In defense of meetings

They should have tried a walk around the block.
They should have tried a walk around the block.
Image: Reuters/Kevin Lamarque
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Walking down the hallway the other day, we saw a man sitting in a conference room with his head buried in his hands. Ten minutes later, we walked by again and found him leaning so far back in his chair he nearly fell over. It didn’t take a brain scientist to figure out what he was thinking. His expression and posture said it all: He was bored and wanted to be somewhere, anywhere else.

He’s not alone. Most of us hate meetings. So much so that our collective distaste for them is often the butt of jokes on TV shows like Silicon Valley and The Office, and even in viral YouTube videos like this one, which pokes fun at all the interruptions, static, and awkwardness associated with conference calls.

But just because we’ve had bad experiences with meetings doesn’t mean we need to throw them out entirely. In fact, with the influx of technology, there is a greater need for face-to-face meetings than ever before. A recent study by computer scientist Alex Pentland found that Bank of America call center employees were actually more productive when they were given face-to-face coffee breaks with colleagues (previously, they were only allowed to take coffee breaks alone).

So meetings in and of themselves are not bad. We just need to change the structure of meetings—literally and physically.

First we need to change the social structure of meetings. In our discussions with CEOs, we hear often that they have a greater need for teams than for individual heroes. It seems the problems our world faces are too complex for a single person to tackle. So if teams are the future of work, what makes a good team, and how do we engineer meetings to support them in their quest for innovation and differentiation?

The answer comes from research conducted by Thomas Malone of the Sloan School at MIT. He’s found that three factors predict the collective intelligence and performance of a group. The first is the average social perceptiveness, or emotional intelligence, of a group. The second, the degree to which the group members participated about equally in the conversation. If one or two people dominated the group discussion, then on average the group was less collectively intelligent. And finally, the percentage of women plays a role: more women correlated with more intelligent groups.

Then we need to change the physical structure of meetings. That’s where we as architects come in. For example, we’re learning from neuroscience research that the most effective meetings take place while walking. Research shows that exercise creates a protein called “brain-derived neurotrophic factor,” or BDNF, which “improves the function of neurons.” Essentially, exercise makes you smarter.

We’re also learning of the profound impact ceiling height has on meetings. For example, high ceilings should be provided for workers who need to be creative, where meetings that involve mathematical calculations should be done in rooms with lower ceiling heights. In addition, we’ve found that people perform better when they are in proximity to natural light and nature in general.

So here are our tips for making your meetings and meeting spaces more effective.

  1. Get up and move around. There is no more effective way to meet than by taking a walk around the block.
  2. There are no one-size-fits-all rooms. So include a variety of meeting spaces, some with visual privacy, others with no visual privacy; some with acoustical privacy, and others with none. The key is diversity.
  3. Make sure you fill your office with team players.
  4. Remember: the more women, the more intelligent your team.