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.

Better meetings now: Agendas as first offers

As I and many other negotiation researchers have observed, it often makes sense to make the first offer in negotiations—more sense than most of us suppose or most of the random websites on negotiation suggest.

As I’ve argued throughout my writings on negotiation, however, the lessons of negotiation research are far from confined to formal negotiations. Instead, much of life becomes more negotiable when we construe it as a negotiation and apply the appropriate lessons. Here, let me tackle one particularly nettlesome aspect of organizational life—the meeting—suggesting that we can reasonably construe meetings as negotiations and apply the research on first offers to make them more negotiable.

If you define negotiation simply, as strategically managing situations in which you depend on others to achieve your goals, it’s easy to see why many meetings are negotiations. We go into many meetings with a purpose (if not, we might want to find a way out). And we presumably approach that purpose through a meeting because we depend on the other attendees to achieve it (if not, we might want to spend our time meeting with someone else). So at least when we go to meetings to solicit other people’s cooperation or participation, our meetings are negotiations.

Likewise, if you conceive of first offers simply, as opening gambits and not necessarily dollar amounts nor wild and aggressive demands, it’s easy to see meeting agendas as first offers. An agenda is simply the gambit that attendees use to understand the topics under discussion and plan their reactions. And that’s exactly what first offers do in negotiations—inform the other side what’s being negotiated and anchor their responses.

With that background in mind, could the features of effective first offers help us devise more effective agendas? I’d venture they could. Consider the following five features of an effective first offer in negotiations, all of which apply analogically to agendas:

  • Ambitious: The best first offers are not outrageous, but they’re ambitious. They map out the best-case scenario from your perspective. Likewise, the most effective agendas map out the full set of topics you’d like to cover, in the right order, and none of the topics you don’t. The meeting will go where it goes, but your agenda should anchor how much it covers and how far it strays.
  • Precise: The best first offers are not round numbers but precise figures (with some important caveats). That way, the offerer looks smart and the offer justified. Likewise, the most effective agendas don’t list vague topics like “status update.” They list precise topics to be covered by specific people.
  • The product of careful preparation: The best first offers don’t fly off the lips of the offerer in a flurry of over-exuberance. Rather, they reflect the output of a very deliberate plan born of very careful preparation. Likewise, effective agendas are devised slowly, through a process of careful deliberation and often preliminary consultation.
  • Firm then flexible: The best first offers are not wishy-washy nor presented in the form of a range (again, with some important caveats). In particular, they’re firm during the offering and flexible later, as the need for concessions or conversations about other issues becomes apparent. Likewise, the most effective agendas are very specific as to the intended topics, but their creators harbor no illusions that the meeting will go exactly as listed, nor do they want to. Rather, they appreciate and anticipate the importance of flexibility and improvisation as the discussion evolves.
  • Offered first: As implied by the name, first offers come before anyone else’s offer (though not necessarily “first thing,” as people sometimes suppose). That’s why they anchor the discussion that follows. Likewise, the most effective agendas aren’t whipped up and sent out in the minutes before the meeting. They’re distributed far enough in advance to preclude the possibility that anyone co-opts the discussion or proposes a counterproductive agenda instead.

Meetings are undoubtedly among the hardest features of organizational life to negotiate. So no guarantees that treating meetings as negotiations and agendas as first offers will suddenly make them negotiable. But I hope that conceiving of meetings as negotiations and agendas as first offers starts to anchor your meetings around productive conversations rather than unproductive status updates.

Meetings devouring your life? Contingency contracts to the rescue

It’s a common organizational problem—probably one of the MOST common: the proliferation of long meetings and inability to get anything else done. Here as in other areas, however, negotiation research can help. Indeed, I suspect a negotiation concept called contingency contracts might actually make many meetings—and thus much of organizational life—more negotiable.

There are really two interrelated problems with meetings: their number and their length. Let’s deal with the second, and specifically with the fact that it seems like many meetings should really last about half as long. The problem, of course, is convincing our colleagues: WE know our meetings don’t need to last that long, but the people around us are just as sure they do. For example, we’re certain a discussion of the company’s new widget strategy requires no more than 30 minutes, but the widget strategizer thinks we’ll certainly need an hour.

How do many people respond? By scheduling an hour-long meeting in the interest of avoiding unnecessary conflict and wishing on their lucky stars that it takes less. But of course, it never does.

So consider an alternate strategy: What if you said to the widget strategizer, “Widget strategizer, you think we need an hour, and I suspect we need a half-hour. I don’t know which one of us is right, but what if we scheduled a half-hour right now and then regrouped for an additional 30 minutes later if necessary?”

And then, what about scheduling the initial meeting such that you and—even better—the widget strategizer have a hard stop after a half-hour?

Assuming your initial estimate was accurate, I think you’ll miraculously see the widget strategy requiring no more than 30 minutes of discussion.

What does this example have to do with negotiation? The basic situation is all too common in negotiations: Two negotiators are deadlocked on their differing expectations of the future. A wholesaler thinks a holiday sweater is going to sell like hotcakes—a retailer’s not so sure. A used car dealer is sure the aging transmission is just fine—the buyer’s dubious.

When negotiators get stuck on differing expectations of the future, they usually fight and quite often impasse. But negotiation research and theory urges them to sign what’s called a contingency contract—a bet about the future—instead. They agree that if the retailer doesn’t sell 15,000 sweaters by December 31st or the transmission dies within a year, for example, the wholesaler or car dealer pay a rebate. If the sweaters sell like hotcakes or the transmission runs just fine, the retailer or car buyer pay a surcharge. The nice thing about such agreements is that, assuming no one’s bluffing, everyone thinks they’re right at the outset. They’re not, and the winner will eventually shine through, but their universal confidence makes a deal possible now.

Although your meeting proposal doesn’t involve rebates or surcharges—it’s more about time than money—time IS money in organizations, and the structure of the deal is quite similar. As in negotiations, contingencies contracts can make our organizational meetings more negotiable.

Of course, contingencies contracts aren’t a cure-all. In negotiations, for example, you wouldn’t want to reach such an agreement with a used car dealer who will move his entire operation to an undisclosed location after selling you a clunker. And in an organizational setting, you wouldn’t want to make such an arrangement with someone who has the supervisory right to tell you how long to sit in a room, or someone who knows a great deal more than you do about widget strategizing.

Still, bets about the future are not always seedy arrangements confined to the Las Vegas Strip. Sometimes, they can make your negotiations and meetings more negotiable. Give it a try—I bet you’ll agree!

Curtailing the never-ending meeting: The deadline effect

Meetings: the great vortex that swallows most of our organizational lives. Is there anything – anything at all – we can do to make them negotiable?

Luckily there are several tactics available. But here let me focus on a particularly helpful nugget of wisdom from the negotiation literature: the deadline effect.

The deadline effect in negotiation essentially, and interestingly, shows that deadlines are not particularly detrimental to those who face them. But wait, don’t we all feel pressured when negotiating with our backs up against a hard stop? Yes, but so too does our counterpart. And that’s the essence of the deadline effect: deadlines focus everyone’s mind on business and can thus be quite beneficial to all negotiators concerned.

It’s not hard to see how the same principle might apply to meetings. We often have the latitude to schedule meetings at various points in the day. Should we schedule them in the middle of a big block of free time? Or should we schedule them right before another meeting? Should we schedule them for longer than needed, just in case, or even leave the timing open-ended? Or should we predetermine that they need to conclude by a specific time, and be quite specific with ourselves as well as the other parties involved about what the time is?

If you want to make meetings negotiable, leveraging the deadline effect is a good place to start: Consider scheduling your meetings right up against your other meetings, and be perfectly clear with yourself and your counterparts as to the existence of a firm deadline in the form of a subsequent meeting. Doing so might make you feel harried and could, potentially, make your long-winded colleagues feel rushed. But chances are it’ll make the bulk of your colleagues feel grateful, as they too will discover more minutes in the day.

In short, deadlines, in organizations, are your friend! Treat them that way, and even meetings can become negotiable.