Smart Moves: Oh no, not another meeting

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The Independent Online
IF THERE is one thing that unites office workers it is their hatred of meetings. They do not mind gossiping around the coffee machine, but almost without exception, they find it difficult to love being confined in a room with their colleagues with the intention of discussing a certain issue.

And yet, particularly at management level, it is probably what they spend most of their time doing. Indeed, according to research published last week by MCI WorldCom, the busy British professional attends nearly 60 meetings a month, of which more than a tenth involve out-of-town travel.

Not surprisingly, given the frequency of these events, "heavy meeting- goers" find it difficult to maintain their commitments, with 87 per cent of those surveyed by Research Business International on behalf of MCI WorldCom admitting to having missed meetings, 80 per cent confessing to daydreaming while in them and 23 per cent saying they had dozed off. Travelling to meetings also affects them. Twenty-six per cent say they are more stressed when travelling to meetings while half say they become concerned about work piling up in their absence.

But it is not just the individuals who suffer. The research estimates that when "soft" costs, ie lost productivity caused by people travelling, are included the cost of an off-site meeting for six people is pounds 1,645.

Now, of course, MCI WorldCom, has an interest in drawing attention to the drawbacks of meetings. Just as BT has banged the drum in favour of "changing the way we work" through telephone-based services, so the videoconferencing arm of the US telecommunications giant has an interest in changing the way we meet. David Brown, UK managing director of MCI WorldCom Conferencing, said: "To borrow a phrase `we have to stop meeting like this'. This research confirms what we all feel - meetings are an important part of business, but all too often they are scheduled without an understanding of the real costs." Even allowing for the fact that the report coincides with the European launch of MCI WorldCom's audioconferencing services, this is an important point.

But it is in danger of being obscured by the company's marketing efforts. True, audio and videoconferencing can help reduce the costs of meetings by reducing travel fares and wastage of employee time. But they are still meetings, and, due to technological difficulties, often unsatisfactory ones at that.

Far more important for business is making a commitment to reducing the number of meetings. Some years ago, for example, the UK management of Xerox did just that, and attributed improved performance in part to it.

It is easy to see how in the old days of bloated bureaucracy meetings helped give a purpose to the working lives of middle managers, but in the modern age of "delayered" corporations, it is hard to understand why there should be so much time devoted to them.

After all, as another report out last week showed, corporate headquarters are - if not a thing of the past - certainly a shadow of their former selves. According to research from Towers Perrin, a management consultancy firm, corporate centres have not just shrunk in size but have shifted towards a more "hands-off" role in relation to business units.

With managers of such units taking on responsibility for such matters as human resources they are becoming more inclined to get on with the job than sit around discussing what they should do.