This is a widespread phenomenon in the construction industry and can lead to all sorts of frustrations. For example, there's "voicemail rage", where the caller is so incensed at not being able to speak to a real person that the machine takes a battering of abusive language; "minute-taker's syndrome" – the tell-tale laptop bag slouch and ability to type and talk at the same time; "speed-read disease", where minutes are read so swiftly that key points are missed, with occasional disastrous results, not to mention the caffeine-dependency brought on by non-stop cups of coffee.
Meetings are a vital part of how we do business, of course, but they should be an aid in completing a project, one communicative tool of many, not the only way that information is shared. The creative process of design requires time and thought; it requires sketches and exchanges of faxes. People need to be able to talk things over with colleagues, to bounce ideas around within their own organisations, to access databases of information and to contact suppliers and specialists for advice.
All of these things require each team member to have their own time and space in which to pursue their discipline. Sure, a project manager may be able to operate from a street corner in Oxford Circus as long as they have a mobile phone and a Palm Pilot, but most of us like to spend some time at our desks. That sense of place, of workspace, is fundamental. It's where you put the pictures of your kids, it's where your post arrives, where you keep back copies of Building, and everyone makes a determined attempt to make that space their own. It's no good if you're out at meetings all the time and never get to sit at your desk.
Anyway, what do all these meetings actually achieve? Client meetings should be about reporting on the progress of the job, allowing the client to ask questions. They shouldn't be formless free-for-alls where each team member tries to score points in front of the one holding the chequebook. A well-executed client meeting should be boring, as there should be no new information, and it should be swift. Of course, there are clients who will want to examine issues in detail, but they should be encouraged to do this at a more appropriate forum – if it's money, then a cost meeting led by the QS; if it's space-planning issues, then a briefing session with the architect. Keeping 11 senior people from across the building team twiddling their thumbs while the client considers the colour swatches for the carpet is simply not an economic use of time.
Client meetings should be about reporting on the progress of the job, allowing the client to ask questions. They shouldn’t be formless free-for-alls where each team member tries to score points in front of the one holding the chequebook
Design team meetings can be less structured – after all, design should be about collaborating, about constantly refining ideas and revisiting options to arrive at the optimum solution that meets all the design parameters. Rarely is this process a straightforward linear one. I've been to design meetings where rolls of tracing paper are used up trying to get a floor-plan to work, where engineers chew their pencils and punch the buttons of their calculators as they try to measure columns or ductwork, where contractors shuffle programmes to prove the work can be done in that ridiculously short time span. That doesn't mean that this is the only place where design is done – the engineer needs to go back and run the analysis to prove his rule-of-thumb sizing really works, and for all the sophistication of CAD technology, the process of drawing production still needs substantial, intensive office-based work.
We have become so accustomed to the routine of meetings that we don't use them effectively any more. We have all been to cost meetings, where the provenance of every line of the QS's costplan is questioned and tested, but where few have had the chance to read the costplan beforehand; procurement meetings where the agenda is always the same – it's just the number of the package that changes; co-ordination meetings where nobody brings any drawings; liaison meetings with no liaison; progress meetings where everyone is late … the list is seemingly endless.
And what about recording meetings? How often do the minutes of the last meeting emerge only hours before the next one? Such minutes may satisfy the need to provide a record of discussion, but are hardly useful as a prompt for action if they're so late.
Dissemination following meetings often leaves a lot to be desired too. If meetings are sandwiched together, then reporting back gets squeezed out, and others in the project team are left to carry on in the wrong direction, perhaps unaware of vital information.
Tanya Ross is an associate of Buro Happold.