Making Meetings Meaningful

There can be few people – except, perhaps the genuinely work-shy – who delight in attending meetings and would choose to be in one rather than being allowed to do anything else, including getting on with their work.

Yet meetings continue to litter our diaries. So, who wants them? Do we secretly like them more than we’d be prepared to acknowledge publicly? Importantly, how could they be improved?

Maybe meetings aren’t all bad.  Maybe we, instinctively, recognise them as necessary – but also acknowledge that we’ve experienced some meetings we’d prefer not to have experienced.

According to David Bolchover, an award-winning business journalist and author of three books on management and the workplace, statistics on the frequency and usefulness of workplace meetings are almost always published by companies selling virtual conference technology.

As such, he says, their surveys can’t be treated as objective. After all, they have an interest in showing that physical meetings are a waste of time – and, of course, that’s always their conclusion.

Writing for Financial Times | IE Business School Corporate Learning Alliance, Bolchover adds that, while meetings aren’t popular in the world of work, neither are virtual meetings. So, the application of technology brings no benefit to meetings.

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Why have meetings?

He believes that among the explanations of why we continue to hold meetings while being cynical about their value are:

  • Ambition. Meetings can provide an ideal environment in which ambitious and political individuals have the chance to stand out. It’s impossible to measure, with any objectivity, the output of many office jobs. So, when real performance is obscured, image and perception become crucial to career progression. Appearing conscientious by staying late, or ostentatiously dropping names and market knowledge in meetings can be essential tactics for those who intend on climbing the corporate ladder.
  • Conflicted employees. While we may genuinely recognise the importance of well-run meetings, the badly-run ones loom large in our memory because of their boredom-inducing uselessness. This explanation is favoured by consultants and training companies who claim that all meetings would be beneficial and popular if only their advice was heeded.
  • Inertia. Although large meetings are often a waste of time, few managers care enough to commit to changing this practice. Moreover, chairing large meetings affords these managers status in the organisation. Unwieldy meetings – especially weekly divisional catch-ups – are as much a part of office life as is the Monday morning inquiry about everyone’s weekend. It may also be that senior executives in large organisations know that company performance has little to do with efficient working rituals and more to do with the company’s brand power and the competitive environment, so they see no point in ruffling feathers.
  • Reinforcing hierarchy. Meetings are an indispensable tool for reinforcing the workplace’s natural hierarchy. The older, senior employee – the “grey hair” of office mythology – rises from slumber to deliver a comment designed solely to convey the impression of deep experience and wisdom. Others contrive to give direction while cunningly avoiding volunteering for any of the resulting work. Fortunately for all of them, eager millennials – the only office demographic that usually includes a high proportion of women – are then sent to carry out the “action points”.
  • Respite from the job. Given that research indicates that as many as one in four workers dislike their jobs intensely, meetings can offer an opportunity to daydream, doodle, have a coffee, and share a joke with colleagues.

Improving Meetings

However, were a senior executive to be genuinely interested in examining the efficacy of company meetings, he or she would start with a confidential survey of staff asking how meetings could be better run.

Bolchover advocates that such a survey should find out whether meetings are useful. He says, “It should explore ways to improve them – and, assuming that they can be encouraged to be honest in their response, your staff will probably have strong opinions on the matter.

“Consider what’s the optimal length, content, approach, structure, frequency and attendance for meetings – and publicise this as company guidelines.”

The outcome of such a survey is unlikely to be ground-breaking. It will probably include a desire to:

  • Start and finish on time
  • Explain, upfront, to attendees what the meeting aims to achieve
  • Progress through the agenda swiftly and purposefully
  • Limit attendees to those who must be there
  • Ask everyone to prepare thoughts in advance
  • Encourage the more reticent to speak out
  • Constrain those who talk too much
  • Watch out for too much agreement – because this suggests a deeper problem

“Better still,” says Bolchover, “appoint a full-time meeting guru to chair company meetings.

“Running a meeting well is a skill. An outsider may be better positioned to cut to the chase.”

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