5 minutes – How technology and behaviour influences our moments between meetings

Do you wait a few minutes before you officially start? 3 minute rule? Are you shortening your meetings? 5 minutes before or 5 minutes after? Or 10 minutes? Leaving a little gap at the beginning or end of a meeting is becoming common thanks to Microsoft 365 settings that allow you to build it in automatically. But why should you do it? When should you do it? And does it even work? Here are my thoughts.

While delivering my first big project focussed on digital meeting solutions I stared exploring and experimenting with ‘rules’ or ‘norms’ about starting and finishing meetings. My own frustrations with starting meetings on time were shared with colleagues.

  • When should the meeting start?
  • How long do I wait for?
  • How many people do I wait for?
  • Why don’t people finish on time?
  • Why do people book back to back?
  • When do I get time for a quick break?
  • How am I supposed to walk to my next meeting on time?

All of these questions and more transcend technology and existed before video conferencing and teleconferencing.

As individuals we can set rules and standards for ourselves, but the more these deviate from what most people are used to, the more we need to be clear about communicating what is happening and why.

Organisations have the power to do this for the collective. With engagement, leadership support, strong change management and clear communication friction can be reduced by giving people the permission to follow the norms.

Technology as always is an enabler and in some cases a driver. As features are built in to help people start and finish meetings on time it reduces friction. For example I am more likely to choose to start or finish all my meetings early if it is one box to tick, than if I have to manually select that for every meeting. I am more likely to stick to those behaviours if I work at an organisation where all meetings have the same default setting.

Opportunities when you have 5 minutes

Remember offices with meeting rooms? Those 5 minutes were needed to physically get to the next meeting. It was unavoidable. Now meetings are digital we KNOW that much less time is required to leave one meeting room and join another. Seconds. When the act was physical we could use that time to fit in social and hygiene activities. It seemed more acceptable, open, obvious. Everyone does it, needs to do it and we SAW each other doing it (not in a gross way, stop it, you know what I mean).

The opportunity of 5 minutes is to do things we NEED to do for wellbeing, physical health, mental health, socialisation. They physical driver and enabler is now less common, but we still need to do these things:

  • Grab a drink
  • Open a window
  • Stand up and stretch
  • Bathroom break
  • Make a quick personal call
  • Move to a different work space
  • Set up to take a meeting outside
  • Have a snack
  • Take or make a personal call
  • Reset to context switch for the next task
  • Get the delivery that arrived

In the physical workspace it felt easier to say ‘Sorry, I’ve got to leave 5 minutes early to get to my next meeting’. Acceptable. Justified. Why does it feel less acceptable in a digital environment?

The game has changed so the norms need to be reset. I hear managers wonder why people don’t just do these things. I hear individuals worry about implicit or explicit permission.

I’ve been exploring and experiencing and experimenting with different ways to manage starting meetings, ending meetings and meeting transitions. Here are a few options to consider with my observations and advice.

Waiting 3 minutes to start

I’m a fan of the 3 minute rule. If people haven’t arrived within 3 minutes it feels safe to get started on the assumption that anyone coming after that time would not reasonably expect to have been waited for.

When I am running training those 3 minutes is a good time to start welcoming people and cover housekeeping, check that things are set up properly and nobody is having big technical issues. For smaller meetings it’s an opportunity for ‘water cooler’ talk. How are you going, what have you been up to, what’s on for the weekend, a bit of socialisation.

I have noticed a lot more people adopting this rule, and if you’re building organisational-wide guidance for collaborative behaviours it can be beneficial to include this sort of advice. When leaders, managers and peers and following this behaviour it becomes a norm that can be relied upon.

Summary: A bit of friction, easy to put into practice, not enabled by technology

Ending 5 minutes early

When Microsoft introduced the feature to automatically shorten the time of a meeting I first experimented with ending 5 minutes early. I felt like this would be the least confusing and impactful to my colleagues and clients who may not be aware of the feature and would not necessarily notice that 5 minute sliver of meeting time that was missing.

In practice I found that over time I would mostly ignore those 5 minutes and still go to the full hour or half hour. The temptation to keep talking if I was enjoying the discussion, or not wanting to appear rude by stopping other people short was tangible. I knew that 5 minute buffer was available and would use it. The digital version of ‘let’s keep talking while we walk to the next meeting’ or ‘there’s nobody waiting for the room so let’s keep talking’.

5 minutes early requires discipline and desire from the person or people who hold the power balance of the meeting. This is not always the meeting organiser or presenter or convener. I have found that I can more successfully stick to an “early” finish time if it is 10-15 minutes early than 5. For example a 15 minute, 20 minute, 45 minute meeting is more likely to finish on time than a 25 or 55 minute meeting. I’m curious if there is any science to support this and feel like there is an answer in behavioural science and psychology around peoples perception of numbers and time.

Summary: Less friction, difficult to stick to in practice, enabled by technology.

Starting 5 minutes late

I first experienced this while working for a client. I joined a meeting at what I thought was the start time. I was the only one there, not unusual, but when it got to 3 minutes I began to wonder if people were later or if it had been cancelled or if I had the correct time. So I checked the meeting invitation and noticed it started at 5 minutes past. I quickly noticed that all the meetings with this client started at 5 minutes after the hour or half hour.

I love this feature. When the clock hits the hour or half hour the question in my mind ‘shit do I have a meeting’ is quickly replaced with relief when I remember that I have 5 minutes to get there, if I have 5 minutes to get there.

In my experience, these meetings are more likely to start at the planned start time and finish at the planned start time. The transition is built in and the need to finish on the hour or half hour is a strong norm to stick to.

There is a small amount of risk here. The risk that you leave someone hanging who may not notice those 5 minutes and leave. They are confused, maybe angry, maybe they think you are rude. Or maybe I just assume people feel that way. I have some thoughts on how to solve for this:

  • Do it for regular meetings and call it out. Agree. Build it into your collaboration agreement. People will rely on it and follow.
  • For one off meetings highlight it with a note in the subject or firs line of the meeting request. Somewhere that people will see it when they accept and when they join.
  • If you can influence this as an organisation wide feature – do it, but don’t forget change management. Use champions, communicate what’s in it for them, provide supporting information.

Summary: More friction, easier to stick to in practice, enabled by technology.

Technology as an enabler, driver and influencer of behaviour

Digital workplace solution providers like Microsoft are making these things easier to put in place at an individual and organisational level. Some features have always been there but it is understandable that people will more likely stick with the default as the path of least resistance and digital representation of what is acceptable because it’s what we can assume everyone else does.

Here are some of this things I have observed influence our behaviour to start or finish meetings.

  • Reminders that a meeting is starting in X minutes
  • Default meeting lengths. For example 30 or 60 minute increments.
  • Ability to shorten meeting times by default.
  • Warning in Teams that the meeting will finish in 5 minutes.
  • Notification that someone has started a meeting.
  • Meeting lobbies to control who can come in and when.
  • Notifications about how many people are already in the meeting when I join.

A feature is more effective when:

  • It is a call to action
  • It is convenient or easy to do
  • Other people are doing it
  • It is obvious to everyone

Some ideas for improvement

There are a few tings I have been thinking about that could improve upon the meeting transition and joining experience.

  • An indicator that shows if a meeting is set to start after the hour or half our. It’s not always clear in the calendar. It would be useful if this was clear in the invitation, in the calendar and in the joined meeting experience.
  • Change or stop the ‘<Name> has started the meeting’ notification. Currently, it’s more disruptive than helpful. Just because someone is early doesn’t mean I need to be. Just because I choose to be early doesn’t mean I expect other people to join.
  • When I join a meeting it could tell me how early or late I am. This is useful if I have joined 5 minutes early OR if I have accidently clicked on a meeting which is an hour away or a day away. It happens to me, maybe I’m not the only one.
  • The lobby experience could also tell me how long until or since the meeting start time. If I’m the organiser, how many people have accepted and declined. If I’m in a lobby, are other people are waiting? Give me a way to let the organiser know I am sick of waiting in the lobby if they are late.

What’s your meeting-to-meeting experience?

Not everyone’s meeting-to-meeting experience is the same. Share in the comments below if this resonates, or if you are noticing different challenges and trends. What would help you and your team.

Share your thoughts

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