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?
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.