As the #greatresignation sweeps organisations into a new reality across the nation, Russ Swan discusses the purpose of meetings and reassesses the rules of rulemaking...
I well remember the excitement I felt in my early career, when first invited to attend department meetings. Oh, what wonders I would learn as the mysteries of the organisation were laid bare. Finally, I would be an insider – and this must be a chance to get noticed.
It wasn't long before enthusiasm waned, faced with the reality of so much dead time before, during, and after. Meetings became the bane of my life. My last full-time employer had the most rigid structure imaginable, foisted on us by upper management that seemed terrified they might lose track of what was actually happening. Department managers (for I was such by then) followed a stone-carved script set down in prehistory, ticking off agenda items, discouraged from any deviation, always ending on the bottom line. It became soul-destroying.
These memories came flooding back with the arrival of a research paper from scientists at UMass Amherst, published in PLOS, enticingly entitled ‘Ten simple rules for productive lab meetings.’ Has science finally found the answer to what must surely be a universal source of misery? Let's have a look.
Define lab mission and objectives
Identify roles and rules
Be accessible and inclusive
Be respectful and practice civility
Be open and curious
Be mindful and present
Be aware of biases
Be flexible and adaptable
While there's certainly something here, I can’t help thinking that there remains room for improvement...
...shall we have a meeting to discuss?
If people are unfamiliar with each other, identifying roles can be valuable. But identifying rules? A rule about defining rules? We seem to have already slipped into the sort of endless recursive algorithm that defines the ultimate futility of existence when it's still twenty minutes until coffee.
A little redaction of rules 3 to 9 reveals seven different ways to say the same thing. Don’t be conflicty or biased. In short, be nice. Hard to argue with that, but we really only need telling once. The researchers then suggest their tenth rule could be a sort of Tolkienesque rule to rule them all. The rule that says it's OK to break any or all of these other rules if it might help. Sounds good. But have we learned nothing in the last year? The current buzz phrase in the realm of human resources is hybrid working. Come into the office/lab/factory/coal mine when it's really necessary, but otherwise it's cool to work from home. Lab work needs to be done in a lab, but how much of your working week is actually desk jockeying?
It has apparently come as something of a shock in management circles that productivity often improves when employees are less stressed and that meetings don’t necessarily have to be face-to-face. Factor in environmental benefits and work-life balance that results from the huge reduction in commuting, and suddenly everything we thought we knew is wrong.
So, I'd like to offer an alternative rule to rule the rules, and I'm calling it the zeroth rule because it should be considered before any of the others. Rule Zero: Is this meeting really necessary? Really? If the decision has already been made, save us all the bother of the charade. Cancel meetings, and let's get on with saving the world.