Some days it seems like work is nothing but meetings and everything else is sandwiched in between the meetings. When I was managing in organizations, if I had 15 minutes left at the end of a meeting/call, I was so grateful to have the time to look at my emails and, if nothing else, prioritize them so that in the next ‘extra 10 minutes’ I could respond to at least some of them—or prioritize the ones that came in since my last ‘free time’. Some days I ended up with a very nicely prioritized list of emails and then responded to them after hours. Email—it’s a blessing and a curse.

But back to meetings…

As a manager, you have to make sure that the number of meetings does not overwhelm the work of the organization. There is no set formula to arrive at this number, and if you have good working relationships with your team/colleagues, they will let you know if there are too many or not enough meetings. Or if the meetings might be more effective if something were added. Or removed.

The number and structure of meetings really depends on the nature of the work and the number of staff. I’ve worked in offices with one other staff person, and we had daily informal chats about problems and issues as they arose. With more staff, there usually needs to be more structure; however, the structure cannot be inflexible, and needs to be designed to withstand the external forces that will always be present.

It puts me in mind of creating and building tall structures that are capable of withstanding the force of wind. Peter Irwin[1], a wind engineering expert, has written about wind forces in relation to the height of buildings, and how buildings must have some flexibility so that they actually sway. Tall skyscrapers can actually move multiple feet in either direction, and the taller the building, the more it will sway. For shorter buildings, there are techniques of welding that will allow for sway, but in the tallest buildings, stabilization comes from a strong internal core.

Dr. Irwin writes not only about the technical: vortex shedding and excitation; magnitude of peak response; computational fluid dynamics (Vortex shedding?? Fluid dynamics?! Hence the reasons I went into Social Work), and he factors in building motions and occupant comfort. It’s better to factor in the possibility that things will not go as intended, and build your building—or organizational and meeting structures—to be flexible when the winds are high.

It may seem counterintuitive, but my experience is that the more chaotic the environment in which the organization functions, the more important the weekly staff meeting, one-to-one, etc are. Why?

In the mid-1990s, I worked at transitional living center (TLC) in New York City which housed 40 women who had a major mental illness. It was a program designed as a path to permanent housing, and the women were very successful in obtaining and maintaining housing.

Women came to the TLC from larger shelters, from the streets and from evictions. They most often had no income source, few possessions, little family support, physical problems, you can imagine what years of living on the streets of NY could do to a person. There were often crises. Conflicts (always non-physical) were common, as were hospitalizations for medical or psychiatric reasons. Women were regularly going out to apply for SSI, Medicaid, Social Security, Medicare, were going on housing appointments, going to group meetings, it was a very busy place.

With all the uncertainty in the TLC, one of the things that held it together was the style of management and the structure. The staff had a team meeting (there were three teams), individual one-to-ones, and a staff meeting each week. The team leaders also had a meeting each week. And unless one of the women needed to go to the hospital, or there was an appointment that could not be scheduled for another time, or someone was on vacation, everyone showed up to all the meetings all the time. And as frenetic as the TLC could have been, most of the time there was incredible order.

The meetings were a chance for people to exchange ideas and insights focused on the women in the shelter. They were participatory, organized and no longer than needed. For the most part, staff looked forward to the opportunities to discuss and contribute and, in the one-to-one meetings, to express frustrations, be heard, and get back to work.

There is no right or wrong number of meetings in an organization. Talk to your colleagues, assess what is needed in relation to the work (form follows function), and make decisions about numbers, content and facilitation (rotating facilitation teaches skills and balances power differentials). That way, people will be more inclined to attend and participate because they have been part of the decision-making process.