Too busy holding meetings to do any actual work
THE German or Japanese languages may have one, but there is no word in English which accurately conveys the crushing, overwhelming sense of misery felt at the end of a good holiday.
It doesn’t seem to matter if you’ve had one week off or four, whether you love or hate your job. The first day back at work always feels like a special kind of hell when you wistfully recall where you were and what you were doing a week or so prior.
Talking to a mate yesterday, who like me was on his first day back after a three-week break, it struck us how so much of this dislike of modern work doesn’t stem from some irrational hatred of having a job. Instead, it’s to do with a justifiable sense of frustration at the way we are often compelled to do our jobs.
So much of what passes for alleged efficiency and organisation in the modern workplace is actually entrenched inefficiency or extremely well-organised, ritualised time-wasting. We hold meetings at which decisions aren’t made at all but options discussed, with the participants often feeling like they should say something for the sake of it rather than contributing an achievable idea.
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Sometimes it’s so stupid that you actually feel like you’re living through an episode of The Office.
Get this: My friend works in a medium-sized part of our federal bureaucracy. His managers recently decreed that, in 2010, they would tackle once and for all the scourge of the meeting culture.
That is, a culture whereby so much time and energy is wasted sitting around in conference rooms and phone hook-ups.
To combat this, a meeting was called to discuss strategies to curtail the meeting culture.
And it went for three hours.
A list of dotpoints was drawn up which over the coming weeks staff will be required to “action’’ - “action’’ being a noun, by the way, not a verb, despite its bastardisation in the above context at the hands of the human resources theorists, life coaches and change management consultants.
The least productive meeting Australia has seen of late was held almost exactly two years ago by (the then) newly-elected Prime Minister Kevin Rudd.
While noble in its intent, Rudd’s 2020 Summit established a benchmark against which bad meetings can now be measured. It was the ultimate pointless meeting. Two years later, the summit has successfully delivered close to nought.
And it was probably never going to deliver. For a start, there were far too many people at the summit - as anyone who has spent much time in meetings can tell you, the rate of efficiency declines in direct proportion to the number of people present.
Also, there were too many massive subjects listed for discussion.
Some of the topics could themselves have been the subject of a marathon four-day symposium, rather than a single point on a pretty lofty list.
The very touchy-feely committee format meant that the facilitators were at pains to accommodate every point of view. This meant that many of the eventual recommendations were often bland or garbled or mutually inconsistent.
In short though, it was a massive gust of hot air, the carbon footprint of which you could have tracked from space.
While some of our more misty-eyed champions of change were moved by Hugh Jackman’s impromptu rendition of From Little Things Big Things Grow, it struck me as reminiscent of David Brent whipping out his acoustic guitar at the end of a staff training session.
Rudd copped a lot of stick over the summit, and rightly so. But in a perverse way it at least provided an example writ large of the managerial culture which has stifled creativity and hampered decision-making at the rest of the nation’s workplaces.
There was a lesser known example from the political sphere about 10 years ago which highlighted the unfailing ability of the stultifying meeting structure to deliver vacuous motherhood statements.
It came courtesy of the electorally-challenged NSW Liberals and involved something called a “Directions Statement’’ for the future of the state’s health system.
The former Labor premier Bob Carr got his grubby little mitts on a leaked copy of it and was at his Shakespearean best in the chamber as he tore it apart.
The chief recommendation of this daft statement, brainstormed by a bunch of senior Liberals was this: “From now on the chief focus of the public hospital system must be patient care.’‘
Carr noted in Question Time that, until this seismic declaration, most people had been under the impression that the chief focus of the public hospital system was to cultivate and spread the smallpox virus.
“This document sets us straight,’’ he told the chamber as shamed Liberals sat with their heads bowed.
In the past 12 months at my job I have gone from working full-time at a large newspaper with a staff of about 200 to working full-time at a website with a staff of four. The media is nowhere near as prone to the meeting culture as other businesses but, even so, on the newspaper we would have meetings every day, sometimes four or five of them _ at the website we would have one a month.
And it has been illuminating to see how much more you can get done having an irregular but necessary meeting with a small number of like-minded people, rather than a series of daily meetings with a large number of people, many of whom would rather be somewhere else.
There’s a great old story that a former boss of mine tells about the stock market crash of 1989, when a business reporter explained apologetically to him that he was far too busy editing his section to write the front-page story for the following day’s paper about the imminent collapse of capitalism.
In a similar vein I suspect that as the GFC was gathering speed, there were thousands and thousands of executives and middle-management types sitting in drab conference rooms throughout the Western world wondering what was actually happening outside, wishing they could make an urgent phone call or check emails rather than
endure an hour-long death by powerpoint presentation.
If we can make one resolution for 2010 it should be that the next time you’re invited to attend some meeting, without any express indication as to why you should be there, politely explain that you love your company too much to waste its time that way and would rather keep on working instead.
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