The futility of meetings. Is the future workplace meeting-free?

Guest blog post by Andrew Pope, partner, innovation and collaboration consultant at Innosis

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The good old team meeting. Somewhere for us to talk loudly and get our way, or perhaps the place for us to sit quietly at the back and respond to those urgent emails. Yet we still attend these, the expectation that it’s good for us to meet and discuss the issues of the day or the week.

And there’s no doubting that collaboration is good. That getting together with our colleagues to discuss things is how we resolve them, how we create new outcomes or how we plan ahead. But that’s assuming that we are collaborating in the first place. The truth may be that in many meetings there is so little collaboration happening that they are doing more harm than good.

As a consultant, before I look to help digital innovation or collaboration strategies, the first thing I turn to is the collaborative culture. How people in an organisation interact with each other. Without fail, the most despised collaborative element is the dreaded meeting. Too many, no point, difficult to join remotely, inconvenient timing, feeling not part of it… the list of fail points goes on and on.

And many organisations are now challenging the assumption that we need to hold meetings in the first place. Even formats such as daily stand-ups: whilst these can be valuable in rapidly changing projects, if all we are doing is justifying ourselves then there is little point getting together. A round-robin of how busy and important we all are is a waste of time considering the potential we have to collaborate when we get the whole team together.

Is there a point then to meetings?

This is where I shall relent on meetings. Yes – they can work. When we have people together, committing the time, we have the combined power of many minds. This is where human creativity manifests itself as a purposeful conversation drives us to new outcomes.

In other words, our meetings need a clear purpose and that we are working towards something tangible, specific and new. That a meeting of status updates, or with no specific purpose other than it’s a regular thing in our calendar, is of limited value.

What we’re after is a fluid conversation. Something that allows our creativity to be unleashed. It’s a conversation that isn’t dominated by a small number of people, it’s where we all feel that we are listened to and are contributing to the topic. The meeting also needs to take into account those who may not be sitting in the same room as the majority. Think about how hard it may be for them to speak when everyone else is in head office, comfortable and familiar with those around them.

Lastly, is there anyone from outside of our team, project or initiative that we can invite in? New outcomes are more likely if we bring in outside perspectives. Can we invite people from other teams, even from other organisations? Perhaps a stakeholder or client could also be involved.

What does the future hold?

Workplace trends are leading us to an organisation that has the ability to run meetings in many ways, and that does include not having any at all.

A meeting that has a repetitive format can be run in other ways. They can be run asynchronously, that is not at a specific time – perhaps over a few days allowing people to contribute when convenient. Using enterprise social network or team productivity tools we can have conversations channels around activities where everyone can see contributions and join in when they can.

This also gives the quieter voices a chance to absorb and contribute when they’ve thought up a relevant contribution – it’s worth appreciating that not everyone wants to respond immediately in a meeting, that a considered response is often better than a loud and immediate one.

The same meeting with the same people will largely generate the same outcomes. Workplace technology trends are giving us other ways of capturing and discussing repeated processes. If we are getting everyone together for a meeting, make sure it’s about creating something new, otherwise, what’s the point of using up this valuable conversation time.

With less emphasis on working in the same physical workspace in the coming years, getting together for meetings will become harder, meaning that we really will need a clear purpose and be able to contribute to make it worthwhile. When we do meet, we will be part of it. The meeting experience should also improve – better rooms, better tools to handle locations and calls and crucially, less of them!

But it’s not technology that’s really going to drive this. It’s challenging the expectations and creating a culture where a conversation is more important than an agenda.

PS: Meet Andrew at the Boye 19 Brooklyn conference in May or in Europe where he is leading our Future Workplace peer groups