In the spring of 1865, the American Civil War was entering its fourth year, but it was starting to look like the end was in sight. By April, the South, with its back against the wall, was ready to throw in the towel. All that was left to do was for Confederate General Robert E. Lee and Union Commanding General Ulysses S. Grant to negotiate the South’s surrender.
That’s right, the bloodiest war in U.S. history would end—with a meeting.
As it turned out, the Lee-Grant confab became one of the most important meetings in American history. But coming in at a grueling two-and-a-half hours, it probably wasn’t one of its most efficient.
While they’re now more often the butt of jokes in popular culture—did the staff of the Dunder-Mifflin Scranton branch ever hold a meeting that felt necessary?—meetings remain an essential component of any business.
They craft the way we think, mold our cultures, and build the businesses that support our economy. Whether we’re bringing peace to war-torn countries, negotiating trade deals, or landing juicy sales, we owe quite a bit to the humble meeting.
But as business tools, meetings haven’t always been what they are today.
Prehistoric caves: where the first meetings were born
Because meetings are so common, it’s impossible to say when the first one popped into existence. Maybe millions of years ago, a handful of cavemen huddled around a campfire to discuss whether they should hunt a wiry gazelle or a beefy bison. Or perhaps an ancient family sat in a primitive hut debating which forest flora to avoid.
Cultural meetings like these probably existed for millions of years, across all of human history—but formal, organized meetings came much later. These came from villages and towns, when people began meeting in public spaces.
A quick look at human history
- 3.4 million years ago: Stone age humans started making tools period.
- 12,000 years ago: Neolithic humans started building villages period.
- 3,000 years ago: Ancient towns constructed public open spaces.
For example, in ancient Greece, every major city had an agora—a large market, where hundreds or thousands of sellers flocked to sell their wares to local residents. Even though agoras were designed for business, a by-product was conversation. As people milled about, they’d chat with friends and co-workers. It was like an early-civilization networking mixer.
Casual meetings in growing towns
For most of the time humans have been on the planet, we’ve lived and worked in the country, growing food and looking after animals. Yes, towns and cities existed as economic centers for merchants, but for centuries, rural life ruled society. But during the Industrial Revolution, that all changed.
Lured by better wages and a better life, people hightailed it to towns. Businesses grew, too. Before industrialization, most companies were small and easy to manage. As towns expanded, so did the organizations that employed their residents. Larger companies required more administration—lots of it.
Eventually, rapidly growing companies began constructing huge buildings from which they’d run their businesses. And just like that the world had its first purpose-built office. Inside the offices, business execs would meet and discuss how to run things—although PowerPoint presentations were still a couple hundred years away.
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Breaking out of the office
For centuries, meetings were local. Business leaders, out of geographic necessity, were almost forced to meet in person. But as companies began to spread out across countries and then continents, we looked for a way to recreate our face-to-face meetings at a distance.
Although the telephone was invented in the 1800s, it wasn’t until 1915 that someone worked out how to use the new-fangled “speaking telegraph” to support a long-distance conversation between multiple people, that is to say, the conference call.
On January 25, 1915, Alexander Graham Bell placed a call to his assistant, Thomas Watson. After a few minutes, the operator successfully connected Bell on the east coast of America to Watson on the west. A few additional minutes later, the line crackled again as the operator connected the mayors of San Francisco and New York and then U.S. President Woodrow Wilson.
Suddenly, five men, separated by nearly 3,000 miles, were having a conversation as if they were all sitting in the same room. After three minutes, Bell hung up the phone, content that he had demonstrated the future of communication:
At the time, Bell’s call was groundbreaking—but it was impractical and expensive. Each connection took 10 minutes to arrange and cost around $50 per attendee-minute to operate. If you wanted to run a 10-minute daily huddle with five remote teammates, it’d cost you $6,250 per week.
Although it was commercially impractical, Bell’s call set the template for modern conference calls, which would eventually arrive around 30 years later.
The digital meeting revolution
Conference calling technology continued to develop throughout the 1900s—but real progress arrived with the digital revolution in the 1990s and early-2000s. With the internet, communication was no longer tied to analog phone lines. Suddenly, we could send packets of information whizzing across digital networks. All we needed was a giant, boxy desktop computer.
In the early days of the digital revolution, our communication was dominated by text, thanks to its low file-size. Text-based meetings and discussions became as common as written memos. According to Michael Mankins, partner at management consulting firm Bain & Company, the digital revolution underpinned an uptick in the volume of our communication.
In the 1980s, the average executive received just 4,000 communications per year. Driven by increased email and team messaging use, that figure jumped to 9,000 in the 90s, 25,000 in the 2000s, and 30,000 in the 2010s—that’s one every four minutes.
But as internet connections grew faster, cheaper, and more stable throughout the 2010s, other communication channels opened up—notably video.
With slow and unreliable connections, video was frustrating at best and infuriating at worst. Even with the best technology, meetings were plagued by juddering pictures, garbled audio, and connection difficulties.
But as soon as our connections could support high-quality video feeds—around 2005—that all changed. With fast connections, video exploded. We binged shows on Netflix, watched live sports on our phones, and live-streamed events on Facebook.
Consumer-facing applications like FaceTime were the first to use high-quality video feeds to put us face-to-face with friends and families in far-flung locations. With these apps, we could tap on our phone a few times and instantly have a conversation. As we got used to that in our personal lives, it began seeping into the professional sphere, as well.
Changes to the way we communicate, combined with new enterprise video tech, created a video-first communication landscape. Imagine a researcher who wants to collaborate with her colleague in a neighboring city. Even 10 years ago, she would have had to drive to the city to meet her colleague—unless she fancied fighting with unreliable audio and inconsistent video.
Even if the trip only took half an hour, that’s an extra level of friction to her decision. While small, it’s still a disincentive for her to meet her colleague. But with contemporary meeting technology, our researcher can jump on a video call and chat with her colleague as if she was sitting across the table from her.
Making meetings as easy as possible lowers the demands on participants and makes it more likely that people will meet, talk, and share information. However, increased communication doesn’t come without a price.
Our current meeting maelstrom
Over the last few years, meetings have changed from a valuable asset into a business black hole, devouring time, enthusiasm, and productivity. Now that setting up a meeting is as simple as clicking a few buttons, we’re arranging them without thinking. Since the 1960s, the amount of time we spend in meetings each week has ballooned, rising from 10 hours to 23 hours today—eight of which are entirely unproductive.
It’s not just the time we spend in meetings that’s the problem, though. Consultants from Bain analyzed the Outlook schedules of employees at a large unnamed company. They discovered that a single weekly executive meeting wiped out 300,000 work-hours a year, even though the meeting itself required just 7,000 hours a year to run.
The problem is that meetings usually spawn more meetings and additional work. In the Bain study, for example, each weekly meeting required 11 unit check-ins (19,800 hours), 21 team meetings (63,000 hours), and 130 preparatory meetings (210,000 hours).
That’s enough time to watch all three Godfather films—31,900 times. Would you say yes if someone asked you to do that (no matter how nice they were)?
Oh, and you’d have enough time left over to watch every episode of Friends, The Simpsons, and Grey’s Anatomy, too.
Employees feel lost in this maelstrom of meetings and respond by drifting away. Around 90% of attendees report daydreaming in meetings and 73% admit ignoring the proceedings to complete other work.
This is hardly the result anyone planned, and it’s probably not the desired evolution of ancient Greek agora. But it doesn’t have to be that way.
Building better meetings
How will we respond to the meeting maelstrom? Either we ignore the problem and allow our work lives to be consumed by meetings, or we overhaul what meetings are and how they work.
Unless we’re defeatist and satisfied with the first option, our first step has to be to evaluate how we use meetings as business tools. Instead of carelessly setting up meetings and handing out invites like candy, we should look at the meetings we’re creating and ask, “Are these necessary?” By thinking about the type of meetings we’re using, we can cut away the dead wood, leaving just the parts that benefit our businesses.
But not only that, we need to look at our fragmented network of communication tools and ask, “Does this make sense?” If we want to create a better future for meetings, it only makes sense to unify all our communications on one platform, bringing together everything from setting up meetings through to distributing minutes. Without that, it’s inevitable that we’ll slip back into a world of chaotic meetings.