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Meetings are valuable for most organizations, most of the time. Meetings build the cohesion that makes teams what they are.monkeybusinessimages/iStockPhoto / Getty Images

Karl Oczkowski is the senior director of corporate communications and public relations at the Canadian Chamber of Commerce.

As business leaders rush to applaud Shopify’s announcement that it will drastically limit meetings across the company, we would be wise to remember that novel solutions apply only under novel circumstances – and few organizations are as novel as Shopify.

Meetings, when done right, are not the enemy of productivity but a part of it. Surely we’ve all spent a day tied up in a fruitless e-mail exchange over a complicated issue, only to later wonder how much more quickly a solution would have surfaced had everyone simply been together – in a quick meeting.

The appeal of Shopify’s decision, which emphasizes execution over discussion for its entirely remote work force, is easy to understand, and the company should certainly be applauded for its intentions. Those intentions, the gutsy thinking behind them and the public debate the decision has generated are especially welcome when organizations everywhere are trying to keep employees engaged and experimenting with the way we work. The federal government is in the thick of such a debate, as public servants are being directed to come back to the office two to three days a week by the end of March, after two years of remote work.

Michael Wernick, who led federal workers as clerk of the privy council from 2016 to 2019, recently defended the move, warning that working from home had implications for public servants’ careers and reduced their ability to learn from one another.

Mr. Wernick, it turns out, is right.

In her book Teaming, Amy C. Edmondson of Harvard Business School dives deep into what makes effective teams tick. The freedom to speak up, experiment, collaborate and reflect is the foundation of any effective team, which Edmondson also uses as a verb – underscoring the fact that effective teamwork is a deliberate activity, not just an effortless task or ethereal concept. And the elements of effective teams are themselves underpinned by trust and psychological safety – characteristics proven to be found in groups that spend valuable time together, largely in person, in both structured and unstructured meetings.

So, while the Shopify decision resonates because we have all been to bad meetings – an oddly frequent and normalized part of our professional lives – that doesn’t mean it’s the right decision for every organization.

Because the truth is that meetings are valuable for most organizations, most of the time – as the mechanism through which we come together, grow and succeed. Meetings build the cohesion that makes teams what they are. That’s why Shopify didn’t scrap all meetings.

The challenge, then, when we remind ourselves that few of us work at Shopify, is not that we are spending too much time together or too much time in meetings, but that we aren’t spending our time together effectively. Holding good meetings that ignite the indispensable collaboration that builds strong teams and organizations is challenging.

Fortunately, in his book Death by Meeting, celebrated organizational thought leader Patrick Lencioni offers some answers. Mr. Lencioni’s book details the impact of bad meetings, telling the story of a company that is failing because of numerous bad meetings that kill engagement and passion. But the book refrains from calling for fewer meetings, and in fact calls for more – more good ones.

Mr. Lencioni explains that the best meetings require a strict focus on drama, constructive conflict and the exchange of ideas that doesn’t occur through e-mail or other forms of asymmetrical communication. His story reinforces the idea that we shouldn’t be too quick to dismiss the value of time together, challenging each other, learning from each other and getting to know one another – as long as we do it right.

So as leaders everywhere ponder whether a Shopify-style pendulum swing will work for their team or organization, they should not ignore the intangible but proven value of bringing people together and should first consider what they can do to simply conduct better meetings.

Because meetings are not just relics of corporate tradition. They are a critical organizational mechanism we simply fail to leverage effectively. But done right, using trust, psychological safety, constructive conflict and drama, we can have great meetings – meetings that are interesting, that people actually want to go to, that empower teams and entire organizations.

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