The Office was a comedic attack on the calm but corrosive surface of management. It is no surprise that its writer and star, Ricky Gervais, spent some of his pre-celebrity career in universities.
For those of us more permanently placed in the institution, it was not the show’s depiction of open-plan office life or the bash-a-head-against-a-closed-door boredom of reception that resonated. It was the mock meetings that left most of us writhing on the floor in recognition.
During a recent “future-oriented initiatives summit” that dragged through the synergetic potentials of collaborative investment, I calculated how many hours I have spent in meetings. Days melted into years. To prevent my mind drifting into Bucks Fizz lyrics or Rick Astley’s dancing, I focused on the top five nightmare meeting meltdowns.
We see the light at the end of the agenda, and then an unexpected spark ignites the bone-dry intellect of the room. A supposedly “quick chat” that started at 1pm sees us on the 7pm train wondering what happened. Like a hurricane warning, there are a few key triggers that help us to evade the threat, avoid a disaster or know when to leave the room screaming.
1) The chair who thinks he is Elvis
This category of meeting trauma is subtitled “Let’s talk about something important – let’s talk about me”. Every agenda item, instead of being addressed at speed and in the context in which it was raised, must be passed through the life experience of the chair.
When an issue is seemingly resolved and we are about to move to the next topic, Elvis starts to discuss his research project, funding opportunities, meeting with the United Nations and possible collaboration with a drinking buddy from Oxford in the 1960s. How this discussion is relevant to policies on first-year plagiarism or bin clearance in the car park is not clear.
2) The acting chair who thinks she’s Yoko Ono in the Let it Be sessions
While the first manifestation of meeting hell is almost always male, the second category is the female counterpart of the chairing Elvis. There is a certain subcategory of sisters who are doomed to be excluded from the gated community of masculine management.
In savouring the crumbs from the table, they are appointed Assistant Dean, Assistant to the Dean, Deputy Assistant Dean, Acting Deputy Assistant Dean, Deputy Chair, Assistant Deputy Chair, Acting Assistant Deputy Chair or Acting Assistant to the Acting Deputy Chair.
Needless to say, they enjoy the title and the pervasive power, but never seem to find the right moment to speak, interrupt or intervene in the agenda. So they sit like Yoko – wanting to scream, wanting to get into a bag, wanting to scream in a bag – in the knowledge that their abilities are recognised by the institution because they are the Acting Assistant to the Acting Deputy Chair.
Elvis chairmen love a few Yokos in a meeting. They are the perfect women: supportive, silent and ready to scream on request.
3) Red Square standoff
There are always two blokes who hated each other when Harold Wilson was Prime Minister (the first time) and still carry a grudge. It started as a Stalinist and Trotskyite split in the 1960s. The conversation was more predictable then: “I’ll show you a permanent revolution, you splitter,” which was countered with, “I’ll show you a show trial and the unnecessary death of millions, you lumper.”
Since then, politics and wives have been exchanged and the two have opened and closed several business schools and centres of excellence in corporate communication. They are now suited and tooled up to provide skill development and intellectual property advice for the new economy.
But in meetings, there is always a tense eruption in this shiny Clintonesque collaboration. A snarling, drooling dog fight ensues. What makes meetings with these academic pit bulls so interesting is that it is never possible to predict the topic or agenda item where they will release another instalment in their 40-year argument about the coming revolution.
Invariably, their fury is not expelled on the role of the union delegate in wage negotiations or health and safety concerns. Often the crux of the conflict will be why the coffee was delivered late to the meeting, the poor range of biscuits available or the state of the carpets in the chancellery.
Parking also seems a worry, and they are fixated on recycling. But when the pit bulls find their hub of conflict, 30 minutes can be lost as they negotiate questions of alienation, labour surplus and the wage slavery that continues to undercut the culinary rights of academics in the contemporary university.
4) Armani hero
There is one species of academic that lives only in meetings. They never teach or write, visit conferences or work the archive. In fact, it is uncertain if they ever leave the university boardrooms, so filled are they with the pleasures of meeting protocol.
They are given titles where brackets really matter, like PVC (Entrepreneurship, Skill Development and Coffee Machine Maintenance), PVC (Slow Food and Sustainable Living) and PVC (Small Business Development for Credit Crunched Corporations) or PVC (Parking and Library Fine Facilitation). Besides running – sorry, facilitating – meetings, they hold few other roles. When they are not writing new business strategies, they are CC’ing an action plan to half the population of Manchester. When not actioning their bullet points or facilitating a productive dialogue over key issues with stakeholders, they are in their private executive restrooms giving themselves an afternoon shave so that their boyish good looks and the sharp cut of an Armani suit are not hampered by a 4 o’clock shadow.
Facial hair darkens their appearance and dampens their energy, enthusiasm and passion for change. The topic is interchangeable, but change is always necessary.
5) Defcon drafting
The red-alert moment of meetings – the point where we wonder if we will ever see our husbands and wives again – is when Elvis (obviously supported by Yoko) plays around with a large document like a crocodile with a dead chicken. He tells a few old Oxford stories. He never went there, but he used to go to the pub. He returns to the document and mucks around with the contents page. He talks about credit crunch opportunities in Eastern Europe. He asks about the font choice on the cover of the report. He talks about a profound research breakthrough he (well, his research assistant) made in 1973 around the time of the Eurovision Song Contest.
Then it comes. Elvis utters the words, “Should we go through the document a page at a time?” Yoko nods vigorously, excited to be of use. While the committee members stifle a blood-curdling scream knowing that the next four hours will be spent drafting a document that was listed as “for information” rather than “for discussion”, Elvis settles for a great afternoon talking about formatting, words selection, punctuation and himself.
Stuck in the 1960s
The use of new, collaborative and interactive media has become a necessity in the contemporary university. Staff teach in web portals. Our research is placed in institutionalised, digitised repositories. Students are encouraged/forced into online enrolment and to spend time in Blackboard templates rather than at the bar. But through all these Web 2.0 transformations, university meetings appear stuck in the 1960s.
Reams of paper are wasted on action plans and documents flicked through “for your information”. While students and staff use wikis in their daily studying and working lives, why is wiki-editing not mandatory in drafting documents before a meeting starts?
The point of technology is to increase productivity and efficiency. Drafting a document in a meeting was ridiculous, is ridiculous and will always be ridiculous. When a basic function in word-processing programmes allows a tracking of changes and wikis permit a historical logging of text changes, most meeting functions can now be conducted without running a meeting. There are better ways to demonstrate quality assurance protocols than succumbing to the rituals of an overworked administrator, an overlong agenda, a nodding Yoko and an over-excited Elvis. Intriguingly, when the time came to introduce digitally convergent platforms and processes to universities, they infiltrated teaching first, research second and left many administrative rituals untouched by a track-changed, wiki-enabled modernity. Elvis could leave the building. Instead, he has chosen to stay, play and run a meeting. Yoko nods.
Tara Brabazon is professor of media studies, University of Brighton.