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Efficient meeting culture - Interview with Boris Diebold (CTO, Heyjobs)

Time is valuable and must therefore be efficiently organized and managed. Meetings are one of the biggest time guzzlers and thus a cost factor for companies. To make them more efficient, we have founded TimeInvest. This allows you to use the feedback from meeting participants to make improvements or - if possible - to eliminate the meeting completely. In discussions with our clients, we repeatedly encounter exciting approaches to meetings and time in general. This was also the case with Boris Diebold, CTO at Heyjobs, whom our CEO Mathis met for an interview.

Mathis: At first you gave us only 20 minutes for this meeting and only on request we got 30 minutes. Are the 20 minutes your standard meeting time? What is that all about?

Boris: A very good question! My first thought when I receive an invitation is: Does it really need the time? Usually you get 1h slots set as default. In my experience, it is sufficient to reserve 30 minutes for most meetings, especially when it comes to something like short arrangements. This timebox helps to concentrate on the essentials. In this context, so-called "Speedy Meetings" have also established themselves, i.e. a half-hour meeting lasts 20-25 minutes (a one-hour 50 minutes) - so that you still have enough time to move on to the next meeting. If necessary, you can sort through the meeting again or take notes. In physical meetings with room changes, etc., this procedure prevents the unfortunately very widespread late arrival. At back-to-back meetings, which follow each other without a break, it is unfortunately often the case that someone arrives five minutes late because the meeting was overrun. In my opinion, this is absolutely avoidable and a pure question of organization and respect for others. By the way, in tools like Google Calender, Speedy Meetings can be set as the default form in the options...

Mathis: Maybe you can take us through your career again. You are now CTO at HeyJobs with over 100 employees. What did you do before? And maybe you'll tell us afterwards how you felt about meetings and meeting culture in your different career stages.

Boris: Before my current job as CTO at HeyJobs, I was CTO at Seven Senders - a fast growing logistics tech start-up. Before that I was CTO at Babbel, the language learning app known from radio and television. Prior to that, I was a technology consultant at Accenture in various roles for twelve years - mostly for major customers and multinational corporations. During this time I was able to learn a lot about different meeting cultures. It is interesting, for example, that the size of the company does not allow any conclusions to be drawn about the efficiency of the meeting culture. Over the years I could observe several times that a good meeting culture can not only improve the efficiency of a department or the whole company, but also significantly increase employee satisfaction (and unfortunately the opposite).

Mathis: That was almost the answer to our next question. So you can't draw conclusions about meeting culture from the size of a company?

Boris: No, in my experience not at all. However, in smaller companies the culture can be changed much faster. In large companies, this often only works in one department. In start-ups, the implementation speed is naturally quite high. It's important to set meeting guidelines, coordinate them with the management team and let them diffuse into the organization. This works quite well within departments in larger companies, but as soon as interfaces to other departments exist, conflicts often arise.

Mathis: You now have a relatively rigorous approach to meetings. Could you explain to us how you handle this and maybe also how your diary normally looks like?

Boris: Sure. Before I accept an invitation to a meeting or set it up myself, I first ask myself if this is even necessary. I am a great friend of the clear separation between synchronous and asynchronous (communication) culture. Very often meetings are called that would have been better discussed as e-mail or as a document asynchronously. So first I ask myself: Does the meeting really have to take place? Do I have to be there as a participant? Or is it also sufficient if I have a summary sent to me afterwards or look at the notes?

In addition, I usually politely decline any meeting without an agenda or ask beforehand what the agenda and the desired outcome for this meeting is and what preparation is required. Ideally, preparations should also be sent out 24 hours in advance. This way, you can assume that everyone has read the documents and formed an opinion. This way, the valuable time will be used for discussion and decision making rather than presentation. I therefore always try to make a strong distinction between asynchronous time, which everyone can divide up for themselves, and synchronous time, which is very "expensive" - I try to minimize the latter in everyone's interest.

My personal calendar is accessible to all employees. If they don't know me yet, they are often shocked because they think: "This one has no time at all". But this is mainly because I book a lot of time with myself. I am often surprised when I look at the calendars of others: They are often empty, there is nothing in them, or only appointments they have with other people. If you want to work concentrated and generate free time for yourself, you have to book time blocks with yourself in which this work can happen. In fact, in my calendar you can find almost everything that takes 20 minutes or longer. In this context I try to include my personal energy flow and, if possible, keep the mornings free of meetings with other people. This is the time when I work best on strategic topics or issues that require deep involvement - in other words, concentrated work that I can and must do on my own. These are often topics that tempt you to sit late in the evening when you have "no time" all day long. I have already done these in the morning, I usually start the day with the most important topics first.

When I receive a meeting request for the morning, I usually try to switch it to an afternoon appointment so that I can use this time for me. I try to keep regular meetings with employees as well as colleagues as short as possible, so that you can have a short and concise oral exchange about different topics. If there is a topic that you would like to go into more deeply, I prefer to set up a follow-up meeting, which then only deals with the specific topic. Particularly with managers, you often see that regular meetings with employees last one hour - one hour per employee every week. Depending on the manager-to-staff-ratio, this can be quite time-consuming and usually the time is not used to its full extent, but it "chops up" the day. I like to receive information and status updates via e-mail or ticketing tools (JIRA etc.), so that the valuable time together can be focused much more on discussions. I also enjoy spending time together in front of a physical whiteboard - in my work environment there is always at least one of these in each room (two is better).

Mathis: That sounds very rigorous. What happens if meetings are scheduled that do not follow this scheme?

Boris: In this case, friendliness and determination is the key to success. You just have to ask friendly if there are any more details about the meeting or if the meeting could perhaps take place in the afternoon. Most of the time this is not a problem at all. Many simply do not dare to ask. It's also about friendly educational measures among each other and about drawing attention to how respectful interaction works. For example, I have developers in my teams who have blocked half days in their calendar during which they do not want to be disturbed during the week. Of course I don't book a meeting during these phases, when they want to work in a concentrated manner, if it can be avoided. It's all about mutual respect and understanding.

Mathis: Are you setting an example to your employees or is it a clear company policy on how meetings are handled at your company?

Boris: In my opinion, it is difficult to simply set rules top down. What works well is to create a guideline - I also try to establish this guideline in every team as soon as possible. It is about a common understanding of how we want to work. This can of course change over time. But there should be a common basic understanding of how the interaction in the company works. What communication channels are there? What is Slack used for? What is e-mail used for? What is a meeting? What is a workshop? This helps to internalize rules of conduct. Of course it is then necessary to set a good example. It's no use demanding that my employees arrive at the meeting on time and I as a manager always come last because I'm too "busy".

In my view, an important issue is the use of electronic devices in physical meetings. I'm a technician myself, but I'm no friend of using electronic devices in meetings. What often works well is a "dual device guideline". Most of the time only two electronic devices are needed in meetings: One for the presenter, one for the secretary. Otherwise, no laptops or cell phones are needed and these should not be used in the meeting if possible. This allows everyone to focus much more on the content and results of the meeting. As soon as something else cannot be worked on during the meeting, some participants often find that they don't really need to attend the meeting - so they can go somewhere else and use their time more effectively.

Mathis: Are there also clearly measurable successes on a small and large scale?

Boris: For me personally, the success is that my teams and I are very productive and above all motivated. For myself, I have thus also created a system that allows me to always have enough time for my employees despite my demanding role. With a well-maintained calendar you always have the possibility to adjust the day based on changing priorities - without causing too much trouble for others. I am always available for urgent matters when I am the master of my calendar and my current priorities.

Mathis: Do you have any advice for someone who is reading these lines and wishes to introduce a meeting culture like that? Should one introduce everything immediately or rather step by step?

Boris: You cannot convince people overnight. I think you have to proceed step by step. Launch small tests, and try to find allies: "Hey, don't we want to try this for a week, see how it works? Maybe try shorter meetings first?" Or you might skip a meeting first, which you have always done so far, and so on. Then you can build your guidelines and meeting culture step by step. As soon as you have generated the first successes, you will see that you are picking up speed and that more interested colleagues are following.

Mathis: Is there anything else you would like to tell us?

Boris: One more tip I can give you: a regular calendar review. I do this for myself about every three months, for employees we do this especially at the beginning or when they take on a new role. It's all about making yourself aware of what you spend your time with. You analyze the past in your calendar and roughly allocate how much time per week you spend in regular meetings, status updates, for leadership or strategic work, etc. To become aware of this in the first place is an important aspect. Before you do this, you should think about: What is the best time allocation for the various tasks? Usually there is a more or less large discrepancy. We often spend more time on activities that are less value-adding. But only when you see this in black and white, it is easier to think and discuss whether the meeting is really necessary, whether responsibilities can be delegated, whether certain topics can be left out in favor of others.

Mathis: Thanks for your time, Boris!

Boris: Thanks also for your time - and as you can see, a 25 minute slot instead of the 1 hour slot you initially set was no problem at all. :-)

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