This col­umn will change your life The work­place is based on the no­tion that com­mu­ni­ca­tion is a good thing. But what if we said less and did more?

The Guardian Weekly - - Mind & Relationships - Oliver Burke­man oliver.burke­man@the­guardian.com

Every of­fice worker hates meet­ings. Ob­vi­ously. But it’s a strange sort of hate, sim­i­lar to the ha­tred of Lon­don­ers for the un­der­ground’s North­ern line, or New York­ers for tourists who walk too slowly: the dis­like is real, yet if the de­spised thing were to van­ish, it’d be like sur­ren­der­ing a piece of your soul. “When we probed into why peo­ple put up with the strain that meet­ings place on their time and san­ity, we found some­thing sur­pris­ing,” wrote the aca­demics Les­lie Per­low, Con­stance Hadley and Eu­nice Eun in the Har­vard Busi­ness Re­view re­cently. “Those who re­sent and dread meet­ings the most also de­fend them as a ‘nec­es­sary evil’ – some­times with great pas­sion.” True, re­search sug­gests that meet­ings take up vastly more of the av­er­age man­ager’s time than they used to. True, done badly, they’re as­so­ci­ated with lower lev­els of in­no­va­tion and em­ployee well­be­ing. But that’s just of­fice life, right? It’s not sup­posed to be fun. That’s why they call it work.

Un­der­ly­ing this at­ti­tude is an as­sump­tion that’s drummed into us not just as work­ers but as chil­dren, par­ents and ro­man­tic part­ners: that more com­mu­ni­ca­tion is al­ways a good thing. So sug­ges­tions abound for com­mu­ni­cat­ing bet­ter in meet­ings – for ex­am­ple, hold them stand­ing up, so speak­ers will come to the point more quickly. But even when some startup gar­ners head­lines for an­nounc­ing it’s abol­ish­ing meet­ings en­tirely, the prin­ci­ple that more com­mu­ni­ca­tion is bet­ter isn’t ques­tioned. If any­thing, it’s re­in­forced when such firms in­tro­duce “flat” man­age­ment struc­tures, with bosses al­ways avail­able to ev­ery­one, plus plenty of elec­tronic dis­trac­tion. “We hook up to email ad­dresses and Slack chan­nels and then just rock’n’roll with mes­sages all day long … hop­ing busy­ness will trans­mute into value,” ob­serves Cal New­port, whose book Deep Work makes the case that this con­stant con­nec­tiv­ity is dis­as­trous for both job sat­is­fac­tion and the bot­tom line.

And any­way, once you give it three sec­onds’ thought, isn’t it clear that more com­mu­ni­ca­tion fre­quently isn’t a good thing? “Of­ten,” goes a line at­trib­uted to the writer Har­land Miller, “the dif­fer­ence be­tween a suc­cess­ful mar­riage and a medi­ocre one con­sists of leav­ing about

Of­fice com­mu­ni­ca­tion comes at the cost of pre­cisely the kind of undis­turbed fo­cus that’s es­sen­tial to good work

three or four things a day un­said.” At work, it’s surely many more than four, though for a dif­fer­ent rea­son: of­fice com­mu­ni­ca­tion comes at the cost of pre­cisely the kind of undis­turbed fo­cus that’s es­sen­tial to good work. Yet we’re so ac­cus­tomed to see­ing com­mu­ni­ca­tion as a source of so­lu­tions – for talk­ing out con­flicts, brain­storm­ing new ideas, et cetera – that it’s hard to see when com­mu­ni­ca­tion is the prob­lem.

We dis­dain meet­ings as “bu­reau­cratic”, but of­ten they’re a lazy al­ter­na­tive to good bu­reau­cratic pro­ce­dures. They’re a metaphor­i­cal throw­ing up of hands: “Let’s just sit down to­gether and ham­mer it out!” Ac­tu­ally, though, maybe let’s not.

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