Negotiating the suboptimal scheduling of virtual meetings

With virtual meetings omnipresent, many of us find their scheduling suboptimal for our productivity. “That mid-morning meeting just severed my chain of thought!” “That 30-minute break wasn’t even long enough to clean up my inbox!” While many of us perceive the productivity loss associated with the suboptimal scheduling of virtual meetings, however, fewer of us see a solution.

Luckily, the negotiation literature can help. In particular, negotiation research highlights some basic principles that can make the scheduling of meetings more negotiable, assuming you have some discretion:

  1. Make the first offer: Research has long suggested that negotiators who make the first offer often (though not always) achieve beneficial outcomes. So, the next time you learn of the need to meet, why not be the first one to suggest a time (that suits your schedule)?
  2. Give equivalent options: Research has also suggested that negotiators like to receive multiple options rather than singular proposals. Giving them a choice casts you as flexible—and listening to their response might help you understand their situation. So, when you make the first offer as to a meeting time, consider suggesting not just one but a few options that work well.
  3. Consider a range offer: In normal negotiations—say over the price of a used car—there are reasons to be wary of range offers. Buyer: “I’ll pay $10-12K.” Seller: “Ok: $12K!” There are also reasons to use them strategically (e.g., by saying “$10-12K” if $12K is actually your goal). When scheduling meetings, however, the calculus is considerably simpler: If you’re free from 1-4 pm and indifferent as to when in the period you meet, it’s probably better to offer the whole range, as 1 pm, 1:30 pm, 2 pm, etc. sort of become equivalent options. With that said…
  4. Leverage the deadline effect: Just as deadlines tend to focus negotiators’ minds, a subsequent meeting tends to encourage productivity in the present meeting. That being the case, you might want to schedule the present meeting directly adjacent to the next one.
  5. Trade importance against timing: Negotiators can rarely get everything they want, but they can often get the really important things by making some tradeoffs. In the context of meetings, it’s probably unreasonable to expect a meeting with the CEO that perfectly aligns with your personal scheduling preferences. But if you can be slightly flexible on your preferences, the CEO might find a way to slip you in. Put differently, as important as your personal scheduling preferences might be, weigh them against the personal importance of the meeting.

In a world of constant Zooming, there are few easy solutions to persistent productivity loss. Still, by treating the scheduling process as a negotiation and deploying some time-tested negotiation principles, you might just find yourself zooming through your work instead.

Learning to love deadlines

Oh, deadlines…even the word stresses us out. Whether it’s the last minute to submit the meeting minutes or the last day to sign up for daycare, the prospect of an approaching cliff challenges even the calmest to remain calm.

Yet, wisely imposed deadlines can make life substantially more negotiable. To illustrate, consider three big benefits of deadlines in negotiations:

  1. Deadlines focus the mind: The deadline effect indicates that deadlines, not timelines, indicate when negotiators get serious. In other words, whether you’re negotiating for two hours or two days, the most productive part of the negotiation may well happen in the last two minutes. That’s because deadlines focus the mind, raising the costs of delay for both sides and leading both sides to say what they probably should’ve been saying the whole time. The bottom line? If your negotiation has a deadline—if you’ve both booked flights at 2 on Tuesday, for example—savor the deadline rather than sweating it. And definitely don’t change your flight! Your collective deadline is likely to make everyone’s life more efficient.
  2. Deadlines are contagious: Another important feature of the deadline effect is that one party’s deadline becomes both parties’ deadline. If you’re really going to turn into a pumpkin at midnight, losing your ability to negotiate any further—and if the other side knows that—well, then the other side effectively turns into a pumpkin at midnight too. Since they can’t accomplish anything without you, they really have no choice but to finish by the time you say. The bottom line? If you really have a deadline, make really sure your counterpart knows it.
  3. Deadlines are tactics: Sometimes negotiations are going approximately nowhere. Both sides’ intransigence is generating universal frustration. In that case, you might consider imposing a deadline yourself. Knowing that deadlines contagiously focus the mind (and that you could probably fudge your own deadline if you had to), an imposed deadline will probably generate the stress necessary to get your counterpart talking, if not yourself. Of course, use this tool with extreme caution, as you lose credibility if your deadline passes and you keep on negotiating. And you lose the whole deal if your deadline proves a bit too aggressive.

And so it is that one of the most feared words in the English language—deadline—has a rather positive connotation in negotiation. Bottom line: Don’t shy away from the deadline, but embrace it and impose it as required.

Have you ever imposed a deadline to move a process forward?