Why too many meetings could damage real connection at work

Company leaders are demanding more office time for employees but doing nothing to stop a damaging proliferation of pointless meetings. Will redefining ‘presence’ fix this culture problem?

My all-time favourite newspaper cartoonist on the workplace is Roger Beale of the Financial Times and my favourite Roger Beale cartoon is the one where a male executive is phoning his wife from a crowded boardroom, saying ‘We’ve been discussing how to cut down time wasted on meetings and it looks like it could be a long one!’

Long, pointless meetings were the bane of everyone’s life before the pandemic and the situation has not improved since. It has got worse. How much worse is captured in Microsoft data that suggests total time spent in meetings has more than doubled since 2019. According to research by Atlassian, workers say that seven out of every 10 meetings are pointless.

To the rigid programme of wall-to-wall online meetings that many company employees must grind through each week, we can now add a further schedule of face-to-face meetings that have accompanied the push to bring people back to the office and build culture.

Effects of multitasking

Are we giving our full attention to all these meetings? No, of course we’re not. We’re multitasking, and this constant switching of tasks in hugely draining. Microsoft talks about ‘a chain of distraction’ that damages productivity. A study by architects HSK and the Center for Brain Health in the US suggests that multitasking can actually damage the brain, leading to burnout.

As we now spend routinely spend around half our working lives in meetings, you might have thought company leaders would be really focusing hard on rectifying this dangerous problem. Instead, they remain fixated on bringing their workers back to the office to re-energise culture, according to leading UK workplace culture expert Bruce Daisley.

Their priorities are wrong, says Daisley, a former senior leader at YouTube and Twitter, who argues that ‘fixing workplace culture starts with your calendar, not your office’. He is campaigning for a redesign of the working week that creates more space in our calendars.

Redefining presence

Achieving greater connection in the workplace is a worthwhile aim, says Daisley, but simply adding more meetings or enforcing more office time is not the way to go about it. ‘Connection lives in the gaps between work – a fact we frequently lose sight of,’ he explains. ‘Modern work is cluttered with activities and actions that add little but that are easy to organise.’

How do we unclutter work to build better teams and organisations? Bruce Daisley argues that the key to this is redefining what ‘presence’ really means in the workplace. It should not mean just turning up in body if not in mind, which is why presenteeism is so deadly. It should mean being in ‘a flow state of connection with others’.

This is an important distinction: when we meet with others, whether in person or online, we really need to be engaged with them in the moment. As George Bernard Shaw memorably observed: ‘The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.’

‘Connection lives in the gaps between work – a fact we frequently lose sight of’ – Bruce Daisley

Getting people re-immersed in their organisation is no easy task, but Bruce Daisley has helpfully built a presentation which details six ways to build presence in the organisation, starting with a calendar audit and taking a scythe to time spent in meetings. You can download it here.

A valuable function?

Some will no doubt argue that meetings serve a valuable function in the workplace – they bring people together and keep things on track, they enable decisions to be made and knowledge to be shared. Technology systems have undeniably done a lot to enable smarter management of meeting spaces and attendees, cutting out waste.

However, it’s also clear that many of today’s meetings are unnecessary; they are poorly chaired or facilitated because managers have such a low level of skill in this area; and hybrid meetings continue to be a technical screw-up that disadvantages those joining online.

‘We must readjust our thinking to welcoming some slack in the system…’

As a result, workers are tuning out. They may be ‘in the meeting’ but their minds are elsewhere. They are present, but not showing any presence. Do we hear a word about this enormous drain on human and organisational resources from business leaders? No, we don’t. CEOs just bang the drum for more office attendance as if that alone will boost connection and engagement.

Professional life has a momentum that abhors a vacuum and tends to fill in any gaps in the working week. But if we want a re-energised workforce, we might just have to readjust our thinking to questioning the purpose of every meeting and welcoming some slack in the system.

Listen to WORKTECH Academy’s podcast interview with Bruce Daisley in our Innovation Zone, which provides exclusive content for members and partners, here.

Learn more about joining WORKTECH Academy here.

Jeremy Myerson is director of WORKTECH Academy, emeritus professor of design at the Royal College of Art  and co-author of Unworking: The Reinvention of the Modern Office.
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