John Parsons adopted a policy long ago to avoid shared electronic calendars such as those in Microsoft’s Outlook and Lotus Notes. “The only calendar that counts is the paper calendar in my Franklin Covey planner,” says the insurance agent with an over-my-dead-body resolve. “If it’s not in there, it’s not on my schedule.”
That means the meetings his colleagues have blocked out in his electronic calendar don’t exist. That Quality Control Task Force meeting Thursday at 11am: “I won’t be going.” Of course, he’ll meet with “the guy whose name is on the building” and others, for important stuff, he says. But, he hasn’t looked at his Outlook calendar for a month because the appointments people add to it, constitute a loss of control he can’t abide.
“It’s an intrusion,” he says. “It’s just a theft of your time.”
It’s not easy being master of your destiny when you need to take a number to schedule your own calendar. Shared electronic calendars demolish the comforting illusion that your time is yours. Meetings can be scheduled by anyone, for anything. Because someone’s availability is readily accessed online, the big dodge—“Sadly, I’m booked”—no longer works. Hence, wall-to-wall meetings, lunchless days and the sense of being cornered by Accept and Decline buttons.
It’s a choice between wasting your time and sneer-pressure. Hit Decline, says Web designer Chris McCamic, and “you’re on the record with everybody as opting out and de-prioritizing a meeting.”
In his former company, electronic scheduling became a push-button lobbying tool. “Calling meetings became a political power ritual that distracted mightily from actual work,” he says. The most easily missed meeting? “Subject: Meeting with me. Location: In my head.”
David Gladstein’s former boss got proxy rights to read and write detailed calendar entries. “He told me it was a compliment and I should be delighted to be included in senior management discussions,” he says.
Instead, his boss was scheduling Gladstein for “dog meetings” where he was berated by accountants over expense reports. “I ended up being the whipping boy,” he says.
Gladstein counter-scheduled. “If I had a one-hour client meeting, I would make it three hours in my calendar just so he wouldn’t schedule me.”
He used those extra two hours for something rare: “To do my job,” he says.
Jorge Acuña, a former operations manager, found that his reports were offended when they found him in his own meeting of one when his Lotus Notes calendar said he was booked. “I thought you were in a meeting,” he recalls them saying. “It was almost perceived as a lie.”
It wasn’t long before people started double-booking him.
Displaced largely by email, meetings have dropped in number over the years. Gloria Mark, professor of informatics at the University of California, Irvine, found people averaged 47% of their day in scheduled meetings before the days of ubiquitous email. In her recent study, only 14% of information workers were in meetings.
Trigger-happy scheduling isn’t new to William Kennedy, general manager at Microsoft, who concedes that “it’s very easy for people to be dragged into meetings and create more meetings.”
Adds attorney Seymour Trachimovsky: “I’ve been involved in telephone calls where there’s a senior person saying, ‘What am I doing here?’ The only saving grace, if you want to call it that, is that junior people with chutzpah can actually schedule a meeting and draw in senior managers, who often feel obligated to attend.”
The share software is a dream for Kremlinologists and snoops—and less obvious than binoculars. When Trachimovsky wanted to know who was attending a secret meeting offsite, he peeked into colleagues’ calendars and pieced it together from their out-of-office status.
Appointment calendars aren’t supposed to manage anyone’s time but your own, notes management consultant Mark Horstman. “The shared calendar,” he says, “implies a privilege or right that doesn’t exist.”
(Write to Jared at firstname.lastname@example.org)