The PLACEmaking blog

Should we all take Elon Musk’s lead and just walk out of bad meetings?


Alison White


April 22, 2018
A leaked email from Elon Musk to staff at the Tesla plant in California, published by Elektrek suggests a number of ways that staff can contribute to increasing productivity.

Reference to the UK’s below par productivity is common, and with countries including France portrayed as examples of far superior efficiency, then Elon’s ideas to improve our productivity must be of interest. One way staff can assist, according to the leaked email, is to avoid large meetings. These, he claims, are the blight of big companies. He also suggests that it’s not rude to walk out of pointless meetings – it is, however, rude to make someone stay and waste their time.

So why do we have pointless meetings?

In reality the typical meeting room has been accommodating pointless meetings for a very long time. It had a specific function in times past when business management methods were slower and more formal, and most organisations had a small number of meeting rooms for the exclusive use of senior management grades. Furthermore, management grades had their own offices, and the more senior you were then the larger your office – primarily justified because of the need to hold meetings in them. Junior grades didn’t have meeting or offices, their task was to generate the information for their seniors to discuss in their exclusive meetings. The board room was, of course, the most special of all and only used by senior management for very formal meetings.

Back then, collecting information was generally a manual process. Administrative teams processed specific performance information in paper reports that were collated and passed up to senior managers through multiple management layers. The entire process was mechanistic and on the whole the only people who had full view to all of the business performance information were senior management, although they might not have shared everything they held. After all, information was power and political manoeuvres at senior management level was not unknown even then.  Senior management meetings were confidential and inevitably happened in private meeting rooms and behind closed doors where something apparently magical happened because at the end of the meeting instructions were passed down the chain of command to the shop floor – usually to “do something different, faster or better.” And then of course the same reporting process would start all over again to satisfy the next round of meetings.

The meeting room was the hub, the command and control centre, and a place that only a very select few were ever invited in to.  As with anything that appears ‘exclusive’, those meeting rooms had some sort of aura – sometimes positive but often negative. They were regarded with respect, almost a holy place where you’d wipe your shoes before entering and walking on that plush carpet. People feared being unexpectedly instructed to attend a meeting, and black humour usually implied that attendance inevitably resulted in being given the sack. Such cultural imprints were shared between work colleagues and those new to the workplace soon picked up on the exclusivity of the meeting room – it was for the special few and not for the general all.

With the introduction of computer systems, more ‘real time’ information on what was happening on the shop floor was easily available and managers were required to have a better handle on productivity and costs. Organisations started to import new ideas and business methods from the US and, keen to get more ‘order’ in their business practices, the office layout changed. Designers developed ‘space standards’, more military-style allocation of space by function and not just by grade or based on hierarchy. Manager offices started to disappear as more democracy of information was available via digital systems. The dominant single management pyramid of the past started to change. Flatter structures emerged with smaller pyramids and clusters of people collating information on specific areas of business. The role of senior management changed too: it needed to ensure it kept pace with information from the mini pyramids, making sure they themselves didn’t become silo’d in their perspective and blind to the bigger picture.

As a greater number of people had access to information, then the number of management grades increased and with that came a greater demand for meeting rooms – after all, that’s the learned cultural expectation: managers spend large amounts of their time in meetings and in meeting rooms. Yet if you ask people who host meetings what their purpose is, they often say it’s:

1) to find out what’s happening,

2) to ensure progress is being made and

3) to hold to account someone doing something they’re not happy about.

If you ask regular attendees of such meetings what the purpose is they admit most are generally a complete waste of time with no clear purpose and poor quality outcomes, and that they’d be better off spending the time doing something more productive. Yet they continue to arrange them and to go to them – why?

Because the culture of meetings is so deeply entrenched in most organisations, and few are prepared to challenge such traditional solutions that are more relevant to the past than the present.

We rarely ask our newest recruits how they think the workplace should be designed and equipped, more often it’s senior managers that dictate the brief for any change of office design. Meetings and meeting rooms are a comfort to us – we might not like them or even use them very much, but not having them or swapping them for something unfamiliar worries us so we persevere with them until someone shows us another way.

But those that put forward a new solution have to be credible. It takes a bold start-up and one that become commercially successful such as Google, Facebook or Tesla to challenge the status quo and encourage others to ask the question: why are we still doing this? Why, at a time when we each carry around with us the technology of an astronaut, do we still expect our offices to be more akin to a pirate ship!

Some time ago, several senior executives of a major UK media company described how their diaries were always filled to the brim with meetings, held either in their own large offices or in meeting rooms. They know in advance what they would be doing and who they would be meeting two weeks ahead, from first thing in the morning to last thing in the evening. Often they said that by the time a meeting came around, the whole purpose of why the meeting was requested in the first place had gone away.

Because their diaries were known to be so packed people never cancelled a meeting, even if the original purpose had since disappeared. They turned up anyway as an insurance just in case another problem had emerged in the meantime. As a result, the executives all insisted meetings were scheduled in hour blocks but finished at least 15 minutes early so that they could grab some time for a bathroom visit or a bite to eat. They all referred to being ecstatic if a meeting was cancelled at the last minute or concluded early so they could, in their words, “get some proper work done!”  When their offices were redesigned and they were given mobile technology just like everyone else, they sat with their colleagues in a smart working environment and reassigned their diary PAs to new roles. Making themselves a coffee in the shared kitchen meant that they bumped in to people and got chatting, so the types of problems previously warranting a meeting were discussed and resolved in seconds. As a result their diaries were no longer clogged. they felt they had more of a connection to what was happening, and they could use their skills, experience and knowledge to help others and mentor them to resolve problems for themselves. Imagine!

Now we are even better equipped with mobile technology and telephony, we have remote and secure access to digitally created and stored information, and our social expectations of what ‘work’ means have evolved. We therefore have greater choice on when and where to work, meaning that when we do get together we want that investment to be meaningful. So the PLACES we gather in need to be attractive to us – otherwise we can simply go somewhere else.

We need to be convinced that time spent meeting others will be rewarding: that there is an agreed reason to be together, a clear objective, and opportunity to think for ourselves how best we can contribute – whether in person or via a remote connection. When we do invest our time and energy in meeting others, we want facilities to be available that are richer in quality and variety, spaces that inspire us to innovate, problem solve and envisage better ways to achieve shared objectives that add value to our common purpose. We want spaces that we can pull and push around and arrange in whatever way we think will best meet our needs and tasks. We have limited time to waste so we expect intuitively functioning technology with necessary materials, tools and equipment on hand, fully functioning and complete. In other words we want a properly-serviced solution.

Look around at the next meeting room you use – how does it match up with any of these expectations? Do you even know why you’re there?

Elon Musk is just the kind of highly successful, charismatic leader of change to give us all the opportunity to question why we are still doing some things that are out step with modern ways of working. This demands that we consider not just how we design the places where we work, but the behavioural codes we adopt for ourselves and impose on others. It’s time that we update and upgrade our expectations about the workplace, how it operates, and how we function in it.

You can start by looking carefully at your own diary – if you have meetings in your diary two weeks ahead of today and you have no real idea why you’re going to them then it’s time to think afresh. If more than 30% of your total office space has desks in it and meeting rooms are the only alternative option to get away from the desk then it’s time to review how your workplace is holding you back from achieving your future vision and business expectations.

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