What Are Meetings For?
I am in a constant battle with meetings.
As a freelancer, I have multiple clients, projects, and organizations that I interface with regularly. As a project manager, I am also the person on the team trying to corral information, ensure things are getting done, and establish transparent systems and procedures.
These two combined roles mean that my calendar is full of meetings, many of which I’ve initiated to get or disseminate critical information, solve common problems, or co-develop strategies.
Every client and project I work with necessitates a different approach to information sharing and collaboration based on the cadence of the work and the roles of the people involved. Meetings are just one mechanism to accomplish these things but are relied on too heavily across almost all business contexts.
Meetings are the laziest way to get or give information to a group of people, but the catch-22 is that we’re so inundated by meetings that we don’t have the time and space to think more intentionally about the structures that make our work…work.
Meetings can be part of an effective organizational management strategy, but in most instances, they’re not.
Before we can look at what meetings are for, we have to understand what they’re NOT for.
For a meeting to have been an email, people must read and respond to said email.
Meetings should not serve as an accountability mechanism, but they often do. In a world where email takes up half of our workday, we’re drowning in messages we ignore or forget. As someone who manages projects and people across multiple teams, I try to consolidate as much information as I can into formats that people can read on their own time and digest or respond to if a response is necessary. The problem is, most people don’t.
This often means that meetings become where we give/get status updates, check off small tasks, and weigh in on simple decisions. Ironically, in most Zoom meetings, people still aren’t fully present, which means they’re checking their email instead of paying attention during the meeting.
Creating transparent, integrated task-management, knowledge-sharing, and communication systems can be one way to fix this. If everyone updates their status in Asana, Monday, Trello, or a Google doc, then you don’t have to spend time in meetings OR email trying to figure out where things stand.
Meetings can also be performative.
Power dynamics are real and permeate every interaction we have in life, but especially in work. Meetings are often used to assert power over a team by convening people to accomplish an objective that the meeting organizer deems important.
When meeting purposes and agendas aren’t co-created, participants often end up “surface acting” (e.g., that meeting poker face that you put on when your boss is spewing nonsense…again). Surface acting is especially prominent in meetings that people feel are a terrible use of their time.
Optics also feed into accountability; if meetings are used to hold people accountable, then the people who are already doing their work, reading the emails, and checking off tasks are held back by the people who aren’t. The doers in the group will be resentful, just like they were every time they had to do a group project in high school.
Meeting purpose, structure, and content should be co-designed with meeting participants so everyone feels their time is valued. Don’t create a group meeting to hold a subset of participants accountable, put out content only relevant to you, or make it easier for “leaders” to know what’s happening. Likewise, boycott meetings that serve these purposes.
In a world where people are (finally) “allowed” to work from home, meetings are now also used as a way for “leaders” to continue to micro-manage people and pretend that all work has to be done synchronously. According to Microsoft, “People have 250 percent more meetings every day than they did before the pandemic.”
People are much more effective when they can get the information they need to DO their work autonomously and self-directedly. The pandemic led to many leaders not understanding how they would know that work was getting done without people in the office. My question is, how did you know work was getting done when you were in the office? It isn’t like managers were constantly watching people over their shoulders (or maybe they were… #whyiworkformyself); they knew work was getting done because it was DONE.
Using meetings as a management exercise connects back to accountability and optics — the people you need to have in a meeting to know their work is getting done are those who are not doing it. The people doing work need you to give them asynchronous ways to get the information they need and then get out of the way.
So, what are meetings for?
The first answer, per the section above on power, is that you should decide what meetings are for with the people you work with.
More generally, meetings should be for real-time collaboration, problem-solving, and co-designing — higher-level activities that synchronously need a collective working on them. For these purposes, the meeting structure and pre-work should be carefully considered so that the work that needs to be done individually (e.g., processing information) is done before the meeting. Then, the meeting can be used for its purpose. (Here are five other rules for effective meetings.)
This type of collaboration can also happen spontaneously when people are working on something in the moment and need a thought partner. If we didn’t have so many standing meetings on our calendars, we’d have more time for these types of ad-hoc meetings when we actually needed them in real-time.
Don’t be lazy about meetings, and hold others accountable for lazy meeting behavior. Design more intentional systems to address accountability, so away with performative meetings, and give people what they need to do work on their own time.