Most people have a view on what I have heard described as the tyranny of meetings. For some, a packed calendar provides both shape and meaning to the working day, a proof point of busyness, part of the architecture of self-esteem. For non-addicts, there are just too many meetings and ‘back-to-back’ is in truth back to front.

Of course, the real problem is not the number of meetings per se but the indiscipline with which they are often set up and executed. Books and blogs abound on how to deliver a tight meeting. Preparation features heavily – defining a clear purpose, dividing the workload, electing a timekeeper, setting ground rules. More eccentrically, there are advocates for standing up during meetings and for choosing unusual, more salient start times (for example, 11.12am rather than the standard 11am). 

My favourite meeting mantra was developed by the New Zealand America’s Cup team when faced with the challenge of how to maximise the effectiveness of large meetings populated by a diverse array of highly skilled and motivated experts. All contributions and the attendant decisions were subjected to a simple test: ‘does it make the boat go faster?’ Grammatically incorrect, as it happens, but otherwise pure genius. 

In the debate on how to orchestrate the optimal meeting, the length of the session regularly comes under scrutiny. There is an enduring, though freely ignored, principle that the time scheduled for a meeting should be based on need rather than convention, acknowledging that work expands to fill the time allotted for it. If you think you need 50 minutes, that’s what you prescribe, no more no less. 

But the latest thinking appears to go further. Put simply, ‘shorten your meetings’, more directly, ‘cut them in half’. A piece in the Harvard Business Review by Peter Bregman spoke of ‘The Magic of 30-Minute Meetings’ and this time slot seems now to be a preferred unit of congregation. 

I’ll come clean at this point. I like short meetings. I have witnessed improvements in attendance and timeliness, enhanced levels of preparation and certainly time pressure can increase focus, presence and decisiveness. I’ve been pleasantly surprised. Short meetings get stuff done.

I have also seen some worrying signs, however. Simplistically, shorter meetings allow the day to be filled up with.……..more meetings! There is still no room to breathe and the hapless victim is now sprinting for 10 hours rather than jogging. There is also a temptation to cut the face-to-face element of a half-hour meeting. This is less of an issue for teams who sit together but where any journey is required, voice-to-voice or Skype can become the default.

As ever, it’s a question of balance. In today’s workplace, dealing with the daily transactions (like cracking through the inbox) is both necessary and weirdly satisfying. Shorter, more intense meetings can play an important role in despatching the to-do list. But let’s remind ourselves, we don’t just meet to transact. We are a social species and meetings also fulfil a deep human need for attachment. 

In these fora we create pools of shared knowledge, experience and judgment. We form, revise and replenish what we know as a group. And by digesting new inputs, we add to the capacity of what some ethnologists call ‘the social mind’, the combined intelligence, conceived as a single mind, which can be accessed when the group is in session.    

The importance of face-to-face contact is a consistent theme of mine and hopefully well supported. On this point, I’m fond of quoting the late writer and broadcaster Sir Antony Jay from an article, ‘How to Run a Meeting’, which he wrote some years ago: “There is a world of science fiction, and a world of human reality; and those who live in the world of human reality know that it is held together by face-to-face meetings”. Quite so.  

In an era when the overarching imperative is doing more, with fewer, for less, it is non-negotiable to leverage efficiencies wherever they can be identified. Shorter meetings, enabling more ground to be covered each working day, are undoubtedly powerful tools in this endeavour. 

But, in addressing the demands of the linear, we must not ignore the lateral. Within the mix, some meetings need to contain space for reflection, exploration and, occasionally, for going off on a tangent. That way creativity lies and that’s what makes us human beings, not robots.