Before lockdown, the word ‘zoom’ had quite different connotations for most of us. Space rockets. Rollercoasters. Exhilaration. A feeling of moving fast and getting somewhere. But now, at least for some, it’s come to mean almost the exact opposite. A damp squib. Slowness. Drudgery.
It’s not Zoom’s fault. Meetings, or rather the way we do them, have always been a problem. Steven Rogelberg’s 2019 book, The Surprising Science of Meetings, is the most recent of many attempts to understand how we can use them more effectively. The practical recommendations he makes – such as to think carefully about meeting length – seem obvious and sensible. Strange, then, that they are not yet part of the design of every meeting in every organisation.
I’ve always been puzzled about the apparently taken-for-granted value of meetings. Not so much their content but rather the way they’re run and their frequency. Why is having a meeting seen as the best and only way to manage things? Why are they the go-to solution to everything? I first knew I wasn’t alone in this view many decades ago when I came across the classic office humour poster that starts: ‘Are you lonely? Tired of working on your own? Do you hate making decisions? HOLD A MEETING!’ It ends: ‘Meetings. The practical alternative to work.’ Replace the face-to-face ‘meeting’ with the remote working ‘Zoom call’ and this still rings true.
As widely reported, virtual meetings seem to demand higher levels of attention and emotional effort. People find them exhausting. Having to ‘perform positivity’, as one colleague put it, is draining. So too is the sheer number that seem to have been scheduled during lockdown. Some of this meeting mania is driven no doubt by genuinely urgent demands, but some also by anxieties. Shoe-horning yet another Zoom call into an already tightly packed Zoom call day seems crazy – but it at least helps us feel we’re contributing.
During such calls our minds can start to drift. And then we start to ask some excellent, though perhaps unsettling, questions: what exactly is this meeting for? Do I really need to be in it? Why are we all just repeating stuff? How long is this going to last? Why are we doing this?
The pandemic has forced us to change the way we work and it has also made us question things more. Why are we doing things in this particular way? Is what we’re doing really contributing to what we want to achieve? What should we stop doing? Is it worth asking people to continue completing a monthly engagement pulse survey? Should we find a way of carrying on with our leadership development programme or just not bother? We should, of course, always be asking these types of questions and not only when a crisis compels us to.
In times of relative stability we feel a little freer to just do stuff. That employee recognition programme looks good – let’s try it. The board seems keen to have this training so we should probably offer it. Everyone’s doing employee experience stuff now so we should too. During such free-wheeling times, we can afford to be a little perhaps self-indulgent. If it doesn’t work out that’s fine. We can do whatever.
So a huge silver lining that could emerge from this crisis is businesses and HR teams being forced to interrogate more fully those activities previously assumed to be essential and ‘core’ – with many revising their view on this long term. After months of lockdown and disruption we all want things to change. But one thing I hope doesn’t is our increased desire to ask questions – on the value of meetings but also far beyond.
Rob Briner is professor of organisational psychology at Queen Mary University of London