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Do People Need Meetings?

Just how critical has communications technology become for knowledge workers? According to this year’s edition of Microsoft’s annual Work Trend Index, more than half (57%) of the time end users spend in Microsoft 365 is devoted to using its communications functions--Teams meetings, Teams chats, and email. They spend the other 43% in Excel, Word, PowerPoint, and OneNote.

A few caveats: This doesn’t take into account all the other applications people use--CRM, ERP, non-Microsoft productivity applications, or in-house applications. The figures above also add up to 100%, so presumably they don’t account for how much time people spend in, say, Teams and Word simultaneously, i.e., multitasking. Still, it’s fair to say that collaboration applications—of which Teams remains the dominant example—permeate almost every knowledge worker’s day. And that’s not always seen as a good thing, with “productive meeting” being a rarity if not an oxymoron in many people’s work experience.

Microsoft clearly is all-in on AI as the solution to the workload problems nearly-continuous communications tasks cause workers who are just trying to get their jobs done. The company makes this clear in the title of the Work Trend Index report: “Will AI Fix Work?”

Bosses think so, according to Microsoft. Asked which AI-driven benefits would add the most value to their workplace, managers put increased productivity at the top, with 31%, closely followed by, “Helping employees with necessary, but repetitive, mundane tasks” at 29% and “Eliminating employee time-spend on low-value activities” at 25%. The only benefit in the top four not directly related to productivity was “Increasing employee well-being” at 26%.

In keeping with the rollout of its Copilot functionality, Microsoft is positioning AI as the lever people can use to change the role that meetings play in their workday. One of the report’s primary recommendations is, “Think of meetings as a digital artifact and not just a point in time. Encourage people to leverage AI-powered intelligent meeting recaps, transcripts, and recordings to engage with meetings how and when it works best for them.”

On one level, that makes a lot of sense. More simple implementations of meeting recordings and transcripts are already helping people catch up on meetings they couldn’t attend. But I wonder how the managers who are currently freaking out about people not coming into the office will react when those remote workers stop even attending the meetings remotely. If technology—and more importantly, attitudes—shift to allow such a change, workers will likely take advantage of it; the Microsoft report found that, “only 1 in 3 people (35%) think they would be missed in the majority of their meetings.”

The key question is, “Missed by whom?” It's not just your boss that you have to worry about missing you. I’d argue there’s still a culture of “showing up” within a lot of teams, and not all of that is bad; as humans, spending our actual time with someone is how we signal they’re important, and that is unlikely to change anytime soon.

So, while a specific meeting can be a digital artifact and therefore minable by AI to increase our efficiency, until the day comes when we all step back and let our AI-enabled avatars do all the work for us, we’ll still have to go to meetings.