The square and the tower: why meetings and meeting spaces are more important than ever before

In his 2018 book The Square and the Tower, the historian Niall Ferguson argues that over a period of hundreds of years the world has been shaped primarily by two distinct organisational forces: networks and hierarchies. These are the square and the tower of the book’s title. Their interplay has been at the heart of major world events and the lessons that arise apply to what we now mistakenly assume to be a uniquely networked era.

Although the book addresses the great themes of history, it also offers up a compelling metaphor that can be scaled down to describe a number of other human domains. One of the most important of these is the workplace, which has its own challenges when it comes to both networks and hierarchies.

And this is perhaps most evident when we witness how the demand for greater collaboration (delivered by the tower) intersects with the way people network with each other (in the square). This is the point at which the objectives of the organisation intersect with the needs of people and teams. In a word, we are talking about meetings.

[perfectpullquote align=”right” bordertop=”false” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]The subject of meetings is one of those that all too frequently generates as much heat as it does light[/perfectpullquote]

The subject of meetings is one of those that all too frequently generates as much heat as it does light. It is just as emotive a subject for people as office temperature, noise and distractions and the volatility of technology. Everybody has sat through unnecessary or misbegotten meetings. Everybody has left them with an awareness of to-dos that will remain undone.

Yet at the same time, meetings are essential in a world that is reliant on relationships and the exchange of ideas and information. Organisations are focussed on collaboration, togetherness and serendipity for very good reasons. Knowledge, engagement and personal interactions are the foundations of their success.

People also rely more than ever before on their interactions with colleagues and others for a similar number of interrelated reasons: to meet the objectives of their own role; to have a sense of belonging; to learn and develop; to build relationships; to create and make things happen; and to become engaged with what they do.

The reason why meetings often frustrate us so much is because we are aware of how important all of those factors are. That is the root cause of the emotional responses we have to both good and poor experiences in meetings. A good meeting can facilitate all of the factors that drive organisational and personal success and wellbeing whilst poor meetings can frustrate them.

It is essential that the places in which all of these things take place provide a sophisticated and adaptable response to these complex needs. Even though more and more meetings take place online, we still rely on face to face interaction, which remains the very best way to develop relationships with colleagues and clients and which is demonstrably the best way to exchange ideas and information.

The objective of this White Paper is to explore the current state of play with regard to meetings and especially why they are still so important and why we must design cultures and offices that make sense of the new era of networks. I hope you enjoy it.