Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Unstructured Time

IHE published an essay this week applying a variation on the “slow food” movement to college administrators, arguing that we should have fewer meetings so we’d have more time for leisurely, unstructured conversations.


Well, that would be nice, but…

The piece makes some good points about the echo chamber that senior administrators can find ourselves in, if we don’t make a point of getting out of it.  

At a basic level, though, the piece is unsatisfying because it doesn’t address the causes of calendar jam.  Without addressing causes, it’s hard to change outcomes.

The most basic cause is that most administrative work is necessarily collaborative.  That means meshing calendars with other people.  Outside of a few tentpole meetings, they move around a lot.  And the more inclusive you try to be, for all the right reasons, the more slippery the schedule gets, because you’re juggling that many more schedules.  It’s always easier to find a common open time for three people than for six, and it’s even harder for ten.  

If it’s just a matter of approving purchases and signing off on travel requests, I can do that whenever.  But I can only meet when the people I’m meeting with can meet.  When they tend to have high-traffic times, so do I.  

At a previous college -- I won’t get specific, but if pressed, I could -- I spent the better part of a month trying to put together a meeting with a small group of faculty on a particular issue.  Everyone had some sort of conflict, and nobody wanted to come in on their “day off.”  (Their language, not mine.)  They shot down date after date after date.  Eventually, the time came when I had to make a decision, so I made it.  Then they got mad that they weren’t consulted in person.  

That’s where the chronic sense of urgency comes from.  Being inclusive of people who are vigorously protective of their time is a challenge unappreciated by those who’ve never tried it.  When you find that rare open slot, you jump on it, because another one might not come around for a while, and some issues need attention.

The flip side of that is that there’s plenty of unstructured time on Fridays in July, but not that many folks around to chat.  If they’re only here when they need to be, then they’re busy when they’re here.  When they aren’t here, they aren’t available to chat.  Chat goes two ways.

At higher levels, many of the meetings involve people who don’t work at the college, and who aren’t on the academic calendar.  Partnering with other organizations is good for the college, but labor-intensive.  That follows from the theory of the firm, which is that a firm exists to reduce transaction costs.  The more you work outside the firm, the more the transaction costs accrue.  In our case, that cost tends to be labor.

Several years ago, at Holyoke, we had a natural experiment: the email system went down for a few days.  It was bliss.  The torrent of content finally subsided.  I can’t imagine what these jobs must have been like in the days before email, but I’m guessing they were easier.  Constant reachability establishes an expectation of constant responsiveness, which feeds the sense of urgency.

All of that said, relatively open-ended one-on-one conversations in the hallway or as meetings break up are time well-spent, when I have the option.  If I could hire more people to spread the work around and make more of those meetings possible, I’d love to.  In the meantime, I tip my cap to the brave souls who are willing to have actual conversations.  Perspective helps, even if I sometimes have to run to the next meeting.