In Defense of Meetings

Not too long ago, I was of the firm opinion that most meetings are a waste of time. A group of people sitting round a table, two people doing all the talking, usually listening mainly to their own voices, and the rest is hiding behind a laptop screen, Inbox-watching, or on facebook. What’s the point, right?

Well, the other day I was stunned to find myself arguing in favour of meetings. I’m concerned that this means I have crossed an invisible line into some sort of Manager-dom. And yet, uncomfortable as the realisation is, I really do feel that some meetings are worthwhile having.

In an ideal world, between 9 am and 6 pm or so, we humans are like robots programmed for our jobs: we tap away at our keyboards, follow instructions and dutifully complete tasks. Our time is perfectly optimised and not a minute is wasted on twitter or the world’s news. In this utopia, projects progress along neatly planned tracks, contractors deliver what they got hired to deliver, on the agreed date. All communication can be done remotely, all questions have an answer, all problems are easily solved with a quick email.

Of course, that’s not how it goes. In the business of building instruments in particular, there’s hardware and software, and teams are made up of a diverse group of people with a variety of duties and backgrounds. Moreover, they’re made up of humans, some of whom don’t like email, others only work on Tuesdays, others have a sick kid at home – and most, if not all, are working on too many different projects to keep on top of everything. Teams are spread over several countries and across timezones, interfaces are complicated.

Regular meetings or conference calls are basically the way to keep the wheels of a project turning. It forces people to bring that particular project to the fore in their cluttered minds and gets them to talk about what’s recently happened. Face to face meetings are essential for people to get to know each other and get stuff done together; it’s almost impossible to ignore someone who’s physically at the same table, rather than just an annoyingly recurring name in your bloated inbox. Travelling to see someone for a meeting also tells them that you care enough about this project to spend a few hours on a train or plane to discuss it with them.

Meetings can of course be a waste of time – if they’re badly planned, badly timed, badly managed – and I’ve shamefully been responsible for some of those myself. But the fact is that they can be extremely effective ways of keeping the wheels turning and making progress. On a personal level, humans are social animals, and we respond better to a real-life human than to the haunting ping of our inboxes – better still, to a real-life human who is enthusiastic and willing to make an effort. That’s why I do my best to dial in to telecons, and these days write many of my blog posts from hotel rooms.

[It’s also why videoconferencing really needs to grow up and be useful (or institutes need to invest in the good stuff that simply works as needed): only when it feels like your’re actually in the same room, and nothing less, is it delivering what it needs to.]