How to get people to arrive on time for meetings

ClockIt bugs me a little when meetings don’t start on time. I’m fairly punctual myself and while I have no problem waiting five minutes for a meeting to start, it pains me to see ten people waiting fifteen minutes for one or two other people who’re late. It’s particularly annoying when it’s the same people who’re late every time.

Also, when some people are habitually late other participants start thinking “hey, meetings never start on time anyway, I’ll drop in ten minutes late.” It’s a downward slide from there :o)

Here are three steps you can take to get your meetings started on time – including one slightly weird suggestion that works amazingly well.

1: Agree what “The meeting starts at 3PM” means
What does “We meet at 3” mean? Does it mean that people should get there five minutes early so the meeting is ready to start at 3? Does it mean that people arrive at 3 and the meeting starts whenever people are ready? Or does “We meet at 3PM” really mean 3:15?

Different groups can have different standards but it’s a lot easier when everyone in the group has the same standard. Take five minutes out of a meeting to agree on this.

2: Start the meeting on time
It’s simple: Start the meeting at the appointed time according to your definition above, regardless of how many participants are still missing. Waiting for them only teaches them that it’s OK to be late.

3: Make lateness visible
This is a slightly strange suggestion that I’ve used to great effect: In the meeting room, place a glass or cup for each person labelled with their names. Then buy some red and green marbles and keep them in a jar next to the cups. Every person who arrives in time for a meeting places a green marble in his glass. Every person who arrives after the meeting starts places a red marble in his glass. This is not punishment it’s just a way of making the issue visible.

Meet on time

After a month or so of meetings, you may find that some people’s glasses tend heavily towards red marbles, making it very visible who’s habitually late.

This simple tool is remarkably effective at getting people to arrive on time, and sometimes no further action is required – the problem more or less goes away by itself.

18 thoughts on “How to get people to arrive on time for meetings”

  1. In my high school we had a headmaster with a great deal of humor. He greated us, when we were late in the morning, with a smile, a goodmorning and 5 Danish kroner (app. 1 dollar) for “a new alarm clock”. It was embarrasing because he was nice and sincere – and at the same time telling us to pull our act together.

  2. What a great trick Trine-Maria!

    Common wisdom would have it that rewarding people for bad behavior only makes it worse, but this kind of paradoxical approach often works far better than punishing or chastising people.

  3. The “social reinforcement” method (the marbles in the glass) is actually an old trick in the IT field, at least it is here in North America. What’s always bothered me about it is that in IT, there’s something of a nasty undercurrent.

    Two examples:

    Back before hard drive space got ridiculously cheap, it was common for IT companies to post a list of the people who were the top 5 or 10 consumers of network disk space. Everyone then knew who was hogging the file server, and social pressure (usually) took care of the problem with minimal IT department intervention.

    One place I worked had a whiteboard labelled “Cannot Follow Simple Instructions”. When there was some kind of wide-ranging issue that required the users to do something on their own, explicit instructions, with screenshots, would be posted, emailed out, etc. with the admonition, “do not call IT until you’ve completed these steps exactly”. Anyone who tried to short-circuit the process, or who didn’t follow the instructions, would get their name put up on the board for all to see.

    Now, both of these things “worked”, in the sense that they reduced the amount of time IT had to spend on these issues, but it absolutely contributed to an “us vs. them” mentality between IT and the rest of the company. It’s been my experience that the majority of employees are decent, hard-working folk who will happily work with IT to get whatever needs to be done, done – but there are always a handful (or more) or people who are either deliberately contrary, terminally impatient, or just plain not very intelligent and can’t handle working in a modern networked environment without more handholding than should be necessary. Being “nice” to these people just doesn’t work. They need to have some kind of stick to go with the carrot, but such practices need to be universal or the problem employees will (rightly) feel they’re being unfairly dealt with. Any ideas on how to handle this kind of situation?

  4. I know a company where they fixed a little box on a wall in the meeting room and every people that are late must put 1 dollar in the dollar box.

    Of course, after, this money is used to add fun in the meeting room or in the company.

    It’s not really a punishment since it’s like a game where we know the rules and everybody win.

  5. I can share an effective strategy for “latenicks”, from one of my former jobs. Our VP of Engineering had a rule — if you’re late, you have to sing. Yes, SING. One verse only, any song. He absolutely would not start the meeting until the latenick belted out the verse. That cured the lateness in no time. (Warning: may not be very effective for those aspiring to get onto American Idol!)

  6. Forget the cute little ideas such as marbles. Start the bloody thing on time no matter who is missing. If the late person wants to make an issue out of it, let them explain why they’re habitually late while you explain that it is everyone’s best interest not to waste people’s time. Depending on who the offender is, you will either get fired (good because you deserve better than what this organization has to offer) or behaviours will start to improve. Trust me, I’ve done it and it works.

  7. Ok team – what are the tips for the person who doesn’t turn up at all! Problem is esecially acute when they are a client; you have no stick to hit them with… One I heard was to ring them and ask if they are ok. Any others?

  8. Hmm. Easiest way to make people turn up on time is to make the meeting relevant. People will be late if they feel there’s no reason for them to be there.

  9. I help at the Special Olympics Summer games doing medical work. Our meeting is 7 a.m. SHARP. At 7 a.m. all doors to the meeting room are closed, you can’t slip in quietly. If you are late you have to stand/sit/dance in front of the whole group and sing, the choice is yours, but your going to sing. I can not tell you how that makes me get up and get there long before 7. It is all in fun, yet I’ll do anything it takes to not sing, and this works perfect for me as motivation.

  10. We use a simply system at work; cake-strikes. When you are late, 1 strike – and when you have 3 strikes, you bring a cake to work for all others to enjoy at the next meeting.

  11. When I was an attendee, and I had a meeting on a busy and hectic day, I expected the meeting to start on time. If I had to wait around and people trickled in over the next 15 minutes, I used to get annoyed and fidgety. Now, that I’m in a position where I conduct meetings, I expect my attendees to be in on time. The first time, I had only one attendee turn up on time and a minute or two later, two other people turned up. I started the meeting without waiting for the other two. During the next meeting, all except one turned up on time. I started my meeting as scheduled and the latecomer felt bad about his behaviour. I hope he wouldn’t repeat it here after.

    I think I will also use your tips on turning meetings into interesting ones.

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  13. we have late cake. if you are late by 1min even your name gets put on a piece of cake that’s sketched on paper (on wall) when all pieces are filled the one with the most pieces has to bake a cake.

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