A friend who returned to work from home after maternity leave just marked her one-year anniversary of said return. I’ve been back half that time and only just realised how much I miss going somewhere.
Not high-flying business travel around the world, but the daily commute; the journey to and from a meeting with colleagues who are really more like friends; the walk and talk before the next big block in the diary. Ephemeral moments shared with strangers, friends and people with interesting shoes (I really do miss seeing people’s shoes). The time before the thing that’s the big deal in your day that day. Call it meeting foreplay, if you will.
Like the trailers before the movie or the slow ascent of the roller coaster, meeting foreplay builds excitement and tension. Even the most humdrum internal morning meeting – let’s call it a quickie – benefits from some sort of meeting foreplay. We gather, brews in hand, awaiting instruction and mentally running through what we’ll cover when it’s our bit. And as we do so, we blether. We ask people how they are – the Brits replying "fine" even if they’ve just had the most horrific weekend – while others answer the question properly. We engage in idle chit-chat, unwittingly wrapping one another in a blanket of psychological safety – threaded even tighter when agency leaders engage and share too.
This isn’t just anecdote. Harvard Business Review agrees. In a recent study, more than 150 working adults were surveyed daily over several weeks. The results showed that on days where participants experienced more small talk, they also "experienced more positive emotions and less burnout".
But it’s more than just feeling a bit happier every day. In a 1979 longitudinal study of more than 7000 people over a nine-year period, researchers found those with the fewest social connections had mortality rates more than twice as high as those with the most social contacts. More recent studies have equated the positive impact of social connection on mortality rate as similar to that of stopping smoking.
And it’s not just friendships out of work either; a 20-year follow-up study of healthy employees assessing many factors explored the degree of social support they received while at work. Those reporting high levels had a significantly lower mortality risk, particularly those who were in their mid-thirties to forties when the study kicked off.
Am I saying blethering before a meeting can help us all live longer and healthier lives? I guess I am. Because all of this adds up to something. It builds relationships and friendships – a way of working that no flow chart could ever replace. It is human beings, being human beings. Creating the environment where people feel comfortable enough to be creative; to take risks; to make or buy great work; to ask questions and for help; and to fail and learn from the experience. For agencies, it means how we conduct our relationships – with each other, our clients and partners – is as important as the work we produce. And meeting foreplay is part and parcel of that.
The need to keep working harder on it is only going to intensify as the world opens up – even if most of our meetings are still remote. And yet the experts are against it.
A business consultant told me there’s far too much "hot tub whirlpooling" at Mother – the chit chat at the beginning of a meeting, which, apparently, eats into the efficiency of our working day. Translated from management speak: there are too many "how are yous" or spiralling conversations around what everyone is devouring on which streaming platform this week.
I think these questions have never been more important. As the isolation caused by the bloody pandemic continues, distinctions between work and home; mind, body and spirit have proved purely semantic. It’s all one thing, one flow, one system. There’s never been a greater need to prioritise the emotional connections that bring us balance, support and ultimately safety.
So, as I yearn for opportunities to people watch and eavesdrop on conversations on trains, in cafes and through the curtains in actual-real-world-shop-fitting-rooms, I’m taking comfort in focusing more and more of my headspace and efforts on meeting foreplay.
How do we make it happen in a virtual world? How can it feel good and not excruciatingly awkward? How do we navigate it when we’ve never met before? How does it flourish when procurement is watching the clock? How to move the conversation on without the blunt key change into the serious bit?
There are many more burning questions facing us as an industry, but as we’re nothing without our people, I’d suggest a little more conversation might just be the most important thing we can do each day.
Katie Mackay‑Sinclair is a partner at Mother