Jan 24, 2016

Meetings, can’t stand them, but can’t live without them

My 10-year-old daughter recently asked: “Daddy, what do you do all day?” 

I replied that I spent much of my time in business meetings. But are they really a productive use of my time, or is it all just pointless ritual, a semi-social way to fill the hours while pretending to work?

Unquestionably, board meetings can be dull. Any that run over two hours suffer from a collapse in effectiveness. I always try to start those that I chair on the items that matter most. Damn the agenda — let’s focus on the important issues while everyone is fresh. Unfortunately, like most aspects of modern life, the dread disease of bureaucracy is for ever trying to suffocate all the useful activity undertaken in a meeting. One board I chair regularly circulates its members with a pack of material running to hundreds of pages — much of it compliance, regulatory and governance guff. Such information overload leads to rapidly diminishing returns for all concerned, and makes it hard to concentrate on the priorities.

I find that the most significant meetings are generally one on one, where you really concentrate on the conversation with the person in front of you. Quality deteriorates as the number of attendees rises. I’ve sat in plenty of institutional board meetings with 20 or more people gathered around the table, discussing the previous meeting’s minutes and similar trivia. At gatherings like that, I tend to lose the will to live. Perhaps I suffer from attention deficit disorder or, just perhaps, the system is dysfunctional.

All large companies appear to use electronic diaries, but the problem is that this software makes it too easy to organise meetings. So inevitably staff are always having meetings — which feel less taxing than doing something constructive, like serving a customer, closing a sale or improving a product. As someone once said: “A meeting is a collective tacit confession of participants’ unwillingness to work.” Moreover, meetings can be draining, particularly if nothing is achieved. Most of us prefer to be fruitfully engaged, rather than sitting around getting bored.

Interaction with colleagues in the workplace can make us feel human, but big meetings can also be stressful. Interruptions, private conversations, participants looking at their emails or texting, domineering behaviour, feeling ignored and public dressing-downs . . . they are all part of the circus. Managing the interplay takes real effort.

Rows and serious criticism should be dealt with in small sessions, outside the main gatherings. And preventing certain participants from hogging the proceedings — without offending them — is an art.

Experts say that all meetings should have an agenda, a structure, a purpose, a specific duration, someone to lead the meeting, and someone to take notes. They are probably right. Many of my meetings are not so neatly planned, which might explain why too many feel as if not much is achieved. I do believe that a list of follow-up actions should be agreed at the end of the meeting — which is surely its function. Meanwhile, certain meetings are over-choreographed and too busy; just a couple of vital points settled could mean the time has been well spent.

Annual general meetings are ludicrous ceremonies — a throwback to an era before electronic communications. At most public company AGMs there are hardly any shareholders , mainly because they have better things to do. Corporate governance needs to modernise: physical AGMs should be scrapped and replaced with a 21st-century digital equivalent.

One advantage of remote working is that there are fewer opportunities for futile meetings. But being a freelancer and working from home every day can be lonely. It might save the business money in office rent, but is something lost in terms of morale and staff commitment with such a dispersed workforce? Skype, conference calls and telecommuting aren’t adequate substitutes for direct contact.

Indeed, some think we are having too few meetings, and using our devices too much. In many offices I see younger people with earphones on, multi-tasking using their PC and iPhone, oblivious to the rest of the world — and I wonder if they are missing out. The psychologist Sherry Turkle, in her book Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age, argues that disconnected workers are less loyal; if managers want to win the hearts and minds of their team, they must gather regularly for “face time”. Corporate culture cannot develop via email. As one interviewee put it: “Breathing the same air matters.”

Business meetings are essential, but organisations must get the balance right. While ineffectual meetings are expensive drudgery, companies that depend too much on technology for communications can feel robotic and impersonal. Good chemistry matters, and only talking face to face can create it.