On being late for meetings

Meeting table
Meeting table

It is a habit for some and one of the worst things things in an office environment for others: being late for meetings. By chance, recently, I have been talking a lot about meetings and meeting design, so I’d like to explore different perspectives and how to approach.

Does being late for meetings even matter?

Some will argue it “doesn’t matter” because others will be late or because the start of the meeting is often useless. Others will not even notice. Some will argue that they are never late because they “chair” the meeting and chairpersons can’t be late. Others won’t even notice. On the other end, there will be people who will be massively annoyed or angry. Others will turn numb, tired from battling people who are late. And some will copy the behavior and start being late themselves.

So does being late for meetings even matter? I’m a bit agnostic in this. I want to design better meetings. Also, I believe time is our most valuable asset and that we owe ourselves and the people around us to turn time into time-well-spent or time-well-saved. I want us all to make the most of our time. If that means having a meeting, so be it. If that means having a powerpoint presentation, so be it. But there are other ways, as argued by the Liberating Structures movement and as I try to show in the setups I show in my toolbox. And in theory, it can very well be that being late for meetings works. The concept of “being late” is more of a Western-approach to doing business. E.g. I currently have a meeting planned with my Bedouin friend Faris in Jordan for literally “the fourth month” – something to keep in mind when working in a multicultural environment.

So, let’s say being late for meetings is an issue.

So, often in business cultures with dominant Western values, being late for meeting is a problem and is wasted time. Then, there is in theory, no extra effort in being on time. Being consistently late is the same effort as being on time. When I was talking to one of the managers at KLM Royal Dutch Airlines about it, he told me a story about how he -in the past- was always late for appointments until his wife confronted him with “being late means that you value your own time over someone else’s”.

"Being late means that you value your own time over someone else's"

Starting meetings on time

There are many things you can do in the meeting itself to have it start on time.

  • Add more value. People will hardly ever miss their favorite TV show or important moments with their kids. I guess what I’m trying to say is … if every meeting is too long, adds no value and no participation, you can not really blame people for not being in time. Meetings that are not just someone presenting a powerpoint or endless discussions (also see my toolbox and liberating structures) tend to add more value and therefor will have higher attendance and people will be on time.
  • Have the culture of being on time. The saying goes “a fish rots from the head down” means that often leadership is the root cause of an organizations failure and demise. And that is too often also the case when it comes to meetings. When leadership will be late for meetings, this habit is passed on to the other ranks, eventually infecting the newly hired. So having a culture of being in time for meetings starts with higher management being rigorous about starting meetings on time.
  • Planning meetings differently. Meetings are often planned in 30, 60, 90, 120 or even worse 180 minute timeblocks. This does not allow people to move between meetings, forcing them to either leave a meeting early or be late. Planning meetings for 25, 50, 80 minutes will allow people to take a quick break, move to the next meeting to be on time and maybe even reflect on the previous meeting. This 5 or 10 minute usually does not make the difference in the meeting effectiveness – usually meetings that can be done in 60 minutes can also be done in 50 minutes.

It is quite interesting to see how quite the opposite of this, as described in a pre-CIA handbook on sabotaging companies, might inspire you to do better. It is a great exercise to do yourself and with your team – to see how you could design the worst possible meeting and see how you could avoid all this.

Dealing with people being late for a meeting

Finally, how to address people who are late for a meeting. There are plenty of ways, I will be collecting some of my favorites below:

  • “Ok, if there are no further questions, I would like to close this meeting” – tip from one of the managers at ZLM Verzekeringen, the highest rated insurance company in The Netherlands for 10 straight years in a row.
  • “I’m fine, take your time. I’m an external consultant and I charge by the minute, so this is the easiest money earned for me” – I’ll often use this one.


So, what are your thoughts?

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