Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Irritants: an occasional series

Yesterday I went to a meeting that was scheduled to begin at nine. It was a Public Service thing so we're talking fifteen or twenty people, city office, professionals, tight schedule etc etc. The meeting was due to go all morning with what turned out to be one five-minute break. A whole morning of not working (at my actual job, I mean; these meetings are bloody hard work) puts me far enough behind in the weekly schedule to get uneasy, and I'd made a special effort to get ahead beforehand.

As one who keeps owl hours, I was unable to go to sleep at a reasonable time on Sunday night so was up again at seven after five and a half hours of uneasy sleep, which at my age is not enough to get you, fully functioning, through an active day. In the car by 8.10, drive for 40 minutes through peak hour traffic including massive, extended, longterm roadworks at one corner of the CBD, find a city park, haul arse into the office and down to the bowels of the building and its claustrophobic and badly heated main meeting room.

Where we then sat for 25 minutes waiting for everyone to turn up. 'We' included one very senior public servant who is presumably handsomely paid for her time. The last latecomer (there were several) finally strolled in at 9.25 and did not apologise. After another ten minutes of faffing, the meeting finally began. The last to arrive said casually later 'Oh sorry, thought it started at half-nine.' This with the starting time in bold at the top of the agenda.

Given that we stayed behind schedule for the rest of the morning, it was inevitable that the harassed organiser would ask us if we could stay on over time, but before I could say 'Sure, if I'm paid for it', the last latecomer was -- inevitably -- the one who said 'Oh no, sorry, I have to be elsewhere.'

None of the latecomers were crucial to the meeting. We could easily have started without them at nine. And that's 25 minutes of my life I could have spent sleeping or working (or blogging), and that I'll never get back. Yes it's a tiny tiny thing, and I've said to myself several times now 'Let it go, Indy', but for some reason, and unusually, I can't. Am thinking blogging it might help. And the next time I'm running late I will try to remember how incredibly bloody inconsiderate it is of the poor sods who are waiting for you, having successfully made the effort to get there on time themselves.


Mindy said...

I think next time that happens you should say "Is there anyone absolutely necessary not already here? If not lets start." Then when they walk in on a meeting already started they can feel embarrassed. No doubt this would be seen as being bitchy.

Red Horse said...

Yes, the latecomers have been extraordinarily rude but I'd suggest your real problem lies with the Chair. A good Chairperson, having emphasised the start time on the agenda, would have commenced that meeting at 9.00am - or at 9.05 at the latest.

As a former public servant myself, can I suggest you might like to have quiet word with said Chair? Or is there someone performing the secretariat function you could speak to? Maybe a phone call - follow up some points from the meeting then assume your best faux naive manner to ask if you'd mixed up your times. Perhaps go so far as to actually mention that next time it might be best to start even if everyone has not yet arrived. Some people find that very hard to do and might appreciate your support. Or they might just get huffy...

Poor Chairpeople were a constant frustration to me, to the point where some colleagues and I half considered setting up a consultancy called No Shit Chairmanship. I've seen Chairs fall asleep; take credit for work they didn't do and know little about; and generally achieve absolutely nothing much over a very long period of time. That said, I've also worked with some absolute corkers - mainly ex-politicians - who really know how to Chair a meeting effectively (strictly to time, but still allowing everyone to have a reasonable say). It's a widely overlooked skill.

And did it work? Blogging about it, that is. Was a frustration shared a frustration halved?

Yours in fellow-feeling

kris said...

I totally understand!

Do you have a notebook or laptop? Then you could blog about it real time...

Jennifer said...

People like that are always the most "important"ones in the meeting. I used to work in an organisation where there appeared to be a subconscious attempt to prove how important you were by how late you turned up.

I'm very happy now to work for a place where it is not acceptable, where meetings are started at most 5 minutes late, and apologies are expected.

Possibly, though, because we have far too many useless meetings, so you can't necessarily win productive time that way...

Ampersand Duck said...

I gawped at this, because just a day or two ago BB was telling me a story about one of his colleagues in the PS who set a meeting for their staff at 2pm, and then didn't actually turn up for it. The group waited until 2.20, and then made a decision to ring them. The person was at lunch, and told the group they would be there soon, no apology, no rush of breath at having forgotten... fifteen minutes later they sauntered in, still no apology, and the meeting happened.

I was utterly shocked at the rudeness of this person, but it sounds like it's not an isolated incident... their staff are debating whether to put in a formal complaint, and I wouldn't blame them if they did.

Is this some sort of power play that the upper echelons are encouraged to undertake? I don't blame you for being irritated! I agree with Red Horse, a good chair is helpful, but when it's a group of people waiting for their boss, it moves beyond rude into the realms of bullying, IMHO.

Fred said...

"The trouble with being punctual is that nobody's there to appreciate it." - Franklin P. Jones

Anonymous said...

As a State public sector lawyer I go to more than my fair share of meetings like this (but at least I'm getting paid).
In addition to unapologetic lateness, there are numerous other varieties of rudeness exhibited in meetings, including: constantly writing messages on one's blackberry, constantly checking messages on one's blackberry, not putting one's blackberry on silent during the meeting, answering one's blackberry or mobile phone in the meeting, inviting a person to speak and then immediately starting a loud whispered conversation with the person next to one (this happened at a meeting I was at yesterday).

Bernice said...

1. The convener/chair should email all invited parties the day before to remind everyone of the meeting, including the starting time.
2. The convener/chair should start said meeting no more than 5 minutes after the stated start time.
3. Anyone who fails to turn up on time is then elected to the post of treasurer, secretary etc etc in their absence.
4. All mobile & PDA devices should be placed in a plastic container on entry to the room, citing the proximity of delicate electronic equipment in the vicinity. They must of course be turned off.

(The above may explain why people rarely ask Bernice to chair a meeting twice, or indeed even attend said meetings twice)

Don said...

Another irritating practice is senior people who send underlings in their place -- underlings who have no authority to make decisions or provide information.

Sometimes the underlings will decide that they too are busy and delegate the task to one of their underlings:

"Ok, if program implementation and coordination branch agrees to carry this forward, then we can move on."

"Er... sorry. I'll have to take that back to my FAS. I'm just here to observe really."

The meeting takes place, but nothing happens.

I had a boss who was good at meetings. If he wanted something from one, he rang the key players gathered the information and did the negotiating beforehand. The actual meeting became a formality.

So if nobody rings you to ask you something, tell you something or persuade you to do something, then you've got to wonder whether it's worth showing up at all.

Anonymous said...

As a punctual retired public servant, I do feel your pain. I too was a busy person and could well do without having my time wasted. I agree with the respondents who suggest the chair is primarily responsible BUT if the chair is not prepared to push the issue - maybe they are junior to those not-yet-arrived - I think it is prefectly fair for an attendee to suggest the ball is got rolling around 5mins after the official start time. Of course, this only works if you don't "need" something from the meeting, if you are not going to be the beneficiary in some way of its outcome. Then you really are a bit stuck. All you can do then is gnash and grind...and work out a better strategy for handling it next time around!

Anonymous said...

I worked for a parliamentary committee and saw a few chairs in action. There were enough to make me weep for their ineffectiveness, lack of commonsense (generally a good substitute for the lack of procedural knowledge) and a complete inability to manage discussions. The one who came closest to best performance was a caucusing number cruncher. At least decisions were made and, occasionally, meetings even finished early. Quorum requirements did make meeting start times a rather interesting spectacle.