Whether you work for a large, global company or are part of a team of entrepreneurs toiling all hours to get a start-up off the ground, it can sometimes feel like you're held prisoner by the diary.
Does it seem like all your staff seem to do is go to meetings, respond to invitations and organise their calendars? Does a sense of shame loom over them when a packed diary makes them miss appointments here and there?
Fear not. We've put together an ultimate guide to diary management, jam-packed full of tips on how to maximise your employees' time, stay on top of invitations and never miss appointments again.
Let's take a look at some tried-and-tested ways to keep schedules as organised and efficient as possible!
Over-estimate travel time
Scheduling in travel time before and after meetings which are due to take place off-site is a staple tactic of diary management. Yet people still arrive late to meetings and blame the traffic or the train, so something clearly needs to change!
Once you've worked out how long a journey will take using an online distance calculator, it's always advisable to add fifteen minutes to this time.
This buffer covers eventualities like unexpected traffic, and also means that the journey to the appointment is not too stressful.
If your team is based in a major city, this is even more important. While today's sophisticated technology means that the real-time travel information available online is often scarily accurate, the high number of road users and public transport commuters mean unexpected events can arise and ruin meeting plans in an instant.
For really important off-site meetings, it could be worth keeping an eye on the appointment in the days and weeks running up to it and checking local transport authority websites for any newly-announced planned road or rail closures. It only takes seconds but could have a real impact on the way the meeting plays out.
Information is key
There are few circumstances in which it would be acceptable to put a meeting in a team member's diary but not communicate lots of detailed information about what is set to take place.
The date, time and location are not enough to keep everyone in the loop about what is required from them. Unless it is a simple entry like a basic task reminder, all events in team calendars should come with a detailed agenda and a clear description of the objectives of the meeting.
Sourcing this information from all participants and adding it in can be a time-consuming process. But in the long run, it saves lots of time.
There's little worse than sitting in a meeting while someone frantically flicks through documents on a laptop to find a key piece of information that should have been circulated with the meeting invitation.
And the sense of escalating despair as participants talk on and on and lose focus can really drag people down, especially those attendees with other appointments coming up or key tasks to complete.
All these problems can be prevented with a simple template for each meeting. This should include basic practical information like the time, location and date, as well as any access issues - for example, do meeting attendees need to press a certain button on the front door intercom or ask for you at reception in order to get in?
If it's a conference call, make sure dial-in details are up to date and set a reminder for someone to test the equipment twenty minutes before the scheduled start time.
Then, the template should include an estimated conclusion time, an agenda with detailed points and a clear indication of which participants will be leading each segment. It should also indicate whether any preparation work needs to be done, who is doing it and whether any resources (such as documents) are needed.
Schedule recurring meetings - but use them well
When it comes to diary management, recurring appointments can be a godsend when they are used correctly.
But while putting a few team meetings in the calendar and setting them for the same day and time every week for the next year might seem like productive forward planning, it's not always actually the most effective move.
The reality is that in a busy workplace things change on a regular basis, and pre-scheduled meetings very often get changed around if one or two team members have to dash off. This can cause endless confusion, as original recurring meetings remain in the calendar alongside rearranged ones - and nobody knows quite when the right one is!
For that reason, a well-managed diary will contain a few recurring meetings that are under constant monitoring. If recurring meetings are regularly getting cancelled, it might be worth sitting down with the team in question and explaining that there's not much point clogging up the diary if repeat appointments can't be stuck to.
If recurring appointments are often getting abandoned, could it be worth cancelling some of them and simply setting aside ten minutes a day or week to ask team members when they're free. While it may seem like more organisational work at first, the efficiency savings of a more free diary could be substantial.
Be open about holidays
Nobody likes to be reminded that their colleagues are sunning themselves and drinking cocktails on a far-flung beach while they are stuck at their desk, but unfortunately, it's an essential part of diary management.
It's wise to encourage a culture of maximum visibility around time off. Once a team member has booked a holiday and it has been confirmed by their line manager (or whoever is responsible for approving leave requests), it should immediately go into the calendar so that everyone knows to keep that time devoid of all-team events.
This way, client meetings planned for when the holidaymaker is the key contact can be scheduled for a time when they're back in the office.
Perfecting the art of holding
When it comes to organising schedules, only one thing is ever for sure: people chop, change and cancel way more often than someone who has never worked in diary management would expect!
If an associate gets in touch to provisionally invite a team member along to a meeting, it's usually a good idea to assume the meeting's date, time or location could well be changed down the line. To keep the team in the loop, it's worth simply adding the tag "Holding" to the diary entry to indicate that there's a possibility it won't go ahead as planned.
This, too, is where software like Outlook comes into its own: you can take full advantage of colour-coding systems and other visual calendar aids to make it clear that this isn't a confirmed meeting.
Holding tags are also helpful in case a clashing invitation comes along. Rather than just declining the new invitation, the "Holding" tag on the original one will remind you that it hasn't been firmed up and will allow you take a more nuanced decision about which one the team member should commit to.
If your diary management tactics are often undermined by the same people who regularly cancel, it might also be worth keeping a low-key, informal list of those who are no-shows or last-minute re-arrangers.
Once a meeting invitation comes through from one of these people, you'll remember to add the "Holding" tag to the diary entry to indicate that the meeting isn't as likely as others to go ahead!
Monitor the context
When an invitation rolls in for a new appointment, have a look at what else is on that day and how that might impact the new, proposed meeting.
For example, if there is an unavoidable meeting in the diary with a difficult client at 11am but an associate is requesting a catch-up lunch at 12.30pm, it might not be the best idea to go ahead with the lunch on that day. Should the client meeting go badly, lunch attendees might feel distracted and leave the associate with the erroneous impression that they did something wrong.
The same applies when major deadlines are looming. Make sure cut-off points for important reports and write-ups are diarised well in advance, and that blocks of time in the run-up to them are kept free. The last thing you want is to realise the day before a meeting that you need to cancel so you can finish a draft!
Prevention is the best cure, and as with all workplace problems, forward planning can often be a saviour. Judging future situations based on their contexts is a good way to avoid issues before they arise and keep diaries running smoothly.
What are your top tips for diary management? We'd love to hear them, so please add them in the comments below - and don't forget to share this post with your network!
And if you're looking for some assistance with your diary management needs, get in touch with SmartPA today to find out how we can take your business to the next level. Are you ready to discover your new secret weapon?