they are fixing issues and not reinforcing a weird back-to-back badge of honor culture. Look, times are tough, and everyone can put more out if they have more in the tank, but what happens when you need them to put in more effort and they have nothing? Bad things, probably. 

On line calendar filled with various work related meetings and events

Trust, especially during periods of economic uncertainty, is crucial for maintaining a stable and motivated workforce. Economic downturns and market volatility heighten job insecurity and stress levels among employees. In such times, reinforcing trust by valuing actual contributions over optics can give employees a sense of stability and belonging and reduce costly turnover. The cultural shift from valuing perceived busyness to recognizing actual output is not merely a change in operational tactics but a transformation in organizational values. Another key area that factors into this issue. More than ever, I am observing that employees don’t know what the company values are or, indeed, the purpose and mission of the company. Developing this, not so they salute a cartoon character upon entry to a building or sing the company song before every Zoom call, is important to bond hybrid teams, encourage good coworker behaviors and generally cultivate an environment of trust.

The call to action

The situation is understandable as it is undesirable. I am not calling for a ban on scheduling apps, just bad rules around scheduling. There’s a lot going on. Leaders and business people need to think about their HR bills, if nothing else. If you overschedule someone into time off, therapy or worse, you’re not just damaging a person you’re putting departments and the company at risk. You’re also ratcheting up costs. Replacing a leaver hasn’t gone down; the average cost is estimated at around $30k. For an employee on $80k, you could end up costing the business almost a quarter of a million because of the knock-on effect (soft costs) and the hard costs, according to Bamboo HR. In short, there isn’t enough free swag or food in the world to convince a person you didn’t rag poor Simon into the ground – you’ve simply demonstrated you think you can buy them off. 

Everyone has it tough at the moment. AI creep, recession, political uncertainty, and freedoms that were once certain are now in question. If you want your people to truly show up for work and not just be some weird version of Don Draper, show up for them and trust them so they don’t lie to you. So, what’s the call to action here? Ask yourself, how is our calendar policy actively helping reduce employee exhaustion and disillusionment with the organization’s priorities? If you can’t say five ways, schedule some time with yourself to ask why and start to fix the problem. 

The tools making a difference

A MOO Notebook used by Paul Armstrong to organise his day

The tools for better meetings are out there; it’s about finding the tool that suits you and the job to be done. For me because I am out seeing clients, speakers, and sponsors, I create different sections in the TBD-branded MOO Hardback Notebook using thick Post-it tabs for easy switching that enable me to switch focus and still keep all the details.

It’s different online though, you have multiple people in different locations and needs. Tools like Loom, a video messaging tool, allow users to create and share videos, enabling asynchronous communication. Doing upfront comms over meetings can enable companies to do away with some meetings entirely or make necessary meetings much richer. Amazon’s meeting approach is famed for its focus and future desired outcome elements. Implementing one-page briefs and creating future press release-style tasks before meetings start can help lots of companies have better meetings that are more productive and bring teams together. Miro is another tool that could help companies have better meetings and communication using the virtual whiteboards’ visual communication style. Gousto has its ‘no meeting Wednesdays’, which is a somewhat radical approach (again, meetings don’t equal bad), but it is working for them, and that’s the key – you have to find a system that works for your people and continually check in.

About the author: Paul Armstrong runs TBD Group, helping clients see around corners through its advisory, intelligence products and events. He wrote ‘Disruptive Technologies’ and created TBD Conference from it (MOO is a partner). He also created the ‘What Did ____ Do This Week? Series, which has Amazon, Google and OpenAI versions. He regularly contributes to The Information, Cool Hunting and other outlets. A trusted tech and trends expert for the FT, WSJ, BBC, and CNN, he is also an in-demand speaker for corporates and at conferences for his honest take on technology, change and the future. He can be bribed with good coffee and good design. 

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