This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
© 2021 The New York Times Company
Humanity has spent millenniums confined within the earthly limbo of meetings.
Ancient Egyptians, to name one subset of mankind, had multiple hieroglyphs to convey the concept of “council.” From this, we can infer that at least some of them spent pockets of time assembled in groups for the purpose of consultation, a council without meetings being like a rodeo without bulls: just a bunch of clowns sitting around.
Four thousand years later, the council gathering has evolved into infinite permutations: the “stand-up,” the “all-hands,” the “check-in” and “the post-mortem,” to list a sampling with hyphens. And when a global pandemic precluded all but the most essential in-person congregations, humans invented new methods of meetings, no more able to resist their pull than moon-drawn waves can resist charging into shore to wreck upon its edge.
The meetings were digital, and few were without lags. But they seemed to have sufficed — perhaps even setting the nation on a train bound for the glory of a collective 5% productivity increase.
Yet some found the new norms wanting. It is not enough to see or hear one’s colleagues, these individuals — mostly of the managerial class — maintain. One must be close enough to theoretically (but rarely, if ever, actually) touch them. Only when the workers have repopulated their desks will the wild magic of meetings — frissons sparking unexpected learning, decadeslong friendships and/or lawsuits — once again flicker in the workplace.
Today, corporations are celebrating the dwindling acuteness of the pandemic threat by forcibly encouraging employees back into offices. Retroactively, remote interactions have been deemed unconducive to the business of business.
What do we miss when we do not meet in person, apart from the quality office enthusiasts identify as “something missing”?
Should we circle back on this later? We’d love to, of course; nothing provides comfort like vowing to circle back later. But the circle ends here. In this document, which will be made available for everyone to read individually, we will attempt to understand why meetings occur in the workplace — and to identify that which, purportedly, is missed.
‘Daily pitted in the cabinet’
There was a moment, centuries ago, when small workplace meetings conserved time, rather than merely filling it. The year was 1791. President George Washington had been in office for 2 1/2 years, and the city of Philadelphia had gone even longer than that without a mob of its citizens violently attacking an elderly woman in the street for supposedly being a witch. (It had gone four years.)
The president’s house was then in Philadelphia, it being the temporary capital, and it was there (mere blocks from where the elderly woman’s neighbors had sliced her head open for witchcraft) that, despite years of efforts to avoid doing so, Washington eventually convened a group of four employees simultaneously.
Lindsay Chervinsky, a presidential historian and the author of The Cabinet: George Washington and the Creation of an American Institution, hypothesized that Washington had shunned meetings early in his term out of worries “about comparisons to the British cabinet — because Americans hated the British cabinet.”
Americans, Chervinsky said, blamed the British cabinet for causing the Revolutionary War. The Constitutional Convention outright rejected proposals to create a similar body in American government. A president was more than welcome to consult advisers — individually.
For more than two years, Washington sought piecemeal counsel from the heads of executive departments, conversing with them one-on-one or through letters, and follow-up letters and follow-up-follow-up letters.
The convening of meetings “that could have been an email” is a popular tribulation in the modern office worker’s lament. The tradition of the presidential Cabinet, meanwhile, grew out of letters that should have been meetings.
“That’s exactly why the Cabinet was created,” said Alexis Coe, a presidential historian and the author of You Never Forget Your First, a biography of Washington. “Washington just could not go back and forth with everyone. It drove him mad.” Each letter the president sent had to be handwritten, and then copied for presidential record-keeping. If a correspondent raised a new question, it might require doubling back to an adviser he’d already consulted. “It was just a lot,” Coe said.
Washington’s solution was for everyone to deliberate in his study: a 15-by-21-foot room crammed with furniture that grew sweltering in warm months.
Under the president’s largely silent stewardship, meetings served as an arena for his advisers’ debates. “Jefferson and Hamilton are supposed to destroy each other,” Coe said. “They’re supposed to murder each other. And that’s what Washington thought would be productive, because he’s sitting there, and he’s allowing it to happen.”
While frequently contentious and frustrating for the few participants, the meetings did expedite the business of setting up a new government — and, unlike the aimless recurrent huddles that today bloat so many office calendars, were at least imbued with the urgency of ad hoc scheduling.
Who needs the meeting?
One sees how a group of individuals erecting the literal and figurative architecture of a new government without the use of telephones or computers might benefit from convening in person to hash things out. But why is everyone else’s calendar filled with meetings?