Meetings…Why Did It Have To Be Meetings?

 For Indiana Jones it was snakes; for me it has always been meetings. They’re long, they’re uncomfortable, and nothing ever seems to actually get done. Yet, from the Fortune 500 company to the newest start-up in someone’s garage, every company has them. They’re necessary and they’re a part of a company’s daily life. Yet among millennials, and probably many managers as well, I would challenge you to find another aspect of corporate culture generally viewed as negatively as meetings are. Why is that?

Well, let’s back up a few years. Why did you participate in your seminar courses in college? Most likely for two interwoven reasons: first, presumably because you were interested in what your professor was saying. We all had to take distribution classes in areas we hated, but those were usually large lecture hall classrooms where you may or may not have been playing Galaga on your computer. If you were enrolled in a seminar course however, it is much likely that you found the subject matter interesting and, as a result, listened respectfully to your professor and fellow classmates. Secondly, even if you were not interested in the subject matter, you understood the importance of your investment in the course. Professor X was actively monitoring your contributions to the discussion because your participation mattered for your grade.

But in the corporate world, while there may be the implied investment that you know you should be paying attention the presenter, you’re a lot less invested as a low-rung observer in a room of 10, 20 or 30 people. You know you should be listening to gain an understanding of the marketing team’s new proposal, but you work in Finance and it’s just after lunch and no one was going to ask your opinion anyway. Sound familiar? Take it from me (I actually fell asleep in a three-hour meeting once). Millennials and meetings don’t naturally mix.

Now that probably sounds like a privileged, ignorant, or even snobbish statement, doesn’t it? Well it very well might be. But what I’ve observed across nearly every industry is the same, glazed look in younger employees’ eyes when a meeting crosses into its second hour and it’s clear that it isn’t wrapping up anytime soon. That’s a real issue and whether it’s easy to address or not, it is one that has long-lasting consequences for all parties involved.

Let’s be honest. Meetings matter for those who lead them. There’s either a direct ask or a direct report, which should keep a meeting straightforward, if not short. But has anyone ever left a meeting that they weren’t leading or involved in and thought, “Man that was a great use of my time?” Not likely. And that’s at any level, not just for millennials.

So what’s the added Gen-Y factor? Well, assuming the idea that millennials are more tech-savvy and fast-paced than any of our predecessors, a two-hour meeting on the possibility of a returned .2% interest rate on a low-income, medium risk housing project in Wilmington, Delaware during the third quarter of a less than volatile fiscal year, borders on physically unbearable for us. That’s obviously an exaggeration, but think about it for a moment. Coming from a four-year culture of fast-paced studying and project management where we worked at our own pace and chose what subjects we cared about, being roped into budget, design, and editorial meetings that consist of seemingly unimportant go-rounds can feel painfully unnecessary.

When topics were “boring” in college you still had to care. If participation is worth 20% of my grade, I am suddenly going to care a lot more about the rise of Serbian nationalism in the 14th century than I actually did. (Just kidding, Dr. Kessing. Great course, highly recommend it). Again, I am not insinuating that meetings are not important, but I think it’s important to highlight this new cultural mindset that the bulk of the new workforce has.

Think about it this way. Remember our study on what the typical millennial looked like? (New subscribers check out “I’m Chill Man…You Know, For The Most Part” for a quick summary!) We found that while millennials exhibit a lot of behavioral diversity, the majority of them did possess a high amount of drive. So, by that logic, we’ve got a large new highly driven workforce coming from an environment where they could work when they wanted on what they wanted. Doesn’t sound like they’re going to like the annual budget meeting, does it?

So why do I mention all of this? Is it okay to fall asleep in a meeting? Of course not. But there’s a reason why many millennials tend to disengage in traditional corporate settings and that’s what I’m trying to highlight. I’ve been told quite often that there’s nothing different about millennials at all.

“I’m so sick and tired of hearing about millennials. They’re all just lazy or spoiled.”

Simply put, there has been an evolution in the new employee mold that companies need to be willing to address. College education today is producing individuals who have flourished in unprecedentedly malleable environments. Instead of majoring in Economics, you can now double major in Geology and International Business with a minor in Environmental Biology. And in fact, you are encouraged to do so. That new kind of college graduate is bringing new perspectives and expectations into the workplace and it’s highly unlikely that they are all “lazy or spoiled.” 

Are meetings going away? No, and they shouldn’t. However, as the workforce changes, our understanding of how individuals within that workforce operate has to change too. There’s a larger argument about whether a company should change along with its new workforce or whether the new workforce needs to change to fit companies’ proven models. That’s a hard call, and one I’m relieved I don’t have to make. But nevertheless, it’s important to at least recognize that what made sense to one generation of businessmen and women may not make sense to the next.

As for the meetings themselves, the one guideline I would posit is this: you can’t expect the millennial generation to just “go with the flow.”  Because as our earlier research has shown, they won’t. Understanding that most Gen Y-ers are ambitious,  simply “roping” them into meetings where they have no context or background information is not going to be very effective. Remember the glassy eyed looks I mentioned earlier, that millennial is most likely sitting their thinking, “Why in the world am I here. I could actually be doing work and learning the business.”

Simply put, my recommendation is this: engage the resources you hired! Millennials want to succeed and the new college-grad mold of working fast-paced and independently means that the new workforce is less inclined to want to hold large division-sized meetings unless they have a clear tie-in with their current projects. The smaller and more focused meetings are, the more likely it is that the presenter will achieve some measurable takeaways. Furthermore, the smaller the setting the more likely it is that the new workforce will actively contribute and connect with material outside of their expertise.