Earlier this year, Shopify caused a stir with a great cull of meetings across their organization: all recurring meetings with more than two people were on the chopping block, with only one-on-ones and a handful of other exceptions escaping the frenzy. Recalling their own trauma from many a shoddy meeting, the commentariat cheered, glad to see meetings going the way of the fax machine.
I’m sure most of us have at some point remarked, “I didn’t get any work done today; it was non-stop meetings.” Some of those meetings may indeed have been useless, but to feel that no work was done due to a slew of meetings suggests, in my opinion, a problematic view of what work is. I think the exchange of information is work, and that understanding the problems, needs, and goals of others is a critical job function for most knowledge workers.
So I’m here to defend the value of meetings; to call out this pervasive bias I see, especially among my more technically-minded colleagues, that meetings aren’t work.
Yes, there is such a thing as a bad meeting
A great many meetings are bad. Some are zombie rituals that shuffle and shamble on long after any need for them. Or worse, they exist to the benefit of someone senior in an organization to control/terrify/impress their retinue. And even where useful information is shared in a meeting, it could of course be shared asynchronously or one on one, instead of turns being taken by underlings to update their superiors during a vast and dreadful status meeting.
further reading (and watching)
Meetings as “caring labor”
As workers in a knowledge economy, it seems to me very odd for us to downplay efforts taken to share information or better understand our colleagues and what they are doing. I would argue that meetings are a form of what feminist economist Nancy Folbre calls caring labor. To Folbre, caring labor encompasses jobs, paid or unpaid that involve interpretation, empathy, and understanding: defined as “labor undertaken out of affection or a sense of responsibility for other people, with no expectation of immediate pecuniary reward.” Folbre’s early work was squarely focused on unpaid caring work, but her thinking evolved over time, and came to include certain types of paid labor as well.
In addition to describing a type of work, caring labour describes an intrinsic motive for performing that work – a sense of emotional attachment and connection to the persons being cared for.Nancy Folbre
Generally speaking, we’d typically think of this work as the purview of nurses, social workers, and teachers (roles that would traditionally be thought of as “women’s” work), but as David Graeber points out, all work, when done well, has some aspect of caring labor woven into it. A bricklayer, if working for someone else, needs to interpret their needs, spend time understanding what is being asked, and show empathy with their requests. And if you’re part of a team of bricklayers, then you’re saddled with the caring labor of understanding your team and their needs as they work away.
An implicit belief that caring labor isn’t valuable doesn’t just devalue labor that “cares without expectation of remuneration,” and isn’t just a bias against some specific, gendered professions. It also discounts the so-called soft skills involved in those roles, downplaying things like communication, understanding, and empathy as meaningful pursuits. So we tend to discount these sorts of labor in our own work, too.
But what is the purpose of most meetings if not to engage in close personal or emotional interaction, to attempt to better understand the progress and needs of our peers and what help they might need from us to reach their goals? Some roles may lack the truly altruistic aspect of some forms of caring labor – we are in the software business, after all – but if we use the process-based definition of caring labor, I’d argue it fits the description.
Learning to value meetings
It seems to me, then, that these biases lead us to discount the caring labor we engage in when we meet. Looking back on my experience of becoming a manager, I can see this process in action. When transitioning, you move from a career of productive work – of performance measured in output – to one measured in team outcomes. And ensuring team outcomes generally involves a lot of caring labor – lots of one-on-ones, lots of meetings, lots of helping people perform as best they can. When you first make this transition, you feel incredibly unproductive, like there’s something important you should be doing that’s somehow escaped your attention. The idea that the meetings are the work, that your performance might not be measured in output, feels incredibly alien.
I see this disconnect in the response to Shopify’s meeting cull, especially from those at tech companies. Our performance may not be measured in lines of code, but the Taylorist piecework attitude persists, with complex knowledge work treated like 19th-century factory production. In this mindset, meetings are seen as an impediment to delivering output.
But caring labor is work, and meetings are work too. A superfluity of caring labor may indeed mean we achieve less, but the imbalance works the other way too. If we don’t take the time to communicate and understand, we’ll produce the wrong things, and meetings will always be one important way that we achieve those ends. Caring labor is essential if we want more inclusive workplaces. To be inclusive, we need to first listen to the needs of different groups within our workplaces, and such empathy and understanding is caring labor. Just as our society downplays the caring labor of nurses and social workers, so too do we all downplay the value of caring labor in our own work.
Cancel your useless meetings, by all means. But leaven that purge with respect and appreciation for the work we all do during meetings and the other forms of caring labor we engage in. Mentoring, listening, guiding, advising: all of these things are work. If we want better meetings, the first step is to value them, and acknowledge that meetings are work worth doing.