Why Always Meet?

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Reading an article in this month’s People Management, the CIPD’s monthly magazine, I was taken with a reference to a cartoon (shown below) about meetings. How true it is. In many office-based vocations one may end up being stuck in meetings for an average of around a dozen hours a week. Some would be more, others less, but let’s use that as a ballpark figure. If you assume that your working life extends for 50 years, and that you’re in work for 48 weeks a year, that works out at a cool 28,800 hours. Or – and this really smarts – 1,200 days. That’s 3¼ years of your life stuck in meetings. Three and a quarter years.

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OK, so many of those meetings will have been considered important and necessary. You probably called a number of them yourself. But the way we’ve been working in the recent months of lockdown have enabled us all to reflect on which meetings really are necessary. I exempt the one-to-one meeting here, by the way; I’m talking about the more conventional meeting.

Before our friend Covid-19 decided to darken our shores back in the early spring, the word ‘zoom’ would have meant different things to different people – to me it conjures up images of coloured ice lollies, Neil Armstrong. and a positively dreadful 1982 song by Fat Larry’s Band – but what it almost certainly wouldn’t have had you thinking about was an online platform for meetings. ‘Zoom’ will be one of the stand-out words of the year when we look back in December.

But, in reality, Zoom, or Teams, or Skype, or whichever platform you or the organization you work for has chosen to use, is no different to the normal run-of-the-mill workplace. People who called the meetings before lockdown have simply moved over to calling them online in lockdown. It doesn’t mean they have suddenly all acquired a purpose. I conservatively estimate that 40% of all of the meetings I attended achieved very little. They were called by others, often for others. They could have been dealt with online; before that maybe via a telephone call. Quite apart from the time wasted there must have been thousands of pounds expended on travelling to meetings, staying overnight and such like. And my heart used to sink at the prospect of a Powerpoint or other slide-led presentation. Especially when it came from people who insisted on talking through every single word of each slide, rather than talking to their audience with the slides as a backdrop.

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Meetings online seem, to me at least, to be more polite. They also seem to produce a greater sense of group discipline. I don’t know about you, but when I see that little timer appearing on my screen, slowly counting down the seconds until the end of the meeting, it definitely provides a sense of urgency, of how important it is for everything to be properly and concisely summarized before the screen suddenly goes all white. I also like some of the social niceties, how you can see everyone without the need to be continually sweeping the room. I particularly like the fact that a number of different characters have emerged at online meetings: the multitasker; the mute; the technological dullard; the fidgeter; the chair-vacater; the image withholder. There are plenty of others.

I also enjoy the fact that everyone has the same sized frame. It doesn’t matter who you are, you aren’t given any special prominence. And I believe the fact that everyone has been on the same platform has led to a more equitable and consistent form of communication. In HR terms, I think it’s led to people being better connected and more comfortable with one another.

And then there are the backdrops. The bookshelves. The artificially-imposed photo backgrounds (which the user insists on changing routinely). In one television interview I saw with the Conservative MP Alok Sharma, he seemed to be talking in an empty store cupboard, with no lightshade and nothing on any of the shelves. It was like he was hiding in a tiny IKEA warehouse. Perhaps he was. After all, his leader was famously accused of having hidden in a fridge to avoid reporters during December’s general election campaign…

Online meetings can be exhausting – and not only, on Zoom at least, the fact that if someone loses a connection, he or she reappears somewhere else and everyone else shuffles up, down or along. The most I have had to work my way through in one day was seven. Others may have experienced more. But it means hours sat in front of a computer. Hours concentrating. I was exhausted. There are meetings and there are meetings. In many of them we can generally allow our minds to wander as we switch off for a while (often as we contemplate why the meeting is taking place, why you are there, and when on earth it’s going to finish). But online it somehow feels that a greater concentration is demanded. I facilitate a lot of personal development reviews for outside companies. These are important to the company, but they are particularly important to the individual concerned. It’s their one opportunity to be the centre of attention. So you have to concentrate. Hard. And you have to listen. Intently. You cannot allow your mind to go walkabout, even for a moment. You have to make that person feel as though, for that one hour, they are the most important person you are going to be speaking to all day. I find myself drained at the end of days like that. And that’s how I felt after a full day on Zoom.

So why do we take the calling of meetings for granted? The frequency. The purpose. The length. Who calls them? Who runs them? Whether in an office or online, that question should still stand. What I believe has changed, however, is that people are now going to challenge the whole area of meetings, as lockdown eases and people start to go back to work in greater numbers. Too many meetings are held for the sake of it. There are too many outdated conventions. They go on too long. They are held too often. In lockdown it almost feels as though some are being held just to provide the person calling them with something to do. Irrespective of the medium, many of them remain a complete waste of time.

Of course, the contact is something I’ve welcomed, especially as someone who lives on their own. But the novelty has worn off somewhat. After three months I just want to be with my children, my granddaughter, my family, my friends. We’re fast running out of online quiz questions. And just how many times can we ask one another what we’ve been up to when we know that the answer is going to be ‘same as last week… and the week before?’ Zoom has been great for maintaining contact with those miles away, and I don’t underestimate the psychological support that seeing family and friends every few days can provide, but I for one can’t wait to get back to actually having meetings. What I will certainly be doing is challenging the protocols and conventions much harder. I hope you do too.

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We should all understand why a meeting has been called, what its purpose is. Does it need to be face to face, or can it be held online? There should be an agreed time limit (restricted further if face to face and there is no Covid-19 vaccine yet available). Those invited should all be felt to have a role to play in whatever the discussion is about, or be made to feel that their view will have a bearing on the outcome. The outcome should be summarized and restated. Any individual responsibilities should be agreed, as should any timelines. If there is a need to meet again, try to anticipate that and schedule a date and time. If the meeting is recurring, challenge its regularity. Does it need to be daily, or weekly? Could it be weekly, or fortnightly, or monthly? Mix the agenda up if that’s appropriate. Vary the voices. If you can, vary the meeting leader. We’ve all experienced good meeting chairs, who can manage all of the above. But people who understand how to run meetings are as rare as flying purple unicorns. And for every good meeting chair, there are half a dozen more who just haven’t got a clue. Post Covid-19 is the perfect opportunity to challenge meeting convention.

Anyway, I must dash. I’ve got a meeting to get to…