Too Many Meetings

This is the Sunday edition of Culture Study — the newsletter from Anne Helen Petersen, which you can read about here. If you like it and want more like it in your inbox, consider subscribing

Let’s say, in pre-pandemic life, you worked in an office and wanted to quickly run an idea by a colleague. It’s too much for a Slack message or an email, so you stopped by their desk and asked if you could have a moment of their time, picked their brain for a second, whatever.

During the pandemic, you can’t go to that person’s desk. You still don’t want to use email or Slack. You could call them up on the phone, but you don’t know if they’re busy with something else and can’t be interrupted, which would be awkward, especially if they’re slightly senior to you. So you decide, in office speak, to “put some time on their calendar.” All that’s available: a thirty minute slot near the end of their day.

When you get to that appointed time, you turn on Zoom or Microsoft Teams, and one or both of you is three minutes late because the previous meeting ran over. You spend five minutes on pleasantries. You run the idea past them, they give you some ideas, and you arrive at a crossroads: end the meeting quickly, and have 12 minutes to go to the bathroom, look at your email, start an article and not finish it before your next meeting….or keep talking about other projects, because hey, you have this time on the calendar, and you want to make some of the work and thinking you’ve been doing from home evident. So you talk for another ten minutes, then one of you awkwardly ends the meeting, and you’re three minutes late to your next meeting, which someone slightly junior to you put on your calendar.

Some meetings are important — usually about 20% of the ones you’re asked to attend. Some meetings could be accomplished via an email or a phone call. Some meetings should actually be a conversation between two people, instead of a conversation between two people with eight other people there as disaffected audience. Some people see calling a meeting as a way to show they’re important, when it’s really a way to make everyone resent you. Some meetings — like so-called “silent” ones — are really just blocking off time so that people can actually read the document / presentation / report and talk very briefly about it, which they’ve previously failed to do because, well, their days are filled with too many meetings.

Over-meeting is a symptom of bad company communication or even worse company culture. This was true before the pandemic, but it’s even more true now, when all of those more casual interactions have been wedged into meeting form, which force people into “busy” mode for the entirety of the work day — and pushes actual work into the rest of your life.

This is chart from Hugo, a company that attempts to facilitate productive meeting culture, about the average number of internal meetings per week. That pre-12 number at the beginning is at the end of January. W13, when the average hits 14.5, is the beginning of April, when people were first adjusting to office work from home. What happens at W35? That’s the end of August, right when kids started going back to school. (That big dip = the week of Thanksgiving).

The more stressed we get, the more meetings we have — which in turn makes us more stressed, because the meetings don’t usually accomplish the thing that would decrease our stress level, which is completing a task, or having clear and cogent feedback about your completion of that task. Instead, we default to status meetings, update meetings, meetings about future meetings, all of which suck the time out of the day without actually doing much.

And they don’t actually make us feel more connected. A survey of 9000 “knowledge” workers, commissioned by Slack, found that going remote had decreased workers’ “sense of belonging.” But those who received status updates via email reported a *higher* sense of belonging (+6) compared to those who attended status meetings (-3). To restate: the more seemingly pointless meetings you attend, the less connected you feel to your team or company.

If you are calling a meeting to make yourself feel better about something, it shouldn’t be a meeting. If you’re calling a meeting because you, personally, don’t know enough about something, that also shouldn’t be a meeting. If there are more than eight people in a meeting, it probably shouldn’t be a meeting. If people you manage have done something well, there are so many more effective ways to communicate that than a meeting. I’m somewhat persuaded by Hugo’s general pitch, which is that meetings with very clear agendas, takeaways, and tasks can become generative and useful.

But I generally think meetings function as shitty band-aids on bigger, neglected problems, usually with company culture. If company culture — a company’s actual values, as opposed to their stated values — is bad, then meetings will also be bad. (We had a great discussion about this earlier this week in the subscriber-only forum). But we’ve come to rely on them, at least in part, because the other modes of communication — email especially! — have become too clogged. People’s inboxes are a mess, so they avoid them, or read and don’t respond, or read poorly and respond insufficiently. Slack has its own weird asynchronicity, and the feeling, much like email, of shooting questions into an echoing void. Meetings are intended as a fix for all that avoidance, but then everyone shows up and is looking at their computers, sifting through their email. When everything’s broken, everything’s broken.

Why do I care about this? I’m no longer part of a company, so I don’t have to spend nearly as much time in meetings. I’m still roped into some for various reasons, but whenever possible, I ask for a one-on-one phone call, which usually lasts around ten minutes. I’m able to do this, of course, because I’m outside of company culture; if you’re in a place with too many meetings, refusing to attend is tantamount to waving a sign in the area that reads I’M NOT A TEAM PLAYER, PLEASE PUT THAT IN MY PERFORMANCE REVIEW.

I care because I’m co-writing a book about it, and I’m co-writing a book about it because work continues to make people miserable in ways that are pretty avoidable. I’ve spent so much time thinking about the dead-end of productivity culture, about LARPing your job, about our general difficulty with cultivating meaningful hobbies. But the truth is that office/knowledge workers are obsessed with work because we’ve legislated away our social safety nets, neglected or rejected the power of solidarity, and/or embraced the individualist American ethos. Working all the time is way to convince ourselves that the world might be falling apart, but at least you, as an individual, can maintain some tenuous control of my future — even if you’re too exhausted to advocate for anything better for yourself, for your colleagues, or for others.

All of that feels bad enough. But then the work itself so often also feels like shit. You can find your vocation to be deeply meaningful and also resent the daily, hour-to-hour, meeting-to-meeting, email-to-email experience of it.

And yet, as with all things we’ve come to accept as just the way things are, it doesn’t have to be this way. Productivity obsessions have historically correlated with precarious job markets, extended recessions, and overarching instability. Over-meeting (and over-emailing!) are responses to the same underlying precarity. Companies and organizations whose survival depends on cutthroat fidelity to capitalism means everyone within those organizations will do whatever possible to create the aura of more work, and nothing looks like working quite like a calendar full of meetings.

We should reknit the social safety net first and foremost because people are physically suffering in their daily lives, struggling to find enough to eat, to find safe housing or affordable care for their children. We should reknit the social safety net so people aren’t stuck in jobs or relationships they hate but can’t afford to leave. We should reknit the social safety net because without one, women take up the slack. And finally, and very much secondarily, we should reknit the social safety net so that people will stop scheduling so many damn meetings. Just think about how much time you’d have if you didn’t spend so much of it desperately trying to show that you’re working.

Things I Read and Loved This Week:

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