Early this year in the sun-streaked offices of Spring, a handsomely capitalized shopping start-up in Manhattan’s Flatiron district, Octavian Costache, the company’s chief technology officer and one of its founders, claimed a spot near the bright new kitchen to make a speech at a weekly all-hands meeting. For several months, I’d been working as a consultant to the company, and, though this was my last day, it was the first time I’d heard Costache address the team. I was excited. Costache, a 34-year-old Romanian with a dimpled, affable face, previously worked at Google, where he helped build Gmail’s multiple-inbox capability and various features of Google Maps. He commands rapt attention at Spring. But on this morning, Costache didn’t want to talk about software. He wanted to talk about meetings.

Specifically, he wanted to talk about meetings as thieves: of joy, of productivity, of mental freedom. Citing a distinction first made by Paul Graham, the prominent venture capitalist, Costache told the room that some people thrive on meetings. These he called Managers, people who require a weekly calendar splotched to saturation with hourly changes of venue and cohort. But there are Makers, too — poetic souls whose well-being can be shattered by an ill-timed ‘‘sync,’’ ‘‘brand lab’’ or ‘‘share-out’’ in a conference room. Makers can’t live like Managers. They require ‘‘Maker hours’’ — long, unspoiled afternoons to muse, contemplate the verities, build digital things and play stress-relieving games of Carcassonne. They need rich, solitary, germinative time. In Graham’s formula, Makers flourish in four-hour stretches, which absolutely must — on pain of inhibiting a company’s growth — be kept unblemished by meetings.

To illustrate Graham’s idea of ‘‘Manager’s schedule,’’ Costache put a riotously mosaicked Google Calendar week on the monitor. Then, as he described the needs of Makers, he summoned to his screen a stunning new Google Calendar week, awash in puffy clouds of white space. It looked like heaven.

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The room was enthusiastic. Maker hours blend childhood summer-day vagueness with a thick coat of artistic entitlement. But by the time the team dispersed, we’d faced facts: We were Managers or Managers’ minions, most of us, ineligible for stretches of solitude, destined for lives of video conferences and call-in codes. And indeed, only the product, design and engineering teams at Spring — today’s nobility — were now slated to enjoy one full day a week of Maker time. The Maker’s schedule was the privilege of the elite builders of code and apps, and the scope of makable things was not going to include casseroles, movies and corn-husk dolls anytime soon. We were to return to days chopped, like hot dogs for toddlers, into meetings.
‘‘Meetings’’: The very word is enervating. With the freedom to peaceably assemble so high up on America’s founding priority list, you’d think that the workers of the free world would gather with more patriotic vigor, just as we speak, bear arms and pursue trials by jury. Instead, the spirit in which we come together, almost hourly in some professions, is something closer to despondency. Fifteen percent of an organization’s time is spent in meetings, and every day, the transcontinental conference room known as the white-collar United States plays host to 11 million meetings, according to research collated by Fuze, the telecommunications company (which might have a stake in publicizing research designed to stoke meeting fatigue). One study mysteriously calculates that the nation wastes more than $37 billion in ‘‘unproductive meetings.’’ The statistics seemed borne out by the several meeting-besotted companies I’ve advised, and I began to wonder if the Manager’s schedule suited anyone but tireless extroverts and PowerPoint connoisseurs.
And yet we persist. Meetings must be scratching some kind of itch, if only for fellowship and a reprieve from deskbound loneliness. And what an itch: Meetings are not just considered indispensable to many professions; they are almost coextensive with them. You can make a whole career of planning, holding and attending meetings and never dare contemplate the possibility of your being exempt. They can’t be avoided, but maybe they can be made bearable. I set out to see if anyone had a bright idea.
Naturally, the sneakered overclass — whose signature sport is to disrupt everything, from Ikea furniture to courtship — has tried its hand at hacking meetings. One such meeting hacker is Costache’s inspiration, Paul Graham, a British essayist and programmer and a founder of Y Combinator, the storied Mountain View, Calif., firm that invests in and counsels start-ups.
‘‘Don’t your spirits rise at the thought of having an entire day free to work, with no appointments at all?’’ Graham asks in his influential 2009 essay, ‘‘Maker’s Schedule, Manager’s Schedule.’’ ‘‘Well, that means your spirits are correspondingly depressed when you don’t.’’ Correspondingly depressed: an apt description of most faces in the meetings I’ve been to lately.
I asked Graham, by email, if he still believed in the split between Managers and Makers that he outlined seven years ago. ‘‘Of course I stand behind it,’’ he wrote back, in brisk, English-accented prose. ‘‘I wrote that essay.’’ Graham then described his ideal meeting, conjuring a congenial fantasy. ‘‘There are no more than four or five participants, and they know and trust one another. They go rapidly through a list of open questions while doing something else, like eating lunch. There are no presentations. No one is trying to impress anyone. They are all eager to leave and get back to work.’’
Graham’s minimalist approach to meetings stands in stark contrast to the one taken by Brian Robertson, the author of the notorious management method known as Holacracy, which convenes intense, expressive meetings that encourage every manner of human interaction except maybe professional ones. Robertson, who calls himself a ‘‘recovering C.E.O.,’’ created ‘‘the Holacracy Constitution’’ in 2009, just as skepticism about corporate structures, like the ones at the failed big banks, had turned to fever.
Robertson’s book, ‘‘Holacracy: The New Management System for a Rapidly Changing World,’’ presents an engaging theory: minority voices need a forum to register problems others don’t see, and a company should function like an ‘‘evolutionary organism,’’ which sounds both gentle and scientific. And the argument that inflexible, hierarchical regimes are a thing of the past, poised to fall any day now to nimble teams of disruptive kids, is of course the fairy tale of the start-up economy that keeps on giving. Holacracy has been embraced by Tony Hsieh, the C.E.O. of Zappos, and Evan Williams, who helped found Twitter and then started Medium.com, the publishing platform.
These artist-first systems end up building a new form of social stratification that is every bit as forbidding as the old one.

The Holacratic system is grounded in small cells of people called Circles. Each Circle holds a weekly or biweekly ‘‘tactical meeting’’ for progress updates and a biweekly or monthly ‘‘governance meeting.’’ A governance meeting starts with a Check-In, or rather (according to Holacracy literature) ‘‘a space for every participant to call out any distraction and get present for the meeting.’’ Everyone speaks, round-robin style.

Now presumably present, people ‘‘triage any administrative and logistical issues,’’ or yell out arbitrary personal concerns. Holacracy gives this example: ‘‘Joe needs to leave early.’’ (Abstractions are common in meeting-reform discourse, so Joe’s scheduling constraints are a usefully concrete example of the actual content of modern meetings.)
Next, anyone can propose a Tension, which is anything that concerns her. Participants are then free to ask Clarifying Questions, but these in no way can cross into Reactions (because they’re next). A Facilitator has the unenviable job of policing the fine line between pure-hearted questions and bloviation disguised as interrogatives.
At last everyone in a Holacratic meeting can yammer freely, without a referee, on their sundry reactions. ‘‘Any type of reaction is welcome, from intellectual critiques to emotional outbursts.’’ Then comes an Amend and Clarify round, and, lest any clarification stand unmuddied for even a heartbeat, a rousing Objection round follows hard upon it. An Integration round comes next, and yet another Objection round, to address any new objections to the Clarification of the Tension and the Reactions to it that have surfaced during the Integration. Finally comes the Closing round, during which each and every person present is invited to share a closing reflection about how to improve the next meeting. After this, there is, explicitly, ‘‘no discussion.’’ Presumably, those with still more to say should be tested for Adderall poisoning.
From the outside, Holacratic meetings sound like cacophonous encounter groups. But putting unlikely and uninhibited interlocutors to­­gether sometimes generates original ideas. It’s also possible that these meetings, to which everyone raucously contributes, promote a bond of common purpose. Ancient human habits aren’t hacked easily, however. As Roger Hodge re­ported in The New Republic last fall, em­ployees at Zappos, which started to go Holacratic in 2013, have balked at the changes, and some have cowered at Circle meetings. ‘‘I’m afraid to speak up in my Circle because I’m afraid my lead link might retaliate,’’ as one anonymous employee complained on a message board.
Is it possible that power structures — or intractable human dynamics — pervade even groovy egalitarian be-ins? This would seem to be the lesson of the commune movement of the 1960s, or the French Revolution. A so-called Zappos exodus started with the company’s adoption of Holacracy, and 18 percent of Zappos employees have taken buyouts in the last year. (Hsieh said last month that departing employees were not so much put off by Holacracy as enticed by generous buyout packages.)
Paul Graham’s idea of tracking workers into separate spheres (vocational and liberal arts?) would seem the precise opposite of Holacracy, which purports to raze hierarchies. But in giving the right of way to special employees — either those who assert themselves as Makers, or those who feel entitled to florid self-expression in the workplace — the two approaches have something in common. Both favor artistic and even capricious temperaments. These artist-first systems end up building a new form of social stratification that is every bit as forbidding as the old one.
More recently, an even newer meeting reformer has arrived, claiming that his system preserves the camaraderie and usefulness of meetings while ditching the drudgery. This is Stewart Butterfield, a founder and the C.E.O. of Slack, the popular workplace communication tool known for its speedy circulation of gifs and other digital office diversions. On Slack, which was developed in 2013 so its founders could discuss a game they were building, participants sign into ‘‘channels,’’ and threads unspool with surprising fluency and delight. A Slack conversation proceeds like a group text. If you like to type, riff and find links, it’s stimulating, with the energy of a chat room from the Internet’s early days. But Butterfield believes that Slack will also revolutionize meetings.
As Butterfield told me through a company representative, ‘‘Slack allows teams to have both asynchronous and synchronous communication across physical locations, allowing more time for thoughtful communication than a typical meeting scenario.’’ With ‘‘asynchronous and synchronous,’’ Butterfield tacitly aimed to correct the widespread impression that Slack replaces email (asynchronous communication) rather than meetings (which are synchronous — participants respond to one another in real time). The full archiving of meetings on Slack, which requires a fee for some companies, also means that everyone (even Joe, leaving early) can bear witness to a meeting, as questions and decisions are recorded for all to see. Slack’s tagline is ‘‘Be less busy.’’
With the firm support of Slack, Under Armour, the athletic apparel company, has opted to turn to the software for meetings, abolishing virtu­ally all in-person gatherings. This appeals to Vijay Raghunathan, vice president for engineering at Under Armour, who says that for companies with small offices and spread-out work forces, Slack is a godsend, an elastic virtual room. At the same time, when team members go too far astray into gags or wordplay during a meeting, they’re directed to recreational channels. Sending people to other channels when they go off-topic is called ‘‘raccooning,’’ and being raccooned is like being sent to supremely cool detention: Dedicated channels exist for puns, parenting, puppies and dozens more special interests.

Credit Illustration by James Graham

‘‘The company feels a lot more connected,’’ Raghunathan says, and this connection — rather than efficient decision-making — seems to be the primary reason for his enthusiasm about Slack. According to a survey by Slack, companies that use the tool have cut their traditional meetings by 25 percent. This sounds intrinsically good, except maybe for those who prefer to find connection in shaking hands, breaking bread or hugging in the California style — rather than standing at inattention, face in an app, to trade gifs with colleagues who might be one desk over.
‘Slack doesn’t replace meetings,’’ Costache objected, when I asked him, on the phone. ‘‘It replaces the water cooler.’’ I remembered the cold-brew coffee keg in Spring’s office that, judging by the voluble group often around it, seemed to have replaced the water cooler already. ‘‘When saddle-makers wanted to sell saddles, they promoted riding horses. Slack sells the idea of a new kind of meeting and a new kind of workplace in order to sell Slack.’’

So, I asked, what do we do about meetings? Just ban them?

Costache thought for a minute. He aspires to turn Spring, with his partners David and Alan Tisch, into a billion-dollar business — and then return to Romania as a ‘‘benevolent dictator.’’ You can see him pulling it off.
‘‘I’m not that radical,’’ he said, at last. ‘‘There’s too much value to an in-person meeting. When my engineering team has to decide what they want to build in the next two weeks, this is hard to do without meetings. Say it’s me and three other senior engineers discussing an architectural choice about our Python code base. We start to discuss what that looked like, and give one person feedback. . . . ’’ He paused. ‘‘There’s so much volume of information — it’s like a river of information. If it’s a valuable meeting, we all pour this information. Someone’s distraction, another person’s incomprehension. I have this image of a giant pipe, so much richness. It couldn’t go on Slack.’’
Meetings sounded like luxury goods in Costache’s telling. Arid conference rooms started to fade from memory, as I pictured the Hudson, the Ganges.
Aiming for Costache’s idiom, I asked: Is it like high-bandwidth information versus a file that’s compressed and thinned out?
‘‘No. You’re trying to be digital. I’m going the other way. The rivers. The trickle of water. I like analog analogies. Maybe Slack is like Morse code versus in-person meetings, which are like written words. They say much more.’’
Meeting-reform crusaders rarely talk about morally urgent meetings, where the ‘‘tension’’ is not over ergonomic desks, selling athleisure wear to seniors or even the architecture of a Python base, but over whether to shelter asylum-seekers, concede a close election or go to war.
Such consequential meetings were nonetheless the preoccupation of Henry Martyn Robert. Robert, the original meeting hacker, was prompted to renovate meetings in the 1860s, when a discussion of abolitionist politics at a Baptist church in New Bedford, Mass., devolved into chaos. Robert, an Army engineer, was supposed to be in charge. In his private, handwritten business blog, Robert wrote: ‘‘One can scarcely have had much experience in deliberative meetings of Christians without realizing that the best of men, having wills of their own, are liable to attempt to carry out their own views without paying sufficient respect to the rights of their opponents.’’
Determined to rule with more authority, Robert researched and wrote the ‘‘Pocket Manual of Rules of Order for Deliberative Assemblies,’’ loosely based on the practices of the United States House of Representatives. A speaker takes the Floor; an all-powerful Chairman or Chairwoman recognizes him or her; Motions are made, and then denied or sustained; Resolutions are voted on, or tabled. Hierarchies don’t just creep back in, as in Holacracy. Instead, they’re explicitly enforced. The 11th edition of Robert’s Rules of Order, as it’s now called, appeared in 2011.
That Robert’s Rules crystallized in wartime may explain their frank hostility to the chaos of human emotions — the very emotions that, at tech companies, enjoy full flower.

A meeting run by Robert’s Rules can be a joy to behold — though it’s clotted by as much jargon as a Holacratic meeting. That Robert’s Rules crystallized in wartime may explain their frank hostility to the chaos of human emotions — the very emotions that, at tech companies, enjoy full flower. Each participant in Robert’s Rules becomes a binary element: a switch, only ever on or off, pro or con. All the minds in the room, having accepted their role as machine code, come together to approximate an algorithmic organism. No Makers, no rock stars, no special snowflakes of any kind are allowed creative expression, any more than they’d be allowed creativity on an election ballot. Robert’s Rules — still in use in volunteer firehouses, City Councils, school boards and elsewhere — win strong partisans for the way participants fall in line, don’t filibuster and work single-mindedly and democratically toward a common goal.
Order is a noble aspiration, but I still wanted permission to be alone. I went back to Paul Graham’s email, still seeking a guru who, under any pretext at all, would abolish from the workweek all but friendly gatherings and urgent meetings (to be run by Robert’s Rules) in favor of long, fertile hours of solitude. Though it seemed unlikely that I’d be one of the lucky few who could test out of Manager time, I was just trying to merit a spare four hours to make some brownies. ‘‘For the purposes of the essay,’’ Graham had clarified, ‘‘Makers are people who need big chunks of time to do their work, and Managers are everyone else.’’
The French Revolutionary in me balked. I wanted to snap back: It sounds as if Managers are people who aren’t allowed big chunks of time to do their work — whose work isn’t considered important and manly enough to be given room to breathe. And then maybe it’s the Makers who are everyone else. In a thoroughly wired universe, the coveted commodity is freedom from the nets upon nets that catch, connect and entangle us. So no wonder it’s only the privileged few who get that freedom.
Of course, liberation from ‘‘connection’’ is a fantasy that predates Wi-Fi. What’s so bad about meetings, after all? At bottom, they are nothing but time with your fellows. Which suggests that hating meetings might be akin to hating traffic, families or parties — just another way to express our deep ambivalence about that hard fact of existence: other people.