Send tortuous stand-up ‘nine-thirty’ meetings back to the dark ages

They’re almost medieval anyway

Something for the Weekend, Sir? It begins with a murmur. Despite my best attempts to ignore it for as long as possible, the indistinct mumbling gradually becomes intelligible, forcing me to pay attention.

“Is it now?”

I glance at my watch surreptitiously as being seen to do so could make it difficult later to claim ignorance of the time. I shrink down, don a pair of headphones and pretend I’m listening to something while desperately trying to hide behind my computer monitor.

“Are we on?”

It’s not easy to hide in a client’s open-plan office when all you have for cover is a flimsy LCD display and a Costa Coffee-branded Thermos cup. However, I find that it’s not impossible if you lower the height of your swivel chair so that your chin is just touching the top of the desk. This puts my laptop where it belongs, on my lap, and the key caps automatically illuminate prettily in the inky darkness of the desk underworld.

This forces me to maintain an upright spine as I stare directly ahead at the aforementioned display. Like my laptop keyboard, it has a light sensor to enable eco-friendly features that, despite my best efforts, reject any attempt at disablement. This means that the brightness and contrast of the display automatically self-adjust according to ambient lighting conditions – that is, every ten fucking seconds throughout the day – and is incrementally sending me blind, albeit in an environmentally aware manner.

“Have they started?”

Things were simpler in the bad old days of CRT monsters that occupied almost all of your desktop, leaving just enough room for the rear half of a keyboard and an area of four square inches to one side with which to manipulate a mouse. Add an ambient light hood – we don’ need no stinkin’ eco-sensors, señor – and you could hide two people behind one of these old-school display units without anyone else knowing.

At a publishing job I enjoyed back in my days of wage-slavery, I was given a vast monolithic CRT monitor of such ridiculous proportions that I used it to shelter a family of six for a week while their exchange of contracts went through. It emitted such quantities of unfiltered radiation out the back that we could discern the detailed bone structure and certain internal organs of the art editor sitting opposite.

“Do we go now?”

I don’t mind the murmuring, nor the sociable way in which office minions seek confirmation from colleagues as a means of bolstering their failing courage. The annoying bit is the way no-one dares express what it is that is supposed to be taking place any minute now.

It is, of course, the daily morning status meeting which meets every day and every morning, at the same time: 9:30am. Yet everyone is scared of mentioning it by name, as if they’re afraid it might invoke a hex or cause kittens to be drowned on the other side of the Earth.

There is logic to all this. Given that our developers refer to themselves as “wizards” and indeed the entire IT project appears to be largely a work of magical fiction, our daily morning status meeting is probably a kind of Voldemort. It shall not be named.

Recently, they have begun referring to it as the “nine-thirty”, which gives it both cryptic anonymity and a kind of numeric retro vibe, like Hawaii Five-O.

That said, looking across the meadow of freshly installed desk pods, interspaced around a silk-cushioned breakout area, an incomprehensibly complex Apple Pay-enabled coffee machine and the executive ball-pond, it’s not exactly Hogwarts.

No indeed – it’s a veritable circus of death. Its pathway is painted in red and, behind it, a trail of the dead. Back at Hawaii Five-O, McGarrett is wearing a frown.

A juvenile colleague twangs my headphones. “Shall we...?” Typical: blind youth taking the path of least resistance.

With heavy heart, I slink my way to the giant aquarium that masquerades as the meeting room, offering all the privacy of a Facebook account.

Here’s the worst bit: it is not just a status meeting but a stand-up. The first time I attended one of these, I totally misjudged the concept and baffled my colleagues by telling them about a funny thing that had happened on my way there, before telling them they’d been a great audience and wishing them goodnight.

The purpose of a stand-up, I now understand, is to speed up the meeting by ensuring the discomfort all attendees by denying them the opportunity to sit. This is supposed to encourage everyone to be brief in their status reports so the meeting ends quickly and they can dart back to their pods and rest their chins.

Each of us in turn delivers a brief update on what we are doing at the moment. When it’s my turn, I give my usual status: “I am standing in a meeting room, when I should really be working, and I am telling you this”.

I am a giant of prevarication. I am a colossus of meeting-speak. I am Empire State Human.

Job done, I turn to an adjacent colleague, raise my eyebrows and nod at him to indicate that it’s his turn. I can do this so convincingly now that he gives a little twitch and immediately blurts into his own report before giving the project manager a chance to question mine.

As I lean precariously against one of the glass partitions, I return to my dreams of leaving and scroll through the unanswered work calls and emails that are popping up in real time on my smartphone. Instead of dealing with these, I am forced to endure the the stand-up inanities of the glass torture chamber for another half-hour. Life kills, eh?

When I did this during a status meeting last week, one of the emails revealed the findings of a Harris Poll, commissioned by SaaS work management outfit Clarizen, into the crushing effect of status meetings on productivity. It claimed that staff spend up to 30 per cent of their working week in status meetings.

Logically, this means they spend almost a third of their time explaining to colleagues and bosses what they do during the other two-thirds. Strictly speaking, however, they’d have to spend only two-thirds of my time explaining what they had been doing during those two-thirds, plus another third reporting on the remaining third that they’d spent in status meetings.

Most intriguing was the poll finding that of the 65 per cent who confess to multitasking during a meeting, 11 per cent spend the time on the toilet.

This sounded like a terrific idea and I was determined to try it out the next morning, but I can assure you from personal experience it does not work. As it turns out, as soon as you try to sit down on the bucket, the project manager insists that everyone should remain standing. Bloody stand-ups, they’re so inconvenient.

I have the feeling that the clunky, over-wrought meetings of the past were rather more substantial than the modern ones that take place every nine-thirty. Don’t get me wrong, I’m no fan of the past. Most things get better over time. But some things get worse and this just happens to be one of them.

Just occasionally, originals can sometimes feel meatier than their flimsy modern iterations. A bit like CRT monitors in a way: they might have been clunky with lots of wires and made an irritating buzzing sound, but they had substance and integrity back then before turning into shiny, lightweight crap.

All of which also goes for the Human League.

Attend another stand-up nine-thirty? I’d rather be boiled.

Alistair DabbsAlistair Dabbs is a freelance technology tart, juggling IT journalism, editorial training and digital publishing. He would like to apologise for the irrelevant references to Human League songs from 1978-80 throughout this week’s column. Now it seems he’s going madder, falling off this rotting ladder. Get James Burke on the case.

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