Employees often claim to detest meetings. So why, asks David Bolchover, are there so many; who exactly wants them; do we really like them more than we let on; and how could they be improved?

Statistics on the frequency and usefulness of workplace meetings are almost always published by companies selling virtual conference technology. As such, their surveys cannot be treated as objective; they have after all an interest in showing that physical meetings are a waste of time. And needless to say, this is always their conclusion.

Nevertheless, few office workers would deny that too many working days are taken up with boring or pointless meetings. Virtual meetings are no better (save for the occasional barking dog or crying baby in the background).

There are several explanations as to why we continue to hold meetings while being so cynical about their value.

Respite from the job. For starters, many people like meetings more than they let on. Given that up to 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.

Ambition. Meetings may provide an ideal environment for ambitious and political individuals to stand out. Output in many office jobs is almost impossible to measure with any degree of accuracy. 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 tools for those intent on climbing the corporate ladder.

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 his slumber to deliver a comment designed solely to convey the impression of deep experience. Others contrive to give direction while cunningly avoiding volunteering for any of the resulting work. Fortunately for them, eager millenials – the only office demographic that usually includes a high proportion of women – are then sent to carry out the ‘action points’.

‘The older senior employee, the ‘grey hair’ of office mythology, rises from his slumber to deliver a comment designed solely to convey the impression of deep experience.’

Conflicted employees. Some employees may genuinely recognise the importance of well-run meetings, but the bad ones loom large in their 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 the practice. Unwieldy meetings, especially those weekly divisional catch-ups, are as much a part of office life as is the sound of typing or 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 see no point in ruffling feathers.

Meetings about 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.

Find out whether meetings are useful and how to improve them; your staff will probably have strong opinions on the matter. Consider what is the optimal length, content, approach, structure, frequency and attendance for meetings, and publicise this as company guidelines. The conclusions are unlikely to be ground breaking, and will probably include the following:

Start and finish on time;

Explain to attendees upfront 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—this suggests a deeper problem.

Better still, 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. Alternatively, that might all just seem like a lot of bother.

David Bolchover is an award-winning business journalist and author of three books on management and the workplace.

This article was written for FT|IE Corporate Learning Alliance.
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