Drucker drew a sharp distinction between meetings and work, going as far as saying that you can’t do both at the same time. In Drucker’s view, meetings were analytically different to work, with work happening outside of meetings. People who are employed in firms where back-to-back meetings are the norm, have to find other spaces of time to get their work done – between meetings, on the train, or even at home.
As the world shifted to sudden remote working due to this global pandemic that caught us unprepared, the biggest numerical gains in application usage were with Zoom and Microsoft Teams, which in combination, have so far grown to around 500 million daily meeting participants. We seem to have nailed the meeting from home thing, but in doing so have undermined the work thing.
Whenever people are asked where they get their best work done, it’s unusual for “the office” to be the answer, unless it’s early in the morning when no-one else is around, or late at night after everyone else has left. Only then is the office (as physical space) conducive to the work of working (thinking, planning, writing, drafting, creating). Only then are the interruptions and disruptions inflicted by the constant noise of everyone else silenced for long enough to develop and hold coherent thoughts, but even that is predicated on being able to not interrupt or disrupt yourself by twitch-driven checking of email and the enterprise social network.
The forced transition of most knowledge workers to working-from-home arrangements hasn’t automatically created the haven of concentrated produce-ability that people who regularly work from home have developed. Instead, as can only be expected under forced substitution of place, when a new place (the home) replaces another (the office) without any deeper thought of rethinking the broken culture of work evident at most offices, chaos will reign.
Group size in many of the video meeting pictures is another area for deep concern. Sharing a picture of a Zoom meeting with 12 coworkers isn’t a badge of honour; it’s a sign of insanity. Effective groups are small enough to produce, but not too large to inflict diminishing returns on deliberations, decisions and forward-action. Three or four is a good number. Five to seven can work well in some situations if you have to. But anything approaching 10 or more reveals a lack of task structure, trust and accountability. There are just too many people, and as group size gets larger, it’s the free-riders, know-it-alls, and talk-much-but-do-little people who join to the detriment of group task, cohesion and culture. I think Microsoft had it right in Teams with a maximum of four people only showing per video screen: it was an app set up for effective task group sizes.
COVID-19 caught us out – no doubt – and being forced to become suddenly remote was essential when governments banned going to the office. But if we’re going to stay in this space for a while, the broken assumptions about how best to get work done need to be challenged. Less talk, more work. Fewer meetings, more working. Stop the interruptions, and create space for focused and concentrated work.
If we’re going to exit lockdown conditions stronger for it, it will only be because we’ve re-discovered what effective patterns of work look like. Not that we used Zoom or Teams to re-create the broken design of work we had at the office.