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Meeting purge risks a loss of business humanity

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E-commerce giant Shopify’s decision to implement a meeting cost calculator to minimise group gatherings may be effective, but misses a wider point about the world of work.

20th Jul 2023
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What’s the point of meetings? I mean, when it comes down to it, isn’t it just a bunch of people in a room yakking away? Shouldn’t they be working or something?

In an era where ‘time is money’, Canadian e-commerce giant Shopify has taken that well-worn phrase to its logical conclusion and added a ‘meeting cost calculator’ to clamp down on what it sees as an excess of pointless group gatherings.

This calculator is embedded in the employees’ calendar app and estimates the price tag of any meeting that has three or more people, based on ‘average compensation data across roles and departments’. Here’s an example of the tool in action:

The Shopify meeting cost calculator

According to Shopify's CFO, they’re all about ‘clearing the calendar’, and the discussion-dodging firm predicts it will swerve a projected 322,000 hours of meetings this year thanks to the initiative.

From a practical perspective, surely the first thing any sane person would do when confronted with this is to book a meeting with a couple of colleagues, then add various members of the senior leadership team to see how much they’re being paid, but that might just be me.

While Shopify has been at pains to state that meetings have not been ‘banned’, the calculator tool comes hot on the heels of its ‘Chaos Monkey’ initiative, which in broad strokes meant less time in meetings and more “maker time” for employees to work on their own projects.

A common denominator

But what if meetings aren’t a “bug”, as Shopify’s CEO is on record as saying, but serve a wider, dare I say more noble, purpose?

Meetings are an easy target in modern corporate culture. They’re a common denominator: from school assemblies to ‘all-hands’ company gatherings, the act of coming together to listen to an authority figure drone on while living in fear of being asked to contribute is something the majority of us can relate to.

And moaning about meetings is the glue that bonds companies together. It’s the small-talk equivalent of Brits mulling over the weather, or accountants discussing the HMRC hold music. 

Stating that you enjoy meetings marks you out as something of a maniac, and while your correspondent can’t claim to be first in the boardroom every time, there are certainly small pleasures you can take from them. 

During particularly irrelevant monthly meetings, a colleague and I evolved a game in which the aim was to drop in a selection of pre-agreed words without being spotted. One point for innocuous random words such as ‘marmalade’ or ‘foxglove’, while a full three was allocated to choice corporate jargon like ‘crocodile in the canoe’, ‘aces in their places’, or ‘pig in a python’.

As a coda to the above nonsense, out of this chaos emerged one of the company’s more successful projects – perhaps creative food for thought?

In an era of remote work, the issue of work-from-home loneliness also looms large – a plethora of studies link good mental health to increased productivity. While somewhat intangible, the opportunity to goof around while teacher sets up the overhead projector (kids ask your parents) can bond employees and give them a boost and a sense of belonging. 

So in the relentless pursuit of productivity and profit, is there a chance that axing the humble meeting, we risk removing an essential element of how companies, teams, and humans in general work? 

While Operation Chaos Monkey might save Shopify money in the short term, will it end up costing them staff morale and employee retention in the long run? 

There’s certainly a case to be made that by adding its meeting cost calculator Shopify may end up knowing the cost of everything, but the value of nothing.

Replies (8)

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By Hugo Fair
20th Jul 2023 19:14

Fun article ... I particularly liked "the first thing any sane person would do when confronted with this is to book a meeting with a couple of colleagues, then add various members of the senior leadership team to see how much they’re being paid" - which was the first thing that occurred to me!

But I've no idea if there's an answer to the age-old conundrum you pose.

The idea that meetings are (often) a waste of everyone's time was a view certainly expressed by my father back in the '50s ... and by the early '70s John Cleese was laying the foundation of Video Arts with the popular release of "Meetings, Bloody Meetings!" (training fodder throughout the UK).

There are of course many sub-categories of meeting ... for instance, corporate messaging of new visions/policies are quite distinct from team-bonding sessions, which have nothing in common with the planning & scoping of new products, etc.
Similarly there are vastly differing levels of requirement for interactivity from attendees ... let alone the modern options for real vs virtual.

In short, the word 'meetings' has as little concision in meaning as does the word 'travel' (by who, to where, to do, by mode, reason, etc)!

FWIW (and to strike a very non-PC note), easily the most effective meetings I ever attended weren't scheduled at all. In the last 15 years of the 20thC, and in every company from major corporates to small emergent operations, the only meetings that consistently stuck to their task and hammered out conclusions were informal groups huddled around the outdoors smoking-points (underground car park in winter).
There were no invites, but attendance was fully democratic and open to all grades (although I heard some bought cigarettes just to not look out of place) ... so every angle could be explored without fear or favour.
Best of all ... board members took to hanging around to 'take findings' - so these informal groups ended up making policy decisions that were often nodded through later at Board meetings.

Thanks (2)
Replying to Hugo Fair:
Jake Smith, AccountingWEB
By Jake Smith
20th Jul 2023 21:17

Ah yes. The infinite wisdom of the fag break gang, I remember it well and when I gave up smoking I did really miss the cameraderie and nonsense/wisdom of the smoking herd!

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Ivor Windybottom
By Ivor Windybottom
21st Jul 2023 10:10

At a slight tangent, we love client meetings in person as we get lots of ad hoc planning work from them that just does not arise on a Teams call with an agenda.

When just making small talk you can find that clients need IHT advice, have concerns about their company car, want to review their remuneration strategy, etc., etc. that would never be proactively on an official agenda from the client's end.

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By ireallyshouldknowthisbut
21st Jul 2023 10:33

I used to attend a monthly meeting in Paris to present the UK results.

I left the office at 4-5pm, drove to airport, flew, taxi, hotel overnight taxi, meeting, bored all day, spoke for 10 minutes, taxi, plane, drove home by midnight (if I was lucky). Its was exhausting waste of 30 hours of my life every month.

Utterly pointless from my side, nothing I couldn't have done remotely. . I point blank refused once and attended via new fangled video conference and only attended one hour of the thing (I did not care what Germany was upto, or the variance or manufacturing problems in Porto). Boss gave me a roasting for not being team player. I don't think I ever spoke to anyone other than a few minutes at lunch or at coffee, and that was just politeness. Whole thing was an ego trip for the group finance director who seemed to get excited that 25+ people from the whole of Europe flew to his meeting every month to basically read out what the reports we sent 2 days earlier said.

New group FD canned the lot. He was quite popular......

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By Arcadia
21st Jul 2023 11:16

In most accountancy firms of course the cost of a meeting is known via charge out rates, and this was occasionally mentioned, as in 'that meeting just cost £4k, we could have sat round and done an audit for that'. Knowing the cost didn't stop the meetings though, so I don't think it will work. Shopify will find that team working will fall off if there are no meetings because the team members won't know anything about each other.

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By listerramjet
21st Jul 2023 13:33

Meetings, like email and messaging services, have their place, and the device mentioned does seem somewhat misplaced. But the Shopify chap has a point. Meetings are often used to delay and obfuscate, and not so often to communicate and listen. And more pertinently to avoid responsibility.

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By listerramjet
21st Jul 2023 13:38

The question of meeting people, rather than meetings per se, is a hot topic in the post covid world. And perhaps a lesson we should have learned is the importance of interaction. Those that arrange their spaces to encourage more informal interactions whilst discouraging formal time wasting have perhaps understood the important point.

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