Meeting overload? Time to get smarter about meetings

There are three big curses of the modern workplace (I look forward to your additional suggestions here):

  • the daily commute
  • overcommunication
  • meetings.

We have argued elsewhere that there is a huge opportunity to drive up levels of homeworking and flexible working to reduce costs, keep employees happier and to meet green targets. (see Flexible working still a huge opportunity for B2B telcos)
But what about that other bane of many working lives – the meeting.
Research by the Harvard Business School and Boston University found that 65% of senior managers say meetings keep them from completing their own work, while 71% said they find meetings to be unproductive and inefficient.
Earlier this year, Doodle produced an interesting analysis of meeting culture in the UK, Germany and the US. The State of Meetings Report 2019 found that 76% of professionals surveyed preferred face-to-face meetings. Only 16% preferred ‘technological’ meeting methods, such as those provided by B2B service providers and resellers.

  • 7% preferred conference calls
  • 5% preferred video calls
  • 4% preferred IM or email.

This is a profound statement. It’s 2019 and we still prefer to meet people face-to-face rather than meet up remotely via technology.
What’s worse, this same research found that 71% of respondents said that their working life was negatively impacted by poorly organised meetings, with the effect most pronounced in Germany (74%) – although the UK (72%) and the US (68%) were close behind. But professionals in the UK and US had another complaint. Half of them weren’t even actively participating in the meetings that were disrupting their day, with 52% in the UK and 49% in the US saying they just attended to make up the numbers.
Meeting platform vendor BlueJeans agrees. It says that its own research suggests that while knowledge workers spend 31% of their working life in meetings, 48% of meeting attendees are there simply because of FOMO (fear of missing out). The same study found that for 52% of respondents the meetings glut is forcing them to work nights and weekends to get their ‘day job’ done. While 90% are more likely to stay with their organization if they could get time back by skipping unnecessary meetings.
Collaboration vendor Trello has an answer as to why so many meetings are unproductive. It highlights the very modern problem of technological distractions, and advocates removing them from meetings to increase participation. Interestingly, at the same time Trello champions how important human face-to-face connection is (which can be via video calls) for workers to feel happy, productive and inspired – especially homeworkers.
Trello’s head of product management Justin Gallagher says: “Teams that feel connected to each other naturally talk more and collaborate better”. He notes that Trello itself walks the walk by embracing the use of technology. “At Trello, we have a rule that unless every person is in the same room, all meetings are held over video conference and everyone dials in on their own laptops. This makes it easier to speak up and prevents alienation via a conference room full of echoes and side conversations”.
In the collaboration economy, collaborating more effectively is both a critical issue and big business. Markets and Markets, for example, forecasts that the Collaboration market will be worth USD48 billion by 2024. While the cost of all this meeting distraction was calculated by Realization way back in 2013 to be USD450 billion globally.
But if so many meetings are unnecessary or unproductive, what should companies be doing?
This raises an interesting point. If the value of meetings is only measured on their tactical application to projects and operations, then it’s easy to see how so much time is viewed as wasted. This is the sort of mentality though that measures how many calls a CSR can answer in a day, or how many keystrokes a worker can enter in an hour. It is seeing humans as little more than organic robots, rather than appreciating their inherent value over machines – such as creativity, empathy, lateral thinking, and so on.
Human beings need human interaction to be productive, creative and happy. And yet all-too-often technology and business imperatives are creating more isolation. When meetings serve to bond teams, make workers feel happier, share experiences and learn lessons, then there is considerable value created beyond the tactical. While some of this value is hard to capture, understanding it means applying metrics such as employee retention and idea or product creation for the team.
Trello’s Gallagher says it’s important to create opportunities for dispersed teams to socialize remotely. He suggests allocating portions of the meeting for chatting about non-work activities, 5-minute ice-breaker games or catching up on company news.
In the 90s we used to read a lot about “watercooler meetings”, which those of us in the UK always rolled our eyes at because we didn’t have watercoolers back then (many UK businesses still don’t). But the venue doesn’t matter. It could be at the printer, queuing for the lift or while making tea or coffee. The core idea is that serendipitous, ad hoc meetings can be highly productive, creative and good for morale.
The challenge is that with shorter or no lunchbreaks, fewer coffee breaks, more people working from home, and more pressure to be constantly productive, many professionals no longer benefit from these ad hoc moments that fuel the creative juices and make workers feel more bonded.
Companies must remember that the Connected World is not just about laying fibre or covering the world in 5G. Connectivity is also about people. Connecting people to data, applications, ideas and one another. That includes full-time employees, part-time workers, temporary workers, contractors, homeworkers and remote workers, so that everyone feels part of the team.
BlueJeans has its own answer to the challenge of meeting productivity. Announcing the launch of Smart Meetings it says there has been too much emphasis on “operational quality, not meeting quality”. Smart Meetings delivers a range of functions to make meetings more effective and productive including:

  • better documentation – combining AI with crowd-sourced notes ensures that everyone’s view is represented
  • increased action-orientation – in-line action items ensure that to-dos are identified and assigned owners, with automatic alerts and follow-up flags
  • on-demand meeting summaries – which make it easier to watch highlights of the meeting in a seven-minute meeting recap
  • an interactive meeting hub – that stores a complete register of meetings plus highlights.

BlueJeans is not alone in adding functionality to make meetings easier. GoToMeeting has just added the ability to take notes and screenshots, for example.
But hand in hand with innovating functionality comes M&A in the meeting platform, collaboration and UC markets in order to create the wider solutions that enterprises and small businesses want. This process has already begun. For example:

  • Cisco has merged its Spark and WebEx platforms (April 2018), buys Voicea (August 2019)
  • Videxio and Pexip merge (October 2018)
  • 8×8 bought Jitsi (October 2018)
  • PerfectServe bought Lightning Bolt Solutions and Carewire (February 2019) and Telmediq (January 2019)
  • Alibaba acquired Teambition (March 2019)

Enterprises’ goals are a simpler, easier to use and more productive employee experience. The vendor market will eventually need to reflect such goals.

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