OPINION | Dear meetings, please forgive us - we love you after all

Female boss shows presentation on screen at business meeting
Female boss shows presentation on screen at business meeting

It has become common cause to hate on meetings. Most progressive leadership books will tell you they suck. Most employees, apparently, hate them. Agile and distributed and non-hierarchical organisations suggest you cancel them all. Instead, we are told; head to Slack or Teams or Trello or Jira – and then sit down and focus on your work uninterrupted by the tedium of lukewarm tea and Romany Creams.

(Do they still make Romany Creams?)

Well, not so fast. Meetings are awesome. We are social creatures – gathering in groups, sitting round campfires, throwing parties, huddling and brainstorming. These are meetings. And they are a wonderful expression of our humanity, our intimacy and our vulnerability.

In Lockdowntastic April we are all experiencing what the loss of human contact is like. Grids of disembodied heads on flat-screens – these are the meetings management gurus warned us about. Millisecond delays on video streams mean people are constantly interrupting each other; and then interrupting each other apologising for interrupting each other.

Microphones are turned off because pesky background audio makes conversation stilted and clumsy. And everything is all “shared screens” and uber efficiency. There is no room for banter, handshaking, hugging or unscripted drop-ins.

Obviously we have all experienced terrible meetings. Just as we’ve all been to horrible parties, dull weddings and appalling dates. Meetings can be dominated by men and descend into a chaos of shouting and blame. But that’s a problem that exists whether we gather around a table to experience it or not. And it certainly isn’t solved by retreating to our cubicles or makeshift home offices.

The truth is I miss meeting people. And, for now, I am left with a substitute which only serves as a reminder of how good we had it. There are certainly people for whom being left alone all day to get on with stuff is the ideal (coders I’m looking at you). But that isn’t some kind of platonic ideal that we should all be aspiring to. Yes, we should make our meetings better – but the advice to stop having them is the product of frustration, at best, and anti-social tendencies at worst.

The great Covid-19 event has propelled to the fore the incredible digital technology we as a planet have been building for the past 20 years. The fact that much of it is as mature as it is, is lucky. But as much of a digital native as I am, I too have discovered its limitations. Yes, Trello and OneNote are clever; but the engineering effort to make them behave like the good old flipchart and a stack of post-it notes seems wasteful. Files shared in the cloud are wonderful and accessible and enhance collaboration. But I see people struggling for hours to master something that we mostly figured out decades ago by just emailing each other.

And don’t even get me started on the horrors of WhatsApp replacing genuine public dialogue and educated expertise. Not only is my neighbour not a good source of critical information about public health but in no universe other than WhatsApp could she be mistaken for one.

I hope we learn valuable lessons from meeting remotely and I hope we can blend these into the real world of work if and when we return to it. Pointless meetings full of bombastic extroverts with no agenda and no actions are, of course, targets for elimination.

But the humble meeting, the gathering of colleagues and thinkers to solve problems, generate ideas and share stories will, I hope, be with us forever.

Jarred Cinman is CEO VMLY&R South Africa. Views expressed are his own. 

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