A long-awaited reunion prompts new thoughts about getting together at work

Monthly column: “Possible Futures”

Época Negócios Brazil, April 2022

(originally published in Portuguese)

In 1994, a bunch of us got together at a friend’s house to celebrate his 32nd birthday. At the party there was a camcorder and we decided to make a film of ourselves talking about where we were in life and our hopes for the future. We planned to watch it in three or four years’ time, but somehow we never got round to it. Until last month, when, 28 years later, we got together to celebrate the same friend’s 60th birthday and sat down to see what we’d had to say.

We were pretty apprehensive – how gauche and naive would our younger selves seem? – but, from the first frame, we were riveted. It wasn’t so much what we said – some of our hopes had come to fruition, others had gone nowhere – but how we spoke. For an hour and a quarter, we found ourselves watching a group of people speaking calmly, honestly and with real insight about life, the world and the possibilities the future could bring. It was spellbinding.

On the way home, I found myself wondering why conversations at work are so seldom like this. After all, what is a meeting but a group of people getting together to exchange ideas and gain insights?

Meetings are, for many people, the worst part of going to work. Too often they are frustrating, dull and overlong and much too often they seem to achieve very little. Our usual response to this is to try to reduce the number of meetings we have. But I wonder if there is another way: to keep having meetings, but to meet more in the way my friends and I did all those years ago.

What was it that made the conversation on the film so productive? Well, to begin with, you could see that everyone was totally focussed on whoever was speaking. No one was fiddling with their phone – very few people had mobile phones in those days. No one was on their laptop. No one was having a quiet conversation with the person next to them. Instead, we were all listening intently to the person who was speaking, and that helped them speak more openly and, in doing so, discover things they hadn’t thought of before.

Secondly, because we were going round the room one by one, everyone knew that they would get their turn to speak, so there was none of that anxious butting in that so many of us do in work meetings, saying something just for the sake of speaking. People did say things, of course, but, when they did, it was most often in the form of a useful question that helped the person speaking clarify what they were saying.

Third, no one used what one person was saying as a cue to grab the floor and tell an anecdote about themselves or show off what they knew about the topic – something that, in my experience anyway, happens all too often in meetings in the office. (I am guilty of this myself.)

Fourth, there was no competition in the room. None of us were worried about losing their job or missing out on a promotion if they said something stupid – which meant they could work things out by speaking rather than feeling they had to come up with an impressive, ready-made answer. (I am guilty of this, too.)

Fifth, the event felt significant. We all knew we would watch the film sometime in the future. And that gave weight to what we had to say.

And, finally, we were enjoying ourselves. It was a pleasure to speak, listen and reflect on what was being said.

I am aware that I am in danger of comparing apples and pears. We were a group of friends relaxing at a birthday party rather than colleagues at the Monday-morning meeting of a company’s sales team. But I think the two settings aren’t as different as we imagine. They are both about the interesting exchange of ideas from one mind to another. I suspect, from the brain’s point of view, that they are pretty much the same event.

As we go back to the office after the isolation of COVID, we will be back in meeting rooms more often. For me, I would like to emulate a lot of what I saw in our younger selves on that screen in my, now much older, life: focussing on listening rather than speaking, allowing everyone to have a say, setting aside the natural competitiveness that permeates work and relaxing and appreciating the pleasure that comes when a group of human beings sit down to share the ideas in their heads.

If more meetings start to take on that flavour, I feel we might even start to look forward to them.