Death To Meetings

Ed Zitron 7 min read

According to Microsoft, people have 250% more meetings every day than they did before the pandemic, a statistic that makes sense and deeply sucks. Derek Thompson of The Atlantic nails the evaluation of the statistic:

“People have 250 percent more meetings every day than they did before the pandemic,” says Mary Czerwinski, the research manager of the Human Understanding and Empathy group at Microsoft. “That means everything else—like coding and email and writing—is being pushed later.” Workday creep and meeting creep aren’t two separate trends; they’re the same trend.

At a deep level, meeting inflation is about the outdated expectation that all office work ought to be synchronous, or happening at the same time for everyone. Meetings require synchronicity: Everybody be present now. But most white-collar labor can be at least somewhat asynchronous. We send emails and chats that don’t require an immediate response. We edit and share documents without the expectation that our colleagues will attend to our work in a matter of milliseconds. Good remote managers should be time ninjas, continually deciding what work must be synchronous (meetings) and what work can be asynchronous (emails or shared docs).

I regularly feel dread when I see meetings on my calendar, muttering that I’ve “run out of time” because, on some level, meetings are a colossally inefficient yet professionally satisfying part of my day. Something is reassuring about talking to another person about something, even if that something is easily-conveyed in an email or text. There’s that extra layer of context, that little bit of emotional pep that makes somebody feel better about the relationship, a little “thing to go over” that you could’ve gone over elsewhere.

While I seem (and at times am) bitter about having the thing I’m doing interrupted so that I can tell someone about the thing, this is at times necessary. Even in the most successful professional relationship, it feels very weird to never speak to the person on the phone or see their face. Sometimes, what may seem quite stark or empty in a report is a little more robust when you can add the emotional layer of a conversation. It’s good to talk occasionally. I’m fine with that.

That being said, I believe that the 250% increase in meetings is driven by the same force that’s trying to get you back to the office - that this is what we did at the office, and that’s the only way a business can function. Meetings are a great way to seem busy, and they are an agreed-upon method of doing stuff at work without having to show you’re doing any work of any kind. You can burn upwards of an hour of your time talking in a meeting and walk out feeling like you did work because you talked to people related to work for the entire time.

If you’re a real meeting veteran, you can also use the most intellectually masturbatory time-wasting method of all - brainstorming. Now I’m sure you’ll read this and say, “hey, Ed, come on! Brainstorming is where we get our greatest ideas!” to which I am going to say, “no it is not, it is a chance for three to six people to waste their time riffing ideas, of which maybe one will be practical.” While there are ways of doing structured brainstorming, they usually include writing down things and then presenting them to the group - something that can be done without making any kind of meeting. And yet I regularly hear of friends being on “brainstorming sessions” that by and large don’t go anywhere because brainstorming is predominantly a time for one or two people to feel smart and everyone else to just sort of nod along.

I believe that those making the push for more meetings are doing so because are unable to create value any other way. Meetings are the mulch of middle management - an organizationally-approved time vacuum that everybody knows sucks, where people are nebulously valued on their “contribution” to the meeting based on how much they talk. And it’s catnip for do-nothing managers and executives to read out other people’s achievements and feel important.

Meetings are a corporate security blanket, a defined signifier that you “did work” at a particular time, regardless of whether any actual work was created. Being in a meeting allows Vice Presidents and Senior Directors to appear statesman-like, overseeing the “grand strategy” by being present on a call and occasionally adding an intelligent-adjacent comment. Without these meetings, it’s very hard to point to what these people do all day, and when they’re managed by people who don’t do any work, it becomes deeply anxiety-inducing to not have calendar appointments to show.

It’s similar to the conversation about how the office aids the “soft work” that gels corporate culture, in that people are pushing meetings based on half-baked logic and being desperate to return to “the way things were.”

We need a re-evaluation of what we’re actually doing in meetings and create business cultures that start with people being willing to cancel them. We need to foster cultures where meetings end when you’ve run out of things to talk about - I have many weekly calls with clients, and they can last as little as five minutes if everything that needs to be said is said. I’m even lucky enough to have some clients that actively say, “not much to discuss, let’s sync up on Slack,” a beautiful idea that makes everybody happy and, I’d argue, gets more stuff done.

No, I am not saying death to every meeting, but I am saying that any meeting on your calendar that gets in the way of you actually doing something is a net negative. I genuinely think it’s good to have recurring check-ins, but only if they are organized with the understanding that the work is more important than the check-in, and that things can be rescheduled, or at the very least cut short if real work needs to happen. I’m very lucky in that running my own company allows me to dictate these terms, and that most people don’t have the power to do this - but I am hoping that someone, anyone reads this who has the power to make organizational change.

There are absolutely times when jumping on the phone makes sense - you can summarize a lot of small details very quickly with your voice - but I feel as if too many people see meetings as a chance to prove their worth rather than specifically accomplish anything. And while there are exceptions where a vast amount of planning needs to take place, we all know what the difference is.

As I’ve written before:

To be blunt, I also think that having meetings makes people think they’re doing work, and having meetings with service providers makes them feel like they’re getting value. It’s clear-set time that’s taken up for a reason, and thus, no matter the utility of that time, it can be considered a contribution to a goal, even if it was a big waste of time.

More empathetically, I also think that human beings are poor moderators of their own speech, and at remembering what was already said or what they were going to say next. It’s easy to forget whether you’ve said something, or not realize that you’re saying much the same thing but packaged up differently, and it’s also difficult for those listening to notice that and, even if they do, a little uncouth to say that you’ve already said it. It’s yet another reason Clubhouse sucks - the spoken word is an endless continuum and without an agenda and moderator oftentimes goes on and on and on.

The fact more meetings are happening speaks to the larger anxiety about what work is what it is we’re paid for. When you have no meetings, you have to start filling your day with tasks, which requires you to actually know what tasks you have to complete. It’s an existential problem for the remarkable amount of people who’s contribution to an organization is attendance-driven note-taking, and thus the only solution - outside of actually doing something meaningful - is to absorb more and more time.

Here’s my most daring management idea: measure the number of meetings that someone is directly responsible for creating and demand an audit. Every single meeting on your calendar should have a tangible reason, and anyone creating more than 4 hours a week of space on other people’s calendars should be treated with suspicion. Any organization concerned about cyberloafing should be absolutely terrified of meetings, which are reliable ways organizations burn hours of meaningful time.

The Atlantic article also speaks of a more-worrying phenomenon - that people are answering emails as regularly at 10PM as they are at 8am.

For the new study, workers allowed Microsoft to track their “keyboard events”—a funny euphemism for sending emails or engaging with productivity applications on a work computer. While most people didn’t show a third mountain of work in the evening, 30 percent did. They were working almost as much at 10 p.m. as they were at 8 a.m.

Derek Thompson attempts to claim there’s a positive here - “flexible, remote work allows people to move the day around and match productivity to inspiration" - but I can’t see this as anything other than corporate malfeasance and a form of wage theft. While there are, I’m sure, people that answer emails at 9PM because they had other obligations during the workday, I would wager that the majority of people here are doing so because their days have become jam-packed with meaningless meetings.

As with many things I’ve discussed, this is a symptom of organizations that don’t have meaningful ways to measure a single person’s contributions or productivity. This is partly driven by the commonality of poor management, which trickles down to entry-level workers that are at the mercy of those who give them tasks, which includes but is not limited to being on calls. Bad managers force young people to be on calls all day, which in turn teaches young people that this is what business looks like - being on a Zoom call with people waiting for your turn to talk.

The reason the future of work is so terrifying for much of the status quo is that so much of what we were doing in the workplace was stupid. We went to a building for no reason, reported to managers who did nothing but were paid more for the work that we were doing, going to conference rooms and only kind-of-listening to what was being said until the actual meaningful outcomes and tasks were volunteered. We worked eight or more hours in the building because if we didn’t - even if our work was done - we would be viewed as inferior workers.

Without the office, those who are compensated for watching us do our work are now struggling to find meaning in their lives. Scheduling meetings makes people feel powerful and strategic, a petty fiefdom where you’re, on some level, able to take ownership of someone else’s time. Without an office, you can’t peer over their shoulder and say something, or let them know you’re stressed, but you can book them on multiple calls and catch-ups and check-ins and brainstorms so that they are intimately aware of your importance - and that you’re in charge.

If you are reading this and feel you must defend meetings, I encourage you to turn inward and remember the last time that you had a meeting that you felt was essential. And if you are really excited to defend meetings, I really want to know what you think you contribute to your organization outside of them.

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