Entrepreneur’s Diary #75 – Meetings 2.0

After three years as a working student for Siemens, I (with a university degree in mathematics and computer science (TUM)) started as a “freelancer” with the same employer. In other words, I signed a tenure contract with them.

This situation was a more intimate connection with Siemens AG than I had had before. Consequently, I started getting more interested in my environment at the company. The first thing I noticed was how thick the telephone book was. Besides, among the leaders, the doctorial title and double-names were more common than with “ordinary ranks”.

But I also noticed in the organization chart that there were eight leadership levels above my own status. I was basically at the lowest of nine levels. As a proud post-graduate freshman, I found that a little strange.
In terms of mathematics, however, it made sense. Let us assume that the average number of teams, groups, departments, main departments, etc. a leader can control is five.

That is a rather high number. In those days, the lower teams had an average of five employees. Five elevated by the factor eight is 390,625. A main department, however, was only three departments. So it makes sense that you actually need many hierarchical levels in order to control 400,000 persons. In my memory, the Siemens of then was rather bigger than that.

Even in those days, we had many meetings. On my (the lowest) level, however, we worked. We had no time for meetings. My boss, who was in charge of all our groups, also did a lot of technical work. But he also had to attend diverse regular and sometimes also spontaneously arranged meetings.

The boss of my boss (a main group leader) was also available for technological work, but had to attend significantly more meetings than my boss. You saw the person above the main group leaders (I no longer remember their title) only once in a while, because mostly they had to attend some meeting or other.

Those working on the floor above us were known to us exclusively from pictures, because you only saw them in person on special occasions. Of course, the gentlemen (I cannot remember a single woman on the “higher echelons” in those days) were always travelling and attending meetings.

In other words: in former times, the higher your hierarchic position was, the more meetings you had to attend, and vice versa. In the lower echelons they were 0%, in the elevated echelons more than 100 % of your office hours.

The sum total was not bad. Because the huge majority of employees actually worked. Meetings were basically restricted to the so-called “overhead”. While the leaders hurried from meeting to meeting, they had excellent assistants, who, when I started, were still called secretaries. Basically, they were all women, and they represented their bosses quite adequately in the enterprise. Consequently, the system worked fairly well.
Of course, at the time we did not yet have all that nonsense with automatic calendars. And there were precise minutes of all meetings, distributed according to a very sophisticated system. In fact, some people actually read them!

Today, matters are different. Sharing the workload and Taylorism are disappearing among brain workers. In the enterprises, the work environment is more democratic. Hierarchies have become less pronounced. There are no longer any secretaries. The “overhead” is now shared by all in a “socialist” manner.

As a consequence, the brain workers now (have to) spend all their time in meetings and/or waste their time with administrative stuff. That is also why all the “important people” work 12 or more hours each day and will sooner or later fall victim to burnout.

And the overhead: I guess it is now considerably more than 30 years ago. Good new times. We run and run, but actually we tread on the mill.

Well, maybe “social media” will give us the opportunity to economise on many hours of meetings and yet to work towards one end more efficiently than in the old world. And then it might give us back more room for our own private lives and at least make more shared interests possible.

In my personal life, it happens. Using the most simple activities in facebook, I only take seconds for tasks that, in former times, would have required an intense dialogue, for example, on the telephone. And without “the new world” I would not even know many of my new friends.

(Translated by EG)

Neither does the development stop in front of office doors. Just compare the situation at Siemens Hofmannstrasse or later at Neuperlach with the modern office buildings for brain workers (for instance at BMW). Even the increased number of meeting halls and the arrangement of team work-spaces in modules is remarkable.

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