One of the most important ‘normals’ the pandemic and lockdown have overhauled is our modes of meeting, learning and conferencing. Like it or not, since last year most of us have been forced to reckon with work-from-home arrangements, e-learning, e-meetings etc which, as we all know, came with its entourage of benefits and challenges.
One such problem, only recently highlighted, is how the lack of face-to-face proximity has transformed our time-management needs, aggravating an already severe phenomenon in today’s corporate world: hyper-scheduling.
But let’s start from the beginning, from before the time we even cared about appointments…
From timetables to calendar-sharing
Time management doesn’t exist for kids. Up to my second year of college, daily scheduling was hardly a thing for me. In fact, I suspect for most teenagers before tertiary education, the only ‘schedule’ they bothered about was the class timetable (yes, ‘time management’ was confined to which subject classes you had to attend throughout the semester).
But once we hit our early twenties and/or when the projects, appointments, events, etc. started coming in fast and furiously it becomes almost impossible to keep track of your weekly engagements with just that one piece of paper your college department hands you at the start of the semester.
Enter apps like Google Calendar or Microsoft Outlook. These started out blandly enough as platforms to key in deadlines and appointments, to ‘view’ your schedule in one glance and so on.
However, as many people in fast-paced corporate world understand, one thing led to another and soon some of us have to “share our calendar” i.e. open it up for other people to book their time with you. Having colleagues and external parties self-select hour-slots to meet with you will undoubtedly feel strange before you get used to it; it’s like you’re a walking conference room facility which is available to everybody but must be booked beforehand.
So we’ve gone from having our time managed by a weekly class timetable, to capturing and arranging appointments online or via our phone, to allowing our schedule to be partially determined by whoever needs to see us.
However, with lockdown things are getting more complicated.
Prior to the pandemic, the point of a shared calendar so people can book a physical meeting with you. And given that you’re often in the same building you can probably just walk over and have a quick 5-minute chat. The possibility of just strolling a few feet to where your colleague is sitting and asking something from her is always there.
Nowadays, though, due to lockdowns and work-from-home arrangements — in sum, people being unable to meet face to face — the only meetings available are via phone or Zoom or whatnots. This means that even if you wish to ask something rather casual, you’ll need to converse online.
But what if the person has been ‘booked’ non-stop throughout the day? Surely all of us have had the experience of sending a WhatsApp message to someone and only receiving a reply a few hours (or maybe even a day or more) later because the person was just too busy to get back to you, plus in all likelihood your message was one of dozens on his phone.
That’s not all.
If you’re in the same office it’s easy to coordinate and say, okay, let’s all use Signal. But if we’re speaking to outsiders and various other parties, often we can end up having to use WhatsApp or WeChat or Telegram as well. Meeting-wise, it’s more and more common for people to have to connect to Teams or Webex or Zoom or Google Meet all within a few hours because, well, different companies prefer different software.
What this means is there are some executives who even now require multiple screens to handle multiple meetings and chat windows across multiple conferencing software because what else can you do?
You’re trying to reach a client to book a meeting for 3pm, but he’s only free at 2pm (and prefers to use Zoom) and you already scheduled something at 2.15 (via Google Meet) so, ah, who cares, better to talk to the client at 2pm first and if that meeting runs into the 2.15 meeting, why, you just hold two meetings simultaneously on two different platforms. And besides, the 2.15 meeting is with a colleague slash friend so he’ll understand if I’m occasionally ‘disconnect’ attention-wise.
And all the time you’re having these two meetings you’re thinking about the next meeting at 3pm with the vendor you’ve been trying a few days to chat with, and whether or not there’ll be yet another spill-over ad infinitum.
In fast-paced industries (eg, advertising, consulting, software, etc.) everyone’s slot is almost booked all the time so it’s near impossible reach them during office hours. The result is more and more meetings get pushed way into dinner time, and more and more conversations have to be pre-planned because God forbid you booked a top director’s time for 10am and you haven’t planned out what to say.
Behold, hyper-scheduling on over-drive.
The nett result (even for less extreme manifestations of hyper-scheduling) isn’t pretty:
1. More and more ‘transactional’ conversations squeezed in between tighter and tighter digital spaces
2. Fewer relational forms of sharing (which depend on ‘small talk’ and personal disclosure, both of which demand time)
3. Less time to effectively ‘process’ a discussion let alone build a friendship.
Gone are the days when people ‘hang out’ at the water cooler or smoking area or just chat outside the lifts or ‘linger’ when a meeting has ended. It is in precisely these ‘unofficial’ gaps in the work schedule that some of the most authentic conversations happen, that a lot of trust is built when people feel comfortable talking about ‘nothing in particular’.
With Zoom and Team and what-nots, this ‘human’ component disappears. There’s always an agenda. People have to speak one at a time. Participants’ faces are semi-frozen in front of the screen. And we can’t help but think of the next meeting. And the next.
What can we do about this? It’s certainly worth deliberating.
But let’s not talk about it online. Maybe, uh, meet up in Starbucks instead? Any time after 8pm.