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.
Anne, my friends are sick of listening to me talk about “the newsletter I’m subscribed to” and reading the walls of quotes from your articles I paste into our groupchats, but this piece and the crux of the contradiction about connectedness in a remote world really did strike me in a particularly poignant way that I’m afraid I can only share here.
Last week, I attended a quarterly all-staff meeting. We all dutifully filed into the Zoom room as the president of the organization heaped praise on us for a hard year fought well (our work is relevant to the US domestic political landscape), and how connected and effective we had proven we were as an organization for weathering 2020 despite the odds.
It was at that moment that I realized that I, someone who had joined the organization remotely at the start of the pandemic, couldn’t relate to anything that was being said. I did my part, yes, but I didn’t feel connected to the president (one Zoom box) or any of my other colleagues (all the other Zoom boxes). No matter how many Slack channels about pets or memes I commented on or how many virtual coffees I scheduled, they were still just people I shared the same e-mail signature with, so many months later.
This made me feel so empty that within minutes of the all-staff meeting ending, I decided that this disconnect was /my/ fault— my fault for not setting up more Zoom check-ins, for not chasing down a senior colleague who never responded to my Slack message, for not working enough hours over the weekend to beat my deadlines before my boss asks about them, for failing to be a good employee while staring into the void of my laptop camera and trying desperately to show that I /was/ trying.
I had a Zoom meeting with my boss the following day and when he asked me what I thought of the all-staff meeting, I burst into tears and couldn’t stop crying. He very gently suggested I take some time to collect myself, but even as I logged off, I felt even more like a failure than I had before — “had anyone in the history of the working world broken down over a fucking ALL-STAFF, and in front of their boss, no less??”
But reading this piece, of course I broke down crying. Of course the only way to think about a broken system (whether a company’s culture or society as a whole) is to blame yourself for not doing more to keep the illusion going - even if it’s only for yourself.
There are several divisions in my office. My division has just flat-out resisted having regular staff meetings, despite "encouragement" from the higher-ups, because staff meetings would be a waste of time; our individual duties rarely overlap, so there's no pointing in getting together and discussing them. Another division is *constantly* having meetings and trainings and all that stuff you're "supposed" to have in an office. But my division constantly gets much higher grades from the people we work for. It isn't a big mystery why (we spend our work time actually getting work done), but no one outside my division seems to have made the connection.
As a consultant working "outside company culture" I have the luxury - ah, "luxury", I have to call what up until now I considered a "sane way of working" a "luxury" - of not having to deal with too many meetings or too many emails.
My job entails teaching and coaching people into new ways of working though: this year could have been a great opportunity for doing that, but it turned out to be very much like trying to put out a fire with a glass of water.
All my experience in remote work, self-discipline, great focus habits, clear and concise written communication, time-boxing, everything turned out to be pretty much useless in the face of the power of the vicious cycle you just described.
I've been spending my days trying to piece together crumbles of other people's agendas (and attention) while previously I had their attention, in person, for full-day workshops.
"Productivity obsessions have historically correlated with precarious job markets, extended recessions, and overarching instability. [...] and nothing looks like working quite like a calendar full of meetings.": this is why everything about this year is so visceral for a lot of people, they fear for their job, consciously or unconsciously. And it's really hard to fight against that fear.
I'm switching more and more into teaching and writing about mental models and different "ways of seeing" and less about the technicality of "how to do (remote) work better", because unless people start to help themselves, my job as a consultant will be pretty much pointless.
In my first non-academic job, my supervisor once got back from a vacation and asked me how things had been going. I said we'd had a bunch of good meetings in his absence, and he said, very kindly, that he sometimes found that meetings substituted for doing actual work and that it was something to watch out for. (Relevant to my good feeling about the meetings while he was gone -- it had probably still been no more than one a day and the executive director of the organization could really run an efficient meeting.)
The WaPo link about COVID and mental gymnastics connects well to a thought a friend shared about COVID: we call it COVID denial, which implies it's active. Rather we should think of people being in the state of denial, which is really difficult for everyone who's involved in it.
Because the nature of my job is very specific in person work, I've been absorbed into a tangental department for the duration of the pandemic. At the beginning I refused to go to the daily department meetings at all and now I only go once or twice a week. Maybe my co workers think it's weird, but I just periodically check in with my supervisor and manage myself which is how I operated pre-pandemic. I realized early on that a big part of my frustration with these daily meetings were because these people don't have many friends and if they aren't working in person, a daily check in over Zoom is the only socializing they have outside of their family. Which says a lot about the culture of work not leaving room to cultivate friendships outside of work.
This is so good. At my last job (which I left last week! woo!) our meetings definitely increased during the pandemic, especially meetings that were focused on reporting out and could have been emails. The leader of our team was always someone who was attached to the performative aspects of appearing busy all the time, rather than actually being productive, and that just got worse during the pandemic. I think that was in part because her constant busy-ness was less legible to the team and to other colleagues, and so she became even more focused on it.
I'm also interested in things like the all staff meeting mentioned below, big meetings that have transitioned to being online but don't really make sense that way. We had a big annual "celebration" over Zoom that was rough and not celebratory in any way. I've also noticed that work phone calls are often Zooms now too, which feels unnecessary and annoying.
I had a colleague who joined our team this summer who was incredibly efficient for meetings: she did her work ahead of time, would come to the meeting with very clear objectives and questions, and then would call it as soon as we had accomplished the tasks. Every time it felt like a gift! I'm starting a new position tomorrow which I'm excited about, but I also feel like I'm going into it with my eyes wide open for the first time maybe ever because the problems with work culture are systemic and won't be completely solved with a different organization. But hopefully some of them will be, and I'm grateful in large part to this newsletter that I'm tuned into some of the wider issues in a way that I haven't been before!
My husband's company has no meeting Friday. But it's a fallacy as it seems it's just less meetings. And, instead of getting the week between Christmas and NYE off, they have deemed it no meeting week. As this will help with the very clear burnout employees are experiencing, with the new bonkers hours due to WFH. What I have observed, is it isn't only the volume of meetings he attends but that there's no break, since it's all virtual. There's no risk of being kicked out of the conference room or time needed to walk to the other building. It's relentless.
My work, as SAHM parent, meetings are amusing since it's around various volunteering -- be it for the the school or an org. The need to look like the smartest in the room, to add value , to basically put all the corporate-ness.... it's equal part frustrating and defeating.
Thank you for this.
“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.”
Huge relief to feel something articulated that you know is true but can’t quite figure out... just joined, very excited for your work.
During "normal office times" I always appreciated managers with an approach like (IIRC) Marissa Mayer's "office hours" approach at Google, where she had a chunk of time free for people to just pop by her desk for that quick sign-off or the easy check-in question. No meeting to be booked, a quick turnaround, no one's time wasted. I can't think of what the equivalent approach in WFH virtual Zoom mode has been (maybe it's people sending quick text messages?).
One of my least favorite developments in the working world over the past decade or so has been the expectation that workers are expected to share their calendars publicly so that colleagues could simply “put some time on your calendar” rather than asking for a meeting or even just stopping by your office. I know it’s easier than the email back-and-forth trying to find a convenient time, but I always hated the idea of not being able to manage my schedule, which was supposed to be one of the perks of a professional job, to be able to turn down meetings at lunchtime or at the very end of the day, or avoid having days with meeting after meeting after meeting, or simply to have the ability to say no. I ended up having to set up meetings with myself if I wanted to have time to actually do my work.
I’m not anti-meeting per se — I actually think that if they’re well run, with a stated goal and a time limit, they can be a very efficient way to get things done — but I’ve definitely worked in places where meetings seemed to be our biggest product.
I have followed you on twitter and your posts are quite good.
I once worked for a company that had PROBLEMS. (Perhaps I should write about it at length, as a cautionary tale.) One of the PROBLEMS was the number of meetings that took place. For example, every Monday morning at 8:00 A.M. I was expected to attend what was called a "quarterback meeting". (Don't mind me, but anytime anyone use a sports reference within the content of work. . . look out.) The meeting was supposed to last less than an hour and always ran long. Because I had another meeting to attend at 9:00 A.M. I always left to attend, and was admonished on the way out the door for leaving, implicitly expressing disrespect for the organizer of the 8:00 A.M. who had failed - again - to keep the meeting to an hour or less. The same thing happened in the 9:00 A.M. meeting: supposed to be less than an hour, always ran over. Then there was a 10:00 A.M. meeting, which I was spared. And a 11:00 A.M. meeting and. . . you get the idea. Come 3:00 P.M. Monday I attended another meeting - which was about all the meetings that had taken place throughout the day, which always started with the lament: Why aren't we getting things done on time?
Oh. . . let me think. I know this one.
As the company was paralyzed by all meetings and all the meetings about the meetings calmer and saner heads prevailed.
At one point I was told NOT to attend any meeting IF the meeting organizer did NOT provide an email with the meeting invite that contained at least three bullets regarding the reason for the meeting.
IF the meeting was scheduled an hour, leave at 55 minutes to make the point there were more important things to do - like work that made the company money.
IF the topic of meeting could be resolved in an email then there was no need for a meeting.
I was scheduled to work forty hours a week. IF more than twenty percent of a given work week or eight hours was scheduled with meetings I was NOT to attended any meeting that exceed the eight-hour limit.
It was amazing how things improved with the new policy. Not that everyone adhered to - specifically senior executive management, who lived for meetings, thereby saving them from having actually do anything of merit or worth.
Presently, I work from home. For a time, when almost thirty hours of a given work week were filled with meetings I recalled my experience and the solution to too many meetings. A few weeks later, a source of meetings "pursued other career opportunities", and the number of meetings in a given week dramatically declined. The correlation is obvious to most. This week I have two meetings scheduled. The first one was scheduled for thirty minutes and lasted ten minutes. The second meeting was scheduled for thirty minutes and came in at twenty-minutes because the meeting organizer kept the meeting on track and organized. The craft of the meeting is more important than ever. Those who can succeed in the matter will be noticed and recognized.
"Productivity obsessions have historically correlated with precarious job markets, extended recessions, and overarching instability."
As an employee of a publically traded company whose CEO is one of the top-paid CEOs in the country, I can tell you productivity obsessions from the top also come from the stock price and then roll downhill.
This is excellent thinking. 2 years ago I read "The Art of Gathering" and that shifted the way I think about any in-person gathering, meetings included. (It also fundamentally changed the way I teach, and anymore, I view class time as "education meetings" and try to build the gathering accordingly). Might be worth adding to your reading list for the book if you're looking for help articulating what makes a meeting bad vs what makes one more generative, helpful, etc.
Yes THIS! Freelance copywriter here and I made it my goal i the last few years of my business to attend as few meetings as possible. My work got better, and easier, with more headspace and less fractured days.
Sadly, my rapport with my clients always seemed to get crumbly if I wasn't suffering through the same inane meetings. If you weren't LARPing in meetings & Slack, posting articles, greeting/saying goodbye but then staying mute the ENTIRE meeting...where even were you? (Writing of course, but that didn't mean anything).
Some old school ideas here about what it means to be present & working butting heads with clients that claimed they were cutting edge, remote oriented. As if you don't have cheeks in a seat you aren't working, nevermind if your brain iterates best while moving your body. What a world. Exciting about the book collab, yes please!