Businesspeople brainstorming in a meeting

We emerged from hibernation a year ago hungry for human contact beyond our own bubble-mates. Yet we were also enamoured with our newfound ability to ‘work from home’, ‘zoom in’, cyber this and virtual that. 

As we reentered the rat race we were faced with a dilemma: did we really need other people? 

We needed our family and close friends (those we were still talking to after five weeks in quarantine), but did we need actual contact with those other people: ‘colleagues’, ‘acquaintances’, ‘friends of friends’. Couldn’t we just continue to zoom and skype them, rather than share air IRL?

How many of us went back to actual meetings after Lockdown? I tried. I put on grown-up clothes at the beginning of last May, found a pen that worked and my car keys. Then realised 70% of the other people attending the meeting were in out-of-the-way locales – The Catlins, Lower Hutt, Ponsonby – and would be attending virtually. I slipped back into my PJs, messaged I was stuck in Wairoa and zoomed in from the couch. I had to ease myself in to kanohi ki te kanohi.

But now a year has passed and I’m ready to face the people again. Problem is I’m out of the practice of being in actual meetings: what to wear, where to sit, what to bring, when to write, when to listen. I had only just mastered the ability to watch episodes of Shameless on my phone while attending zoom meetings on my laptop and now I have to show up again and be present.

I’m out of practice too at spotting a meeting when it’s heading my way. We’re all easing ourselves in by rebranding meetings: ‘meet-up’, ‘catch-up’, ‘reach-out’. Watch out for the euphemistic ‘Coffee’. If you meet a ‘friend’ for a ‘coffee’ and they bring a pen and paper, just know you are actually meeting a ‘colleague’ for a ‘meeting’. If you don’t come away with a list of action points it’ll only be a matter of time before one arrives in your inbox.

In the creative industries you are more likely to be invited to a ‘jam’, a ‘brainstorm’ or a ‘hang’ than a meeting. They are meetings, just in jobs too cool to use the power structures of the establishment. No minutes taken, just someone doing infographics on a smart board. 

When I worked in a high-pressure public servant job in London we regularly had ‘stand-up’ meetings: We literally stood up for the duration. Our boss had read a Be-A-Better-Boss book and his takeaway was that meetings were faster and more efficient if no one was comfortable. He also ran micro-meetings that were 15 minutes long and involved him telling us what we thought and us agreeing. We worked out that at the height of the project we could fit in 16 micro-meetings before lunch, as long as no one sat down. 

A year ago, us humanoids realised we could have a meeting without actually meeting. But we missed the point. The agenda and the minutes are not the important bits of a meeting. It’s being in the presence of other humans. It’s spotting the micro-gestures to see how people are. Having a zui isn’t the same as getting together in person. We miss out on the sharing of space and time.

Meeting is from the Old English metan: to fall in with, encounter, come into the same place with. Being in the presence of others is the most important bit. The rest can be done in other ways. The nuts and bolts of any meeting can happen via email. It’s the other bits that make meetings a worthwhile endeavour. 

For many of us work is our primary social interaction. Making meetings matter then is wellness work. Start by shaking hands. Make eye contact. Try a compliment, share a joke, ask after each other’s health, kids, hobbies. Use meetings to make contact that’s valid, to bolster the team, to strengthen the connections between workmates so they are more than just the people you share the water cooler with. The paperwork isn’t the point, the point is people.

One year to the day after lockdown started, meeting a colleague for a catch up turned into lying on the grass under a tree in Cornwall Park having a chinwag. We abandoned the paperwork, no agenda sent the day before, no expectation of minutes tomorrow, just the two of us with the great expanse of a potential project unrolling in the space between us. More actual work was done in that hour than I’d accomplished in the four other meetings I’d had that day. 

Stand-up meetings might get us from agenda to action point, but lie-down meetings speak directly to our human souls. 


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