Few workplaces are spared the torture of useless meetings. Among the coronavirus clouds, a silver lining is that organizations are being forced to develop their remote working systems, and to discover how much time they waste on workplace gatherings. The hope is that the lessons won’t be forgotten once standard work resumes.
The orthodox view is that meetings are designed to exchange information and coordinate actions. Employees in the US average over 60 meetings a month, so either a lot of information is being exchanged, and a lot of actions are being coordinated; or the meetings serve another purpose altogether. Suspicions of the latter are raised by the fact that in a typical workplace meeting, most of those present only need to hear a fraction of what is being said – and sometimes none of it – yet they are forced to sit through the entire gathering.
If bosses are obsessed with productivity, why would they waste their workers’ time by holding frivolous meetings? The explanation is that meetings make people feel important: by sitting and listening to me for 30 minutes, you are demonstrating to me my significance. Compliments are nice, but talk is cheap, whereas time is not. That is why I could ask you to leave the meeting once the three minutes that are relevant to you are completed, but I prefer the exhilaration of tacitly or explicitly commanding you to remain, and seeing you acquiesce.
Moreover, to some extent, the self-esteem boost is bidirectional, since you are one of the select few whose opinion I, your powerful boss, value. That is why for many people, the only thing worse than being invited to an excruciatingly boring meeting is not being invited to one.
Of course bosses and workers will never admit that, since nobody wants to look like a selfish or insecure colleague. But it remains the reason why one Fortune 50 company estimated losses in excess of $75 million per year due to poor meetings.
Working from home offers a ray of hope to those mired in meeting-obsessed organizations. Video conferencing software such as Skype and Zoom is a great substitute for face-to-face meetings from a technical perspective, but it massively undermines the ability of meetings to make people feel important. The employee who is attentively nodding may actually be playing solitaire, or shopping for groceries. That’s why you should not be surprised to find your boss’s appetite for meetings considerably diminished once your team is mostly remote working.
But what happens when the pandemic passes and we all go back to working in the office? Will the golden carriage that is streamlined and minimalist meetings revert to the pumpkin that is bloated ones designed to buttress the boss’s self-esteem?
There is a chance that the culture of meetings could permanently change even if remote working reverts to being a largely inactive system, because the period of working from home might demonstrate to the personnel just how useless the meetings are, and that everyone can be highly productive without needing to convene a handful of times a day. The emperor’s clothes – or lack thereof – may finally be evident to all parties.
Bosses could now think twice before calling a meeting, fearing eyerolls, muttering, and general disdain from workers who are certain that the entire process is a charade, and who are confident that they can realize their individual and collective targets more efficiently if they are simply allowed to get on with their job.
American comedian Dave Barry once quipped: “If you had to identify, in one word, the reason why the human race has not achieved, and never will achieve, its full potential, that word would be ‘meetings.’” He was surely exaggerating, since meetings do sometimes serve their traditional purpose of information exchange and coordinating actions. But in an era of austerity and productivity slowdowns, reforms to our workplace culture – starting with a ban on the dreaded three-hour meeting – may be a low-hanging fruit that we have ignored for too long. May your next marathon meeting be the last of its kind.
Omar Al-Ubaydli (@omareconomics) is a researcher at Derasat, Bahrain.SHOW MORE