Modern Life

Meetings. Why?

The convening of meetings “that could have been an email” is a popular tribulation in the modern office worker’s lament. A meeting can be good, in short — but only if it needs to be a meeting.

By Caity Weaver — July 13, 2021


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?

Paul Windle

Caitlin Rosenthal, a historian at the University of California, Berkeley, traces the wildfire spread of modern corporate meetings to two Industrial Revolution-era sparks: the embiggening of big business and a late-blooming theory that employees are people.

“This is a period that people might describe as the shift from workshops to factories,” said Rosenthal, who previously worked as a consultant with McKinsey Co. where, she said, she attended “a lot” of meetings.

A shoemaking workshop with a handful of employees doesn’t need much internal communication, Rosenthal said. But a shoe factory deploying machine technology to ramp up production volume might divide labor between hundreds of workers and operate via large distribution channels, like railroads, complicating delivery logistics.

“All of a sudden, you need formalized reporting structures, where people are sharing information in formalized ways. Meetings are going to come along with that,” Rosenthal said.

In the same period, many of the biggest businesses were reshaping their ownership structures. There were “more corporations,” Rosenthal said “— specifically, more joint stock corporations. And those give rise to shareholder meetings, or meetings of the board of directors.” Annual meetings served as forums for review — and often provided opportunities to plot out expansion.

But an expanding business does not necessarily signify a contented workplace. In some New England factories, employees resigned at a clip so brisk it threatened to halt production altogether — if for instance, a company could not assemble enough staffers to operate a machine. “Ran away” was an explanation of departure sometimes given in company accounting books.

Frequent turnover was expensive; companies needed a tool to ensure that the workers they had devoted time and effort to training remained on the job. (Large Southern enterprises skirted the problem by exploiting enslaved laborers who could not quit.)

Enter: human resources.

What those two words mean in relation to one another is often misinterpreted. No part of the phrase was intended to describe resources made available to humans by their employer. Rather, the humans it references are themselves the resources, or at least some of the resources — the human resources — of a given organization.

To Rosenthal, the development of such departments represents “the evolution of management thinking.” While industrialization enabled companies to extract more value more quickly from workers’ efforts, managers often evaluated employees almost “as if they’re a machine, and you’re just thinking about input and output,” she said. Humans treated like machines are and were prone to disgruntlement. Managers needed to devise a method to recalibrate their relationships with subordinates.

One idea: remembering everyone’s birthday.

“HR is often into the birthdays,” Rosenthal said. One 1951 document she found while researching the history of human resources departments advised providing a “Birthday Luncheon Check” to employees as a means of “curing organizational ills.”

The other thing humans love, besides their own birthdays: being acknowledged by other humans. Meetings provide opportunities for employees to be consulted in front of others, to have their presence expressly requested and to be invited to meetings.

What to do if a meeting happens to you

Of course, not every meeting is devised to manipulate individuals into believing themselves valued members of a workplace fellowship. Sometimes it is simply the case that the gala theme must be decided, revised storage policies must be communicated to staff, scheduling conflicts between spring sports must be resolved — and someone has decided, perhaps even correctly, that an in-person discussion is the most efficient way to accomplish this.

Nor does every verbal communication about work between colleagues constitute a meeting; other forms of interaction include impromptu conversation, prepared speeches, and disagreements that blossom into screaming arguments in front of the whole office.

But some of the worst meetings are born of the best intentions. In his superlative 1976 treatise on effective workplace communication, “How to Run a Meeting,” the British writer Antony Jay warns against such hazards as being reluctant to exclude someone from a discussion, and waiting for everyone to arrive before delving into business. (“There is only one way to ensure that a meeting starts on time, and that is to start it on time,” Jay wrote.)

In maniacal detail, Jay outlined what seems to the reader something like 500,000 possible permutations of gathering type, objectives, leadership tactics, discussion structures, seating arrangements, and so on, the architecture of the hypothetical meetings — whose every pathway leads, unavoidably, to productivity — increasingly resembling something out of a lithograph by Escher. Yet Jay is not, by default, pro-gathering. A meeting is only warranted, he wrote, if the consequences of not holding it are sufficiently grave.

Tsedal Neeley, a professor of business administration at Harvard Business School, blamed the modern meeting glut on the assumption that the best way to communicate is verbally.

“All these meetings,” she said, “I bet you, I promise you: 50% of it can go away if people have the courage.”

To select a communication format, Neeley advised considering two criteria: First, must all parties be present at the same time in the same space to exchange the information? Second, will the information be better understood through “lean media” (which is text-based) or “rich media” (which includes nonverbal context)?

Related: 4 ways to make your hybrid meetings more effective


Instant messaging apps, Neeley said, are both “synchronous” (designed for simultaneous participation) and “lean” (primarily text-driven), making them ideal for simple coordination. Whether held in person or via video chat, she said, meetings are synchronous and rich — and they are ideal for tasks involving complex coordination and negotiation.

A meeting can be good, in short — but only if it needs to be a meeting.

Consultative meetings should be small, said Neeley — no more than six people, to reduce the risk of “social loafing,” in which people attend but do not participate in the meeting.

As for whom to invite: “You need a mix of introverts and extroverts,” she said. “The definition of introversion and extroversion is not just whether people are more talkative than not. It’s how they process information and ideas.”

Meet tech meets tech

In the middle of February 2020, engineers working on Google’s video conferencing app, Google Meet, began receiving alerts that servers in Asia were experiencing unusually high volumes of traffic from their product — volumes so high they threatened to exceed server capacity if left unchecked. Shortly thereafter, the pattern repeated — this time with traffic surging in Italy. To address what had become a “global capacity risk,” Google assembled an incident response team with two sets of leaders in different time zones, ensuring work could continue round-the-clock.

Paul Windle

“Video calling just became an essential service overnight,” said Sanaz Ahari, a senior director of product for Google communications products across Workspace and Android.

Google employees worked feverishly to prevent outages while simultaneously increasing servers’ load capacities in the company’s 23 international data centers and expanding access to Google Meet (previously a paid service) to anyone with a free Gmail account — more than 1.5 billion users.

And there was another obstacle to efforts to support the videoconferencing that would assist Google users in working from home: “All of this happened with the same team members that are figuring out, ‘Oh my god, I’ve got to go work from home and I’ve got to deal with my kids now that we’re all at home together,’” Ahari said.

According to the company, between January and March, Meet’s peak daily usage experienced a 30-fold increase. From March 2020 to March 2021, people joined more than 6 billion meetings using Google Meet. During one summer peak, users were spending a total of 7.5 billion minutes in Meet every day.

While the sudden proliferation of remote videoconferences grew out of an attempt to continue business as usual, the switch had unpredictable effects on individuals’ lives.

Coe, the presidential biographer, already worked from home before the pandemic. In 2020, she said, many meetings that would have been calls a year earlier were replaced with video chats.

Rosenthal, the history professor, found that with the challenge of child care during the pandemic she said no to more meetings. She had to. “And most of those things weren’t necessary.”

At Google, said Ahari — “I’ve heard it from our customers, but I’ve also personally observed it just at Google” — there occurred what she termed widespread “organic adoption of etiquette” in meetings, particularly tied to Google Meet’s “Hand Raise” feature, which participants can use to signal a desire to speak.

“There’s the beauty of — everyone’s a tile,” Ahari said. “Everyone contributes, and there’s one way to contribute, whether you’re in your living room or whether you’re in your office. A tile is a tile is a tile, regardless of your time zone, regardless of your location. And there’s something really nice about that from an equitable participation standpoint.” (It may be noted that a preponderance of audio-only participants can cause the video tile display to resemble a toothless smile.)

Now that the design team is focused on refining the app for a post-pandemic work environment, Ahari said, they hope to preserve many of the elements that made Google Meet feel different than traditional in-person office meetings, like “hand raise,” “polls” and the in-meeting chat feature.

“You can’t just go back to how meetings ran prepandemic, is what we are realizing,” she said.

That would be meeting like barnyard animals.

Missing or Absent?

Kristin Arnold, who describes her vocation as “high stakes meeting facilitator” — her website counts Raytheon Technologies and General Mills as past clients — has heard years of complaints that meetings “are a waste of time,” and that many attendees “don’t know why they’re there.” If everyone resents bad meetings, why do bad meetings persist?

The obvious answer, per Arnold, is that many people do not know how to create a meeting that is not bad.

Just because you’ve been subjected to meetings, she said, “doesn’t necessarily mean that you know how to run a meeting.”

Specificity improves meetings, Arnold advised. It transforms leaders from disoriented chaperones into cleareyed wilderness guides. Rather than inviting people to a meeting to discuss return-to-office policies, she said, “Say, ‘We’re going to talk about how to make sure that the people who are still working from home feel connected to the office. Come prepared with your ideas.’”

In Rosenthal’s experience, meetings are not necessarily traps to lure the workforce into complacency while enabling managers to appear busy. A meeting can be useful or even good if it meets these three criteria: “You know what you’re going to do in it,” she said. “You do the thing. And at the end, somebody reports out: ‘OK, we’re all going to do these things going forward.’”

If you have to have a meeting, do it like that. With as few people as possible.