Will Working From Home Finally End ‘Meeting Culture’?

If anything, it’s the opposite — executives are using meetings to make sure their employees are working, while employees are using it to eat it up calendar time

In this dystopia, the Zoom meeting organizer never shows up on time. The reason, according to Carl — a marketing manager for an app development company based in L.A., who spends approximately two to four hours a day in Zoom meetings — is “because the organizer was probably stuck in another Zoom meeting that ran late.” And the reason they were late to the previous meeting? “Because the leader of that other meeting,” the one that Carl was also included in, “was in another meeting that ran late,” he says. 

This is how the white-collar class spends a good portion of its 9-to-5 days in quarantine — drowning in the privilege of meeting ennui. And so, at 2:10 p.m. on a Tuesday, the eight or nine people waiting in a Zoom room with their cameras and microphones turned off because they’re waiting for the “key stakeholder” of the meeting to show up for a meeting that was scheduled for 2 p.m., are rendered inert, confined and frozen in a “meeting” space in time where white noise reigns. “There’s just a bunch of silent black squares who are staring at my face because I haven’t turned my camera off,” Carl tells me. 

For Carl, this frolic from one Zoom meeting to the next is a daily exercise. “I have multiple stand-up meetings every day with various teams that take about 45 minutes each to go through 20 people,” he says. After that, the days are painted with multiple hour-long “weekly product sinks. Those are usually held on Tuesdays and Thursdays.” On those days that he refers to as his “heavy meeting days,” which could mean up to six hours of Zoom calls, spaced out by several minutes of staring into the digital Zoom meeting abyss, Carl — who’s thankful to “at least be able to work” — knows it’s going to “be an unproductive day from the very beginning.” 

This means Carl will have to work extra hours to make up for all the wasted time he spent on calls he didn’t really need to be a part of in the first place. “A standard workday is eight hours,” he says. “That’s what they pay you for on salary. But I was already putting in an extra hour before COVID just to make sure that I got all my work done. But now under this remote work structure, I’m putting in an extra two and a half hours, just because of the over-communication in these meetings taking up time.”

To be clear, this “meeting madness,” as researchers Leslie A. Perlow, Constance Noonan Hadley and Eunice Eun referred to it in their article in the Harvard Business Review, isn’t a byproduct of the pandemic. In fact, their article predates the pandemic by nearly three years, but still they cite research “showing that meetings have increased in length and frequency over the past 50 years, to the point where executives spend an average of nearly 23 hours a week in them, up from less than 10 hours in the 1960s.” “And that doesn’t even include all the impromptu gatherings that don’t make it onto the schedule.”

It just so happens, then, that even amidst what’s likely to be the most significant global transition since World War II, the ever-scheduled “meeting” continues to lobotomize the human psyche, one pixelated, frozen face at a time. This being the case — despite the fact that their interviews included numerous different industries (from high tech and retail to pharmaceuticals and consulting) — Perlow, Noonan Hadley and Eun found that, like Carl, many of their respondents felt overwhelmed by the number of their meetings, “whether formal or informal, traditional or agile, face-to-face or electronically mediated.” “One said, ‘I cannot get my head above water to breathe during the week,’” the researchers write. “Another [respondent] described stabbing her leg with a pencil to stop from screaming during a particularly torturous staff meeting.”

Again, that was before the stay-at-home orders forced a new era in the meeting madness oeuvre. Sam, a regional sales manager for an automation company, finds himself in more pseudo mandatory “let’s touch base over a Zoom call” meetings than ever before. Prior to the pandemic, he was mostly on the road, meeting with potential clients in person. As such, his calendar never had more than a few “brainstorming” meetings a week. But ever since he’s been off the road, things have changed. “At first, the meetings were a good way to get people closer to one another,” he says. But now he thinks that “we’re doing it just to be doing it.” “To say, hey, we’re all here,” Sam continues. “No one says, ‘How come you weren’t in the meeting?,’ but it seems like a way of holding some sort of accountability during the quarantine.” 

Carl agrees. “It’s because senior management really values these meetings, regardless of how long they take, who attends them or how many extra hours you have to put in for your work,” he tells me. “They really value these meetings because they still see the sense of accountability within it. Therefore, I attend these meetings because I want them to see that I’m doing whatever I can to be held accountable to their standard.”

Ironically, though, using a meeting to make sure everyone is working is actually proliferating an environment where no one is getting anything done. “There are a lot of people who aren’t key contributors or stakeholders but still attend these meetings peripherally,” says Carl. “I might need to work with a product manager on one of their apps, but now the director of product management wants to just tag along to listen to see what’s going on. The same might be true with the head of design. If I’m talking to the graphic designer about something, our head of design wants to be included in the meeting for peripheral vision, and to have that information.” 

As a result, Carl says he’s noticed a lot of people are just “listening in to meetings and aren’t contributing a cent during them”; basically, they’re just using that hour to take up calendar time. “I actually see that with these Zoom meetings, a lot of people are jumping in and requesting to be included in them just so they can eat up a couple of hours of their work day,” he says. 

If that sounds like the worst possible mutation for white-collar corporate culture, already suffocating under the pall of its self-parodic obsession with hanging out in a room and throwing around ideas until it’s time to eat lunch, that’s because it is. “There can be value to using meetings for attendance purposes, but it shouldn’t be your fundamental mechanism for ensuring that people are doing their jobs,” says Steven G. Rogelberg, a professor of organizational science, management and psychology, and the director of organizational science at the University of North Carolina. “If you have concerns about someone not doing their job, then take that problem on. If you’re thinking that your meetings are your only mechanism for creating accountability, that’s a flawed assumption.”

This is why, according to Rogelberg, there has to be an important distinction between good meetings and bad ones. “People often conflate meetings and bad meetings,” he says. He believes that a world without meetings — even if they do often achieve less than they ought to — is much more problematic. “We need meetings for communication, cooperation, coordination, consensus and decision-making, so without meetings, organizational democracy and inclusion would dramatically suffer,” he says. “We’re not looking to go back to Industrial Revolution days where the highly directive, authoritative boss made all those decisions.” 

In that sense, meetings, he says, are the mechanism for an “involved workplace.” “So what people lament isn’t having a meeting, it’s that the meeting isn’t honoring their time,” he says. “They’re being asked to attend meetings that aren’t relevant to them, that’s what they lament. They’re asked to attend meetings where the leader isn’t embracing their role as a steward and a facilitator. So their frustrations are attending unnecessary meetings, having meetings last way too long, having meetings dominated by one or two people.”

In theory, Rogelberg is right. But in practice, the nature of a Zoom meeting can make it nearly impossible to conduct a truly collaborative brainstorming session. “On paper, it sounds efficient,” says Carl, referring to the utility of a meeting to make sure everyone’s working toward the same goal. In practice, however, Carl tells me that what should “typically take 15 minutes to sync up all high-level deliverables, actually ends up taking up about an hour.” “And a lot of times these Zoom calls are going over because everyone has to chime in at a different time,” he says. “You can’t talk over each other, like you would in an in-person meeting. You have to wait for everyone to finish completing their updates.”

There is, however, according to Rogelberg, a way to mitigate the “meeting madness.” “The advice I’m giving organizations is, if the meeting doesn’t have to be on Zoom, don’t go on Zoom,” he says. “Get yourself up, plug in your headset, and at least walk around a little bit and have a one-on-one meeting over the phone. I don’t care if you pace around your house, walk outside — we have to keep people fresh, and we have to diversify our communication media so people don’t get burned out.” Meaning that rather than rely entirely on video conference calls to collaborate, Rogelberg suggests testing out alternative “communication vehicles” like Slack, or “even Google Docs as part of a silent space platform for discussion.”

Carl, for his part, has a slightly different take as to how to curb the meeting bloat. “I would run a meeting with only absolutely necessary stakeholders,” he says. Ideally, that means limiting Zoom meetings to no more than five people, “so that you can offer true collaboration.” “If it’s just one to three people, you can kind of talk over each other and have a real collaborative environment,” he says. “But when it becomes five or more, people are just going to turn off their cameras, turn off their microphones and tune out.”