Lockdown lessons – putting the meet back into meetings

Putting the meet back into meetings

Lockdown lessons – putting the meet back into meetings

It’s at a funeral that the impositions of the pandemic are brought home most starkly. Of all occasions, it’s when social distancing is most cruel.

We can’t hug our extended family. Words of consolation don’t sound the same from behind a mask and especially when you’re not quite sure who said what. And of course, in church, we are not allowed to sing – someone else has to do that for us via the PA system. That’s not all bad of course. At a funeral I attended this week, we all got to hear the beauty and solemnity of a hymn sung by someone who could actually sing. It was as refreshing as it was beautiful.

Lockdown is showing us many familiar things in a new light. We can do something a thousand times and not really learn from it but when it’s presented to us in a different context, the light bulb moment can happen and we realise for example that communal singing is pretty awful.

We are not in Kansas anymore and big band music isn’t going to come back.

To many, lockdown taught them that remote working was feasible. The fact that whole teams of people can work remotely without a hitch has been a revelation – it will save business a fortune in office rent and it gives people back a family life. But my lockdown light bulb was quite the opposite. When the option to work at home is taken away, when you have to work at home whether you like it or not, something disappears and it only becomes apparent because it’s no longer there.

I’m missing meetings – I never thought I’d hear myself say that. And I don’t mean the fun, social side of meetings or the interesting and exciting “meet for the first time” experiences. Teams and Zoom meetings still deliver that – you can still run group working sessions and even social events (to an extent) but they can’t deliver everything that a real life meeting can. On-line meeting can’t give you is those subtle interactions, the body language and cues that we instinctively interpret that allow us to get closer to people, to understand them, to decide whether to trust them or to remain guarded and wary. Only in real world meetings can you get familiar with other peoples’ agendas and see how they act toward other people. It is the unspoken negotiations that determine where we are in the pecking order, who we can influence and who we can’t. Zoom doesn’t do that.

I always knew this. It was always there. But the pandemic has made it much more obvious. We need to put the “meet” back into meetings.

We need to put the “meet” back into meetings.

I’ve always been critical of business meetings. What I mean is the “meeting” as a thing that you do, not something that has a purpose but is a purpose in itself. I have no sympathy for people who say “I can’t get any actual work done because I spend too much time in meetings”. If the meetings had no purpose, why did you attend?

You sit at a desk while you write a report. You know what you are doing – you’re writing a report. You wouldn’t say you were “sitting”. Why would you apologise for not getting something done because you were “in meetings”? It’s like saying “Sorry I’m late, I was sitting down”.

The pandemic has taught those who still operated in the old world that work life goes on without the office.

Traditionally, the reason why people worked in offices is because that is where the office equipment was – the typewriter, the computer, the phone, the photocopier, the fax machine. It’s not that long ago that none of these things were in the home – now they are either redundant or we carry them around with us.

Because, for office workers at least, we can do most of our work at home – we can write reports, process transactions, deal with correspondence – whatever it is we do – we assume that we can conduct effective meetings remotely. And while for the most part we can, the absence of the human interaction, especially in some key meetings, leaves a big gap.

Why would you apologise for not getting something done because you were “in meetings”? It’s like saying “Sorry I’m late, I was sitting down”.

This should not be a surprise. We have known forever that real life meetings are more effective than remote meetings. The anecdotal evidence is clear that the smoking area is the best source of gossip, the five-minute water cooler conversation is more effective than a string of emails and the relationships forged over dinners and evenings enjoying too much drink can last a lifetime.

The future looks very different. We are certainly not in Kansas anymore and big band music isn’t going to come back. We won’t be office based anymore but we do need to meet each other when it’s useful. We should not be cost driven – we should be quality driven and we’ll have to invest in travel time and expenses to attend a meeting in person.

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