Work meetings a disaster? 6 simple things you could do to avoid wasting your life.

Work meetings disaster

Work meetings were the bane of my life before I was made redundant. They usually involved people sitting around grey tables either trying to score points off each other, or doing other things while the point scorers argued. “Other things” ranged from checking email and social media, to ordering on Amazon, or playing games on their phones.

Work meeting involving lots of people. Perfect.
Post-its, flip charts and lots of people. Typical.

One of the later crazes was pretending to type meeting notes whilst actually sending messages over Skype to others in the room. You could tell who was messaging whom from coinciding smirks or giggles, and non-discreet nods, head shakes or eye rolls. There was also alternate typing, whereby as soon as one person paused, someone else looked up, winked and banged away on their keyboard. The message streams tended to be at the schoolboy or schoolgirl level, ranging from comments like “f***ing boring” through to “he doesn’t know what he’s doing” or “ooo, mr angry”.

Work meetings aren't for gossip
Work meetings are often used for gossip…

Work meetings and bad behaviours

Work meetings were a great way to pretend to be busy. You weren’t important if you had white space in your diary. It was also great to be back-to-back with meetings because when it came to dishing out actions, you could claim to be too busy to do them. Flashing up your diary helped elicit the required sympathy, and you could skip out and on to the next one before anyone looked too closely at the fact that “lunch” featured widely.

Entering the meeting room in the right way was also important. Too early and you looked like you had time on your hands, plus you had to engage in the pre-meeting small talk. Too late and it was too noticeable. Just slightly late was always best, bursting in to disturb the introductions with a brow so furrowed you could plant potatoes in it.

Next step for some was to disrupt. So whilst introductions were underway, important people would say how important they were, and that they could only stay for the first x minutes. ‘X’ as a rule of thumb was the meeting time less about fifteen minutes. Again that way they could avoid any actions, whilst shouting out a couple for others to pick up as they dashed for the door.

The worst offenders were terrorists…

Some of the worst people in the meetings were terrorists. I know it’s probably not politically correct to call them that, but these were people whose soul mission in life was to cause trouble. Nothing made them feel more important than disagreements. It’s not that disagreement is a bad thing, but the terrorists just said “no”. There was no offer of compromise or alternatives, just a damning indictment of the person or topic they’re denying.

Obviously it helped if they had special skills or knowledge that made it hard for people to challenge. They would throw out phrases like “your splodger only works if the clodger is engaged and connected via the UMPv1.0”, When asked to explain, they’d roll their eyes and say “best if we take this offline” before messaging some one in the room – “what a thicko!”. After a while people would give up asking, nod wisely and pretend they understood. They didn’t. Often because it was bullsh*t.

6 tips to improve your work meetings

But meetings could be so much better if a few things were adopted, such as:

  1. Choosing a decent meeting room – not just your standard small and stuffy one. I had my favourites. 211 was one as it was on the top floor and made people hot and sweaty getting there. I felt the exertion was good for the mind.
  2. No jargon. Anyone who denies a course of action because of something the rest of the room can’t understand should do a forfeit, like gargle a tune with water.
  3. Standing up. It would make meetings so much shorter and no one could be on IM. Anyone with hip issues could sit down.
  4. Shooting anyone who says they’re too busy to follow the actions through. Could get messy, but things would soon change.
  5. Going through previous actions first, if nothing else for the entertainment of listening to the 101 ways people say “I couldn’t be bothered…”
  6. Making the room cold. Open the blinds and keep the lights bright. You don’t want people dozing off or doing things they shouldn’t under cover of darkness.
Work meeting rooms need to be chosen carefully
My favourite meeting room. Choose your room with care to maximise the “wow” factor of your sessions.

Work meetings are what fill office workers’ days. For most people they are a form of therapy, as highlighted by the The Daily Mail. Some can be useful, but you could probably halve the number of participants and halve the number of meetings and still be productive.

I guess that’s maybe why I was made redundant.

Secretly daydreaming in meetings part of evolutionary make-up

Humans have always had meetings. Often dull meetings, but meetings nonetheless. Since cavemen sat around fires discussing wall paintings, people have loved to gather, talk and daydream. In large corporations it is part of the culture. More than that, it’s part of our evolutionary instinct, like over-eating and binge drinking.

We’re told that humans need to conserve energy by minimising effort, a hangover from our calorie-scarce past. It is so much easier to have a meeting than to think of a new idea, write a document or make something useful. Think of the calories actually doing something might burn, and the fatigue that might set in! Today people gather in offices in the hope that one of the group will make the kill (or sensible decision), so all attendees can agree it was a good use of time without having to expend any effort.

Vital attendees at the meeting

Have a speaker who can lead the daydreamers and messagers to a decision in a dull meeting
Always good to have a Speaker

The key to any good meeting is to have at least one Speaker. Speakers claim to hate meetings as nothing gets decided and other people don’t participate. Speakers are vocal. They can deliver monologues that monopolise the time, getting their decisions agreed through apathy rather than excitement. In the end, it is the fact that Speakers exist that makes businesses move forward. Without them the group would have to expend too much energy, debate too long and conclude without direction. Brexit anyone?

Frequently I have sat in meetings with ten or more people squashed into a room. If the time was divided equally each attendee would get about six minutes air time in your average meeting hour. Only it didn’t work like that. A couple of Speakers would dominate the hour. So what was everyone else doing? Listening? Taking notes? It turns out none of these.

Before I was made redundant, I spoke to a few managers about what they did in a meeting.

“I daydream,” said one honest individual. “I spend my time thinking about my life outside work, sometimes straying on to some fantasy about someone else if the meeting is really dull. It’s surprising who becomes attractive at the end of a long day. As long as I nod occasionally or offer my agreement to a point, no one realises I’ve not been listening at all.”

Another was equally blunt. “Messaging. Sometimes messaging people in the room, sometimes not. Obviously if it was just a phone meeting I’d be on tetris or something, but in the room you have to look busy.”

The technology people bring to meetings is partly to blame. When I started out I used to create beautiful doodles that wouldn’t have looked out of place in the Tate Modern. Nowadays laptops and phones mean people can do those low brain-power tasks like typing emojis, without looking as if they’re completely disengaged.

Interestingly it’s in our genes to zone out…

Office bingo
Office bingo

However engaging the disengaged goes against all our genetic make up. Those ice-breakers, post-it sessions, votes which are all part of making people involved, only serve to make them desperate to sit by the window so they can watch the weather pass by. Why do you think buzz-word bingo was invented? Not to add billions to the value of the company that’s for sure.

In nature, hunting pack animals like ourselves often live in groups dominated by one or two individuals (the Speakers). We’re going against that instinct, but it requires energy and effort which many people don’t want to expend. Meetings serve to reinforce the importance and decision making power of the Speaker. They feel encouraged, empowered and energised to drive things forward.

So the question is, when you attend a meeting, what are you actually doing? Speaking? Or simply imagining yourself with a cold beer in a sunspot while someone else makes the decision for you. It’s not your fault though, it’s evolution. Ways to break that cycle require effort and energy. Cake anyone?