Unknown Menaces to Civilization #5: Meetings
I am referring, of course, to meetings.
To understand why these apparently innocuous gatherings are so inimical to everyone's best interests, one must first accept this precise definition of "meeting": a time during the business day when no employees are doing the work that they are supposed to be doing. This is plainly and simply the truth: whether employees were hired to assemble widgets, smooze with clients, or input data, those employees are not doing what they were hired to do when they are forced to sit around a table and talk with other employees. Thus, it should come as no surprise to learn that the employees who are most likely to spend their working days in one meeting after another are the company presidents—because they usually don't really have anything to do in the first place. So, having constant meetings allows them to maintain the illusion that they are working hard when in reality they are simply spending all of their time moving from one unproductive conversation to another.
Now, many will protest that, even though meetings may not be directly related to the work employees are generally assigned to do, they nonetheless take care of some extremely important business. By periodically gathering in the same room, employees who may otherwise never come into contact can keep each other informed about what they are doing; they can thoughtfully evaluate past projects and practices to helpfully determine exactly what went right and what went wrong; and they can discuss plans for future business initiatives and make decisions about which courses to pursue.
No one can sanely dispute that these are all things that a business has to do; but is it really necessary to make a bunch of employees sit around a table and talk in order to do them? To achieve perfect communication between disparate employees in different divisions, all a business needs to do is create a weekly e-newsletter and require all employees to contribute a one-paragraph update on their current activities. As for evaluations of previous efforts and plans for future endeavors, a supervisor could first assign one employee to prepare a report on a past project and assign another employee to develop options for future projects with some recommendations; the designated employees could consult via e-mail with interested colleagues while doing their work and circulate rough drafts of their report for everyone's feedback before submitting final versions. True, there may arise occasions when there are vigorous disputes about what was done or what should be done which might require bringing everybody together in one room to hammer out an agreement; but more often than not, I suspect, a rough consensus would emerge via e-mail without any need for a meeting.
Even granting that the purposes of most meetings might be achieved in other ways, others will argue that I am scrutinizing meetings from an overly utilitarian perspective. After all, they will say, beyond achieving the immediate goals of a business, there is value in bringing people together to converse, to get to know each other, to make small talk about their families and their favorite football teams. In these ways, employees from different offices can become friends, can bond together, and can forge that all-important spirit of "teamwork" which every company needs to be totally effective. Deploying such blather, business consultants can even justify that ultimate exercise in wasting time and wasting money, the uber-meeting that can bring an entire company to a complete halt for a day or more—the "retreat." Or, if companies have employees in distant locations who cannot easily be brought together at one place, they might instead be persuaded to waste their time and money on staging that cumbersome and expensive alternative to a face-to-face meeting—"teleconferencing."
But one must cast a skeptical eye on these arguments. For one thing, I don't believe it has ever been proven that people will always work better together if they have spent a lot of time in close contact; indeed, in the sciences at least, there are numerous instances of scientists collaborating to complete significant research entirely via long-distance communication without ever meeting at all. And, if there is no evidence that bringing employees together for personal meetings will improve the company's efficiency, why should consumers, by paying higher prices to compensate for the company's lower productivity, effectively be subsidizing a bunch of social gatherings? I mean, I can see there's a case for a company Christmas party, or maybe even a Fourth of July barbeque as well, but why should we be paying a company to stage a constant series of what amount to sedate, sit-down parties?
Further, it is a myth of the buzz-word bamboozlers that forcing people to engage in heart-to-heart conversations will inevitably turn them into fast friends and effective collaborators. In fact, precisely the opposite is just as likely to occur, as employees repeatedly brought together to converse may gradually come to the realization that they really, really despise each other. Thus, instead of enhancing company harmony, meetings may contribute to in-house company warfare by incessantly placing sworn enemies in the same room to go through the rituals of information-sharing and group decision-making. Some employees might work much better together, in other words, if like those far-flung scientists, they never meet each other at all.
Along with the loss of valuable work time and the potential for increased hostility in the office, meetings can have one additional negative impact: as employees engage in more and more meetings, and find themselves crafting pretexts for more and more meetings, the belief can grow among certain employees that having meetings is, in fact, the true purpose of the business. Thus, if a meeting seems to go well, it was a "good meeting," and that means that the company is doing fine. However, if a meeting does not go well, it was a "bad meeting," and that means that the company is in trouble. In other words, one subconsciously begins to evaluate the progress of the company not by the quality of its genuine achievements, but by the quality of its constant meetings. And the only recourse for a company whose meetings don't seem to be up to par, of course, is practice, practice, practice—which means scheduling still more and more meetings. Eventually, perhaps, someone will recognize that, as the number of meetings has risen, the company's productivity and profits have been declining—but no one will suggest the obvious solution of cutting back on meetings. Instead, they will schedule yet another meeting to discuss the possible causes of the company's problems—a meeting that will never focus on the very event occurring at that moment as one of those causes.
At this point of our history, unfortunately, meetings have become so ingrained in the corporate mentality that it will be far from easy to bring this lamentable practice under control—but perhaps, progress can be made with some modest steps. Thus, I offer this suggestion to all companies: establish a policy of "meetingless Mondays." That is, all employees will be absolutely forbidden to schedule or attend a meeting on Monday of each week. Then, even as the same old tsunami of meetings continues to assail companies on Tuesday through Friday, employees and executives will at least be able to discover the pleasures and benefits of having one day a week when everyone can focus entirely on their own business without being regularly interrupted by yet another summons to the conference room. Perhaps, discovering that their employees really seem to enjoy these Mondays, and that the problem of perpetual absenteeism on Monday begins to shift to a problem of perpetual absenteeism on Tuesday, companies might be persuaded to extend this no-meetings policy to another day of the week. And, as there are fewer and fewer opportunities to schedule meetings, companies will come to understand that almost all of their meetings really weren't necessary in the first place, and the trend will be to plan fewer and fewer meetings. Then, and only then, the world will find out just how productive American workers can really be—when they are no longer paid on a regular basis to waste their time attending meetings.
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