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Cracking down on meetings is a recipe for disaster in the WFH era

Shopify is the latest tech company to ban ‘useless’ meetings and off-topic chats. But such moves risk isolating remote workers further and causing serious cultural damage
Remote Work Sad

Shopify has declared war on meetings. Last week, the Canadian ecommerce giant enforced its “chaos monkey 2023” initiative, under which all meetings scheduled to involve more than two people vanished from the calendars of its 9,000 employees without warning. Following a two-week moratorium, staff are under instruction to “be really critical” about which meetings they reintroduce.

But Shopify didn’t stop there. It also shut down public channels on its messaging platform, Slack. These included forums where people could hold virtual watercooler conversations. The company has stipulated that Slack should be used only for direct messages.

“These changes will help focus our time… and improve our operational excellence,” the company explained in an internal memo seen by businessinsider.com.

The firm’s COO, Kaz Nejatian, tweeted: “Meetings are a bug. Today, we shipped a fix to this bug at Shopify… Companies are for builders. Not managers.”

The move attracted widespread praise from business leaders, particularly in the tech industry, where Shopify is not the first to enact such changes. Slack itself declared “calendar bankruptcy” last May, for instance, while Asana held a “meeting doomsday”.

The argument goes that workers waste huge amounts of their time (and, by extension, their employers’ money) on unproductive confabs. If we could simply decline every meeting invitation and sweep our schedules clean, wouldn’t we all be so much more efficient?

But I hope that this trend doesn’t catch on more widely, especially in remote-first enterprises. It is true that many meetings could be shorter and more productive. But they are increasingly becoming the only ways for employees working from home (WFH) to connect meaningfully with their colleagues. This renders a blanket ban risky from both a commercial perspective and a human one.

Meeting bans isolate remote workers

Many remote workers report feeling culturally isolated from their organisation. The chatter they engage in on Slack, Zoom and other internal comms platforms has become an imperfect substitute for the casual conversations in the office or the pub after work that have traditionally helped colleagues to bond with each other. For anyone WFH, meetings are not only information exchanges but also opportunities to get to know other people better.

Yes, many remote workers happily fulfil their social needs outside the office. But more than a third of people meet “most” of their friends in the workplace, according to a survey by JobSage. Research suggests that even the briefest of exchanges with another person boosts our emotional wellbeing. 

Looking back on my own experiences with a previous employer in the depths of the Covid crisis, I view the regular remote “coffee and chat” sessions that my team initiated as a vital anchor to normality during the first lockdown. Later on, though, I grew frustrated when I had to work in a fully remote set-up that gave me few opportunities to speak to my colleagues.

At a time when loneliness is increasing – particularly among young, single urbanites – severing an important way to connect people is no cause for celebration. We humans are social creatures by nature. Can we afford to switch off that link for 40 or so hours a week?

Communication is vital for company culture

Then there’s the wider impact on organisational culture. One Shopify employee described the deleted Slack channels as the company’s “public square”, where staff throughout the organisation could mingle virtually. In a dispersed workplace, limiting people’s ability to hold informal conversations risks stifling any sense of belonging they might have to their company.

That’s likely to lead to an increase in staff turnover. If you haven’t established many emotional ties to your colleagues, there are fewer reasons to stay with your employer when opportunities present themselves elsewhere. One study has found that three-quarters of professionals have left a job because they disliked their company’s culture, while a fifth of UK resignations have been attributed to toxic working environments.

A meeting ban indicates a lack of trust in people to set their own schedules and boundaries in workable ways

Changes such as a ban on meetings can only entrench those problems. Taking what some might see as a cynical view, I believe that communication over Slack and email is far easier for employers to monitor and control. Forcing conversations onto these platforms is likely to have a chilling effect on uncomfortable, but necessary, conversations about management issues, pay inequalities or changes to company policy.

To be fair to Shopify, the company has been nothing if not upfront about the culture it is trying to create. Its careers page warns applicants expecting a cosy corporate environment to look elsewhere. 

But that raises the question of why a top-down edict was needed. If all Shopify employees truly dislike meetings, why did these become the norm in the first place? Could it be that, while meetings are flawed, there is no real alternative to them? 

There is a balance to be struck here. A ban indicates a lack of trust in people to set their own schedules and boundaries in workable ways. 

As many people are wont to complain, a significant proportion of meetings probably ‘could have been an email’. But any firm that’s intent on scrapping them for efficiency reasons alone is ignoring the bigger picture.