Airless rooms, banal buzzwords and clock watching. Does this sound like a briefing that you’ve recently attended? If so, you’re not alone. Rhymer Rigby calls the end of the meeting
After speaking to hundreds of executives, researchers at Harvard Business School and Boston University concluded that many workers felt overwhelmed and under-stimulated by meetings. Writing in the Harvard Business Review, they reported that one interviewee, citing the sheer volume of meetings experienced at work, said, “I cannot get my head above water to breathe during the week”. Another described stabbing her leg with a pencil to stop herself from screaming during a particularly awful session.
There’s a lot of data to back up the idea that meetings are a burden. According to a recent MIT Sloan Business School paper, by some estimates, American senior managers spend 23 hours a week in meetings.
Meanwhile, a 2015 survey by Sennheiser Communications suggested that the average British worker attends more than 6,000 meetings in their working lives, with some 70 per cent of respondents admitting that they tend to zone out during them.
Finally, research by the University of Nebraska found that between 25 and 50 per cent of meetings are viewed as ineffective. You get the memo.
Just what is it that makes meetings so widely regarded as awful? And why, then, are they such a persistent feature of the corporate landscape? There are a number of reasons people dislike them. Like the most frustrating kinds of jobs, they combine soul-sapping boredom with the need to pay attention. Yes, your colleague has just been prattling on about his hobby-horse for, what, 25 minutes, but the moment you let your mind drift off or start checking your email on your phone, you can guarantee somebody will ask for your input and you won’t have a clue what they’re on about.
It can be easy to view meetings as something that prevents you from doing your actual job. Worse still, they can provide a platform for those interested in self-promotion; what the David Bolchover, author of The Living Dead, “the shocking truth about office life”, describes as “the dominance of image over reality, of obfuscation over clarity, of politics over performance”.
Even if you’ve called the meeting and have something important say, you may well find yourself presiding over a room of the disengaged, disinterested and self-interested. So, are they at worst a total waste of time or at best a necessary evil?
Not quite. They do fill a vital communications role at work. If you need to disseminate information to a group of people or hope to spark a discussion, a meeting is the way to do it. They also provide a richness of exchange – the back and forth, as well as through body language and other non-verbal communication – which just doesn’t happen when you’re not physically together in a group. Meetings may not be perfect or even good, but, to borrow Sir Winston Churchill’s thoughts on democracy, they are a way to exchange ideas, apart from all the others.
On top of this, meetings perform a function that has nothing to do with the topic being discussed. They’re a kind of gathering for your team or tribe. They give people a chance to chat, bond and vent frustrations. They let you see and be seen.
If you hate meetings, you may be someone who is very task orientated. But people who find the social aspects of work rewarding may actually enjoy them. Ask someone who looks happy in meetings – their thoughts might surprise you.
Should we live in hope that technology will radically alter things, note that it hasn’t so far. Conference calls have been widely available since the 1960s and videoconferencing since the 1980s. Neither has made the meeting obsolete yet. Both fail to reproduce the intimacy and most of the non-verbal cues that make meetings valuable.
For many of us, conference calls present the hassle of meetings without the good bits. And videoconferences, by extension, are conference calls where you can’t yawn when you’re bored. A mix of the real and remote can be equally problematic. Dialling in to a physical meeting is a second-class experience for the person on the other end of the line and degrades the quality of the meeting for those who are actually there.
However, the technology is always improving and augmented reality apps such as Spatial can go some way towards capturing the feeling of being in a room with other people. There’s another factor at work here, though, and this is the fact that so many people now work remotely, meaning that many teams are now dispersed within cities, countries or even globally. The technology to realistically reproduce a meeting may be some way off, but this could be what pushes the virtual meeting to come of age.
But given that meetings are likely to remain a fixture of the workplace for the foreseeable future, you may as well make the best of them. Go into the meeting with a positive frame of mind, and think about what you’re going to say beforehand. Try to listen to colleagues and ask constructive questions. Make eye contact and show interest. There’s a quid pro quo in action here – be a good citizen within meetings and you may find that others take a more positive interest in your own contributions.
OK, so nobody’s ever going to truly enjoy listening to Bob from systems explaining how expenses software works. But if you have to attend a meeting, you should make it work for you. They can provide a valuable forum for your team, as well as a chance for you personally to shine. Used constructively, they can even help advance your career.
AR and VR meetings
AR (augmented reality) and VR (virtual reality) are technologies that have been around for decades, but have yet to make good on their promise. Their application within business has tended to be fairly specialist – for example, inspecting hard to reach parts of oil refineries. However, they have the potential to transform virtual meetings.
If your team was to meet in virtual space, VR could allow you to pull up an analytical dashboard, allowing everyone to visually see how a business unit is performing. It would be similar to the sort of social media dashboard we see on screens, but exist only on a virtual wall or be floating in mid-air above a virtual table, Star Trek-style. Other possibilities include conjuring presentations out of thin air (in virtual space) and even allowing an entire group to tour a new facility using virtual reality.
In the end, what could really swing it for virtual meetings may not be duplicating what physical meetings offer, but providing extra functionality that no “meet-space” meeting can deliver.
Eight Ways to Run a World-Beating Meeting
- Have an agenda and stick to it. If it’s not on the agenda, don’t discuss it. If you must go off-piste, set aside a strictly limited period of time for “any other business” at the end.
- Consider having a chair. The chair is not the leader, but they are the person who ensures the agenda is adhered to and that everyone feels their voice has been heard.
- Limit attendees. Amazon’s Jeff Bezos famously instituted the “two pizza rule”: no meeting should involve a group larger than can be fed by two pizzas. As cheesy as this sounds – sorry – it means only the people who need to be in the meeting are there. If you must have meetings larger than this, consider a different format.
- Keep It Short. How long does a meeting take?
- How long do you have? Keep it brief – say half an hour. If you know some attendees are given to long, rambling speeches, place a time limit on individual contributions.
- Keep It Fresh. One perennial complaint about meetings is that they’re held in stuffy rooms. Alternative venues, such as coffee shops, communal areas, pubs and even outside, can all make meetings less boring and inspire clearer thinking.
- Have snacks and drinks. Or have lunch served. Fruit is good, too – bear in mind not everyone likes tea and biscuits these days.
- If you reach the end of your agenda before you reach the end of your time, finish the meeting early. Everyone involved will love you for this.
This piece was originally featured in the May edition of CEDRIC, a Home Grown Club publication.