Why work doesn't happen at work – and conference rituals rarely spread new ideas

I just listened to Jason Fried’s interesting TedX talk ‘Why work doesn't happen at work’:
Jason Fried has a radical theory of working: that the office isn't a good place to do it. At TEDxMidwest, he lays out the main problems (call them the M&Ms) and offers three suggestions to make work work.

Although he mentions charities and non-profits at the beginning he is clearly focussing on the classic corporate setting of offices, meetings and 9-5 work. But what he also does is to describe the rituals around meetings, why they are organised, how they are implemented and that they are often an expensive performance that does ad very little to productivity, knowledge or information sharing. The key part for me that is also relevant for development work and learning is between minute 10 and 11:

So they go into a meeting room, they get together, they talk about stuff that doesn’t really matter usually, because meetings are at work, meetings are things you are talking about things you are supposed to do later. But meetings also procreate. So one meeting tends to lead to another meeting which tends to lead to another meeting. There’s often too many people in the meetings and they are very expensive to the organisation. Companies often think that a one-hour meeting is a one-hour meeting, but that’s not true unless there’s only one person in that meeting. If there are 10 people in the room it’s a ten-hour meeting, not a one-hour meeting. That’s 10 hours of productivity taken from the rest of the organisation to have this one one-hour meeting, which probably should have been handled by two or three people talking for a few minutes, but instead there’s a long scheduled meeting, because meetings are scheduled the way software works in increments of fifteen minutes or thirty minutes or an hour. You don’t schedule an eight-hour meeting with Outlook. So you go fifteen minutes or thirty minutes or an hour to fill these times up where things should really go really quickly. So meetings and managers are two major problems in today’s businesses today, especially offices-these things don’t exist outside the office (my transcription and emphasis).

The last sentence is really interesting and I tend to disagree with Jason. My own research on workshops and conferences mainly takes place outside ‘the office’ and many people would probably agree that attending a conference or workshop is a good way to get out of the office, break out of routines and ideally learn something new and interesting or engage in discussions or networking. Maybe. But I would argue that the rituals from ‘the office’ are very often replicated to the setting of ‘the workshop’: Too many people, an unclear agenda and short increments of time (a panel comprised four PowerPoint presentations times 15 minutes and 30 minutes for discussion, followed by a 30 minute coffee break etc.) that suffocate critical learning and debates. I do not want to go too much into anthropological theory here, but ritualisation theory is engaging with these phenomenons, namely that ritual spaces tend to reaffirm consensus even if there is space for resistance. Participants have the power and agency to influence ritual events, but it onlty happens rarely as Catherine Bell points out in her brilliant book 'Ritual Theory. Ritual Practice' (Oxford University Press 1992, pp. 209-212):
Ritualization, as the interaction of the social body with a structured and struturing environment, specifically affords the opportunity for consent and resistance and negotiated appropriation on a variety of levels.
Ritual, by focussing on the making and remaking of the body, reproduces the sociopolitical context in which it takes place while also attempting to transform it.
Ritualization both implies and demonstrates a relatively unified corporate body, often leading participants to assume that there is more consensus than there actually is. It leads all to mistake the minimal consent of its participants for an underlying consensus or lack of conflict, even when some conflict is objectified and reembodied. Most of all, ritualization leads participants to mistake the group’s reformulation of itself as a straightforward communication and performance of its most traditional values.
And engaging with them is not just a fascinating anthropological or research exercise, but should also stimulate debates of how reflective and reflexive learning can take place in the development community. If it’s not happening at work, in the office, in meetings and at workshops or conferences where are spaces for critical sharing and learning and how can they be ‘managed’ so they don’t become a space characterised by computer software, office routines and rituals of performance?


  1. Something I often find critical to these meetings and perhaps lack of 'positive' ideas being developed is the environment. Going further into what is said of having the meeting at the office- look at the set-up and design of the meeting room usually. The layout of the tables and chairs I think often diminish the openness to present ideas or to offer contradictory opinions.
    Also, think of how often times the 'meeting' is usually just the boss talking. Is the meeting really open to ideas or just the validation of the boss?
    I recently came across this where legitimate feedback was not engaged and I believe the proposal failed in part due to lack of proper opportunities for feedback and brainstorming during these multi-hour 'meetings'.
    I think this ritual of the meeting I detailed is unfortunately all too common and preventing ideas and innovation from being able to be presented.
    I think changing the room dynamics (one research suggested removing chairs to shorten the time of meetings!) and location can help creative ideas flow.
    (www.enjoymediation.com and www.ADRhub.com)

  2. Interesting study that highlights the benefits of not having to work in the office (all the time):

    'Employees who telecommute the majority of the workweek are more satisfied with their jobs compared to those working mostly in the office because working remotely alleviates more stress than it creates, according to a new study by a communication researcher at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee (UWM).'



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