Go on, skip that meet­ing – and live

The Straits Times - - OPINION - Si­mon Jenkins

Go­ing off to a meet­ing?

Stop right now. Turn back. You will be stuck in an over­heated room, chained to a table for an ab­surd length of time, and stopped from proper work.

Worse, we are now told that just sit­ting there is a killer. It short­ens life. You will die.

Ac­cord­ing to Pub­lic Health Eng­land, we are so ad­dicted to meet­ings that we don’t re­alise the threat they pose to our­selves and our or­gan­i­sa­tions . Its chief ex­ec­u­tive Dun­can Sel­bie, speak­ing at an an­nual meet­ing last week, said sit­ting in meet­ings “haem­or­rhages pro­duc­tiv­ity”. It slows me­tab­o­lism and af­fects the body’s ca­pac­ity to reg­u­late its sugar, and thus, blood pres­sure. This leads to obe­sity, di­a­betes, cancer… and death. So don’t do it. Don’t go.

The Get Bri­tain Stand­ing cam­paign agrees. It says that seden­tary of­fice ac­tiv­ity is now as dan­ger­ous to health as smok­ing. It takes an hour of ex­er­cise to elim­i­nate the tox­ins built up in one roundtable ses­sion.

Mean­while, the Columbia Univer­sity Med­i­cal Cen­tre last week pro­duced a no less alarm­ing statis­tic. Af­ter track­ing 8,000 in­di­vid­u­als from all walks of life, it con­cluded that in­ac­tiv­ity for 13 hours a day, in­clud­ing sleep, makes the “risk of death” 2.6 times more likely than it is for in­ac­tiv­ity of less than 11 hours.

The best meet­ing is spent walk­ing, like in the US drama The West Wing . The fact that all West Wingers seem on the point of a heart at­tack is ap­par­ently ir­rel­e­vant.

Dr Mike Loose­more, from the In­sti­tute of Sport, Ex­er­cise and Health in Lon­don, rather des­per­ately ad­vises reg­u­larly stand­ing up and get­ting a glass of wa­ter. Ne­an­derthals must be laugh­ing them­selves sick at what Homo sapi­ens has to do just to sur­vive.

While we can take that with a pinch of salt, it feeds a wider meet­ings malaise. All the rev­o­lu­tions of the In­ter­net – Skype, Face­book, Twit­ter – have not di­min­ished hu­mankind’s crav­ing to gather in te­dious con­clave. Ex­ec­u­tives ruth­less to­wards work­place pro­duc­tiv­ity are care­less of their own of­fices. Meet­ings are the co­caine rush of the cor­po­ra­tion.

I am told there are scores of ex­ec­u­tives at the BBC, an in­sti­tu­tion fa­mously ad­dicted to the meet­ings cul­ture, who are so high on the stuff they spend the en­tire day in meet­ings, and re­turn home with no one any the wiser.

It is half a cen­tury since his­to­rian C. North­cote Parkin­son first ad­dressed the meet­ing as so­cial an­thro­pol­ogy, yield­ing his cel­e­brated “co­ef­fi­cient of in­ef­fi­ciency ”. It cal­cu­lated that a meet­ing of just five peo­ple was “most likely to act with com­pe­tence, se­crecy and speed”.

Few such bod­ies ex­ist be­cause five swiftly ex­pands to nine – and two of the nine tend to be “merely or­na­men­tal”, peo­ple no one has the heart to ex­clude.

Above nine, said Pro­fes­sor Parkin­son, “the or­gan­ism be­gins to per­ish”. Once the meet­ing reaches 20 peo­ple, it may as well go on to a hun­dred, since by then most of those present are not con­tribut­ing. They are spec­tat­ing, talk­ing to each other, squab­bling or form­ing lob­bies. Nowa­days, many are peer­ing at their phones or tablets – pre­tend­ing to take notes, or fran­tic not to fall asleep. All are pray­ing for “any other busi­ness”.

Man­age­ment re­search on meet­ings is uni­formly hos­tile, yet like most re­search, it has not the slight­est prac­ti­cal ef­fect. A re­cent study by Mi­crosoft, Amer­ica On­line and Salary.com found that the av­er­age per­son works only three days a week. The rest of work­ing time was re­garded as wasted, with “un­pro­duc­tive meet­ings” head­ing the list. Work­ers on av­er­age re­gard a third of any meet­ing as point­less .

Min­nesota Univer­sity’s “de­ci­sions” guru, the psy­chol­o­gist Kath­leen Vohs, has shown that most ex­ec­u­tives have a lim­ited stock of “cog­ni­tive re­source”. It de­te­ri­o­rates over time, like phys­i­cal en­ergy. Peo­ple get im­pa­tient, they tire and take worse de­ci­sions. Cu­ri­ously, they leave feel­ing ex­hausted, de­spite hours spent do­ing noth­ing at all. Four-hour board or “strat­egy” meet­ings are prob­a­bly dis­as­trous to the firm, in­duc­ing tor­por, claus­tro­pho­bia and mis­judg­ment.

Yet, still re­cruits ar­rive from man­age­ment schools and con­sul­tan­cies, bril­liant zom­bies doped to the eye­balls in pre­sen­ta­tions “de­liv­er­ing strate­gic so­lu­tions go­ing for­ward by think­ing out of the box”. They are like chateau gen­er­als, kept well away from the front line, versed in the par­lour games of the ar­tic­u­late classes. They are for cof­fee and bis­cuits, not the wa­ter­cooler.

Noth­ing is likely to cut this flab. The meet­ing has be­come the cer­e­mo­nial of ex­ec­u­tive im­por­tance: Who calls it, who chairs it, who presents to it, who is in­vited and who is not. Its sta­tus is a clas­sic cause of of­fice “fomo” – fear of miss­ing out. It soon de­vel­ops its harlequinade, the bad joke­smith, the un­stop­pable talker, the mad­den­ing in­ter­rupter, the toad­ies, bad-mouthers, ex­tro­verts and those who just sit in silent de­spair. None is pro­duc­ing goods or ser­vices. In short, the meet­ing is the of­fice as re­li­gion. Its sacra­ments, creeds and acolytes are found in agen­das, min­utes and note-tak­ers. Its liturgy is the can­ti­cle of the Pow­erPoint . The mod­ern of­fice even has its ritual sanc­tu­ary, the “meet­ing room” – 11am for matins , 2.30pm for ves­pers.

De­scrib­ing meet­ings as “se­cret killers of pro­duc­tiv­ity”, Forbes magazine re­cently sug­gested they be sim­ply banned, or held “only on Wed­nes­days ” – all other de­ci­sions to be taken in ab­sen­tia. Any­one who needs to be con­sulted – the “co­or­di­na­tion” role of meet­ings – will find out soon enough. If not, they don’t re­ally need to know. The few brave or­gan­i­sa­tions that have ex­per­i­mented with this dras­tic step re­port phe­nom­e­nal im­prove­ments in work rate. One worker who said that if he missed a meet­ing, “my boss would prob­a­bly kill me”, was told: “In that case he prob­a­bly should.”

The num­ber, length and size of meet­ings must be a sound Parkin­so­nian in­di­ca­tor of an or­gan­i­sa­tion’s pro­duc­tiv­ity or de­cay. The pri­vate sec­tor or the gov­ern­ment should pub­lish an an­nual league table of meet­ings for each em­ployee a week. It would il­lus­trate the the­sis by econ­o­mist Joseph Schum­peter that all or­gan­i­sa­tions have a nat­u­ral life cy­cle: they grow, they fat­ten, they os­sify into meet­ings, and they die – un­less funded by the state.

I bet Apple had few meet­ings in the early Steve Jobs days, but I bet it has thou­sands now. If so, as Prof Parkin­son warned all who broke his laws, sell the shares. As for that meet­ing, skip it – and live.

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