It seems so simple: punctuality is a matter of respecting other people’s time. Be on time for meetings and appointments. This is obvious. Right?
Still, in many organizations it’s a cascading problem. Lag times creep up from five to 10 to 15 minutes. People hang back, composing one more email, because they know the meeting will start late and they have a lot to do. Nobody wants to be on time and then sit in a conference room waiting while others tick off their to-do lists.
I learned a good lesson from an experienced teacher years ago, when I was a tour guide during vacations from my real job. I took groups around the world (yes, a stroke of luck for a 25-year-old working stiff, but how that happened is a different story).
The trips I did took a month each. I traveled with the group and connected with local guides for local tours in each destination. The advice I got was:
On the morning of the first day in the first destination city, with the very first city tour, leave a few people behind. If you do, your group will be on time for the rest of the month. If you don’t, they’ll get later and later throughout the month.
And that advice turned out to be spot on. I know, because I did it wrong the first time around. Once I’d waited five minutes on the first day, there was no way to not wait five, 10, 15 minutes on other days. I’d waited for so-and-so, why not for this other one too? And the second time I did it right. I left without four of about 70 people for the first city tour because they weren’t in the lobby at 9 a.m. Bingo. Everybody was on time for all the other tours.
Realistically, how do you apply this simple lesson to a business environment?
- If you don’t have the highest ranking people in the organization on board, forget it. It’s not going to happen. You have to be the boss or the owner or have total cooperation of the boss or the owner. If that’s not the case, stop here. Do not continue reading. Give it up. If it is the case, call that person the leader.
- Make sure meetings are generally well organized and efficient. Invite nobody who doesn’t have to be there. Keep only the agenda points that apply to everybody invited.
- Use a memo or a company meeting or something else to communicate to everybody that you’re implementing this change. Use just a few words. Make sure it comes from the leader.
- The next few meetings are critical. The leader has to establish the precedent. Meetings have to start on time, of course.
- If you can possibly find a way to reward those who are there on time, do that. Give them the better assignments. Or assign the volunteer tasks to those who are late. Show the video or distribute the software first.
If you can follow these steps, you’ll have a more productive work environment. Think about it: if everybody is waiting for a few minutes after the specified meeting time, and nobody is on time, how much time is lost? Why not just schedule the meeting for 9:15 then, instead of 9 a.m.?
By the way, if you happen to be a consultant or outside expert, you obviously have less control over the meeting style at the client company. But you can talk about your meeting punctuality policy with the main client. You might find that she or he is grateful for a chance to introduce this topic into the organization.