When Meetings Are the Work

🙋‍♀️ This is a cross-post from my newsletter, Leading by Design. If you liked the post below, consider subscribing! I (usually) post two issues per month.

Photo by Benjamin Child on Unsplash

Photo by Benjamin Child on Unsplash

(Disclaimer: In this article, the term “senior employee” refers to an employee with extensive experience, not necessarily an individual of advanced age. Business slang is weird.)

I was recently part of an intriguing discussion on Twitter (I know, I shouldn’t be there). Michael Petychakis, CTO at Orfium, asked in a somewhat tongue-in-cheek way:

In other words: are meetings real work? The replies were enlightening.

Most commenters asserted that meetings are not real work. “Real” work should be measured in design system components, lines of code and happy customers. Right?

Here’s the issue: there’s a widespread cognitive dissonance about creative work, whether writing, designing, writing code or creating products. The only work we consider valuable is the head-down, nose-on-the-screen work, free of distractions and interruptions.

That is not to undermine the importance of this kind of work. Flow is a coveted state for most knowledge workers. This kind of deep work allows us to practice our craft, hone our skills and solve problems. When we discuss work and productivity, every distraction is the enemy. Research shows it takes 15 to 25 minutes to get back into flow mode after a disruption.

However, the idea that meetings are a mere nuisance meant to sap us of any free time is highly problematic, especially among senior employees.

📈 Mo’ Seniority, Mo’ Meetings

As knowledge workers grow and advance their careers, they finally have to accept that the number of meetings they’ll be required to attend will increase. There’s just no way around it. Whether they’re senior individual contributors or new people managers, meetings are often a big part of their day-to-day.

As senior contributors, they have to join the following:

  • project kickoff meetings
  • progress update meetings
  • demo/QA meetings
  • cross-functional meetings

Making the transition to people management, a new crop of meetings enters their day-to-day:

  • weekly team updates
  • performance reviews
  • 1:1s
  • manager meetings

(Coincidentally, this is usually when people get fed up with meetings, act cynical and write bitter messages on social media.)

🎳 Hate the Game or Hate the Player?

The thing is, most of us don’t hate meetings per se. What we do hate is poorly run meetings that are a waste of everyone’s time. You know which ones: where there’s no agenda, a gaggle of random attendees, no set facilitator and a constant feeling of “I shouldn’t be here”.

The problem is that sometimes, senior employees don’t do much to challenge the status quo. They often consider meetings someone else’s burden, so they join them with their laptops, trying to slip in some work while other people drone about things that might or might not interest them. By broadcasting their apathy about the meeting in this way, they do nothing to improve the situation.

And that is not senior employee behaviour.

⛓ Breaking the Chain

Performing a calendar audit every 3 to 6 months can help you unearth valuable insights about how you spend your time in meetings. If you feel like a particular meeting is not working anymore, discuss the following questions with your team:

  • Do we need this meeting?
  • Is this meeting the best use of anyone’s time?
  • Can this meeting be run asynchronously?

Make sure that all meetings are well-prepared and documented. Work with your team to avoid ad hoc, agenda-less meetings as much as possible. Assign the role of the notetaker to people in a round-robin fashion and build a culture of accountability regarding documentation. You can also record meetings for later viewing, but in my experience, people never watch these recordings. They just want to have access to the decisions and next steps.

You don’t need to do this work manually, either. There’s a new crop of meeting tools using AI in transformative ways, eliminating the busywork of documentation. I’ve seen amazing things from Vowel recently, and I know many teams use Otter daily.

As a senior employee, others will look to you for guidance. Junior hires will emulate your behaviour. Avoid perpetuating a problematic meeting culture by being cynical about the value of people getting together to make decisions and move forward.

👨🏾 “This is the Job.”

Peter Merholz, while talking to Hang Xu recently about the impact of senior designers, referred to a scene from the fan-favourite series “The Wire”, starring arguably the coolest person in the show, Lester Freamon. After listening to his younger (and hot-headed) colleagues complain about the minutiae of police work, he contradicts them, exasperated, that this kind of gruelling, soul-crushing work is the job. You cannot expect to produce in your bubble for 8 hours per day, five days per week.

After a while, for individual contributors and people managers alike, meetings are the work. Instead of complaining about the lost hours of productivity, find ways to run them in a way that creates value for everyone. Your future self and your team will be grateful.

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