While online meetings have been the hero of the pandemic, they have also been responsible for some crushing the souls of employees. During the pandemic, organizations turned, sometimes too much, to online meetings to build community, align teams, and supervise staff.
We traded commutes and cubicles for online meetings. Overall, it was a good trade, but perhaps we over compensated. A more generous description might be that it was too much of a good thing. Meetings came to dominate the workday — whatever "the workday" is, as the clear start and stop of the workday also disappeared, and now work, including meetings,routinely invades all hours of the day. Virtual meetings have also expanded into our personal time in the form of doctor appointments, social gatherings, and even weddings.
After multiple years of this pandemic-infused “new normal,” a rebellion is brewing. Meetings are increasingly viewed as the enemy of productivity. Consider the Canadian ecommerce company Shopify, which recently purged all recurring meetings with more than two people from employee calendars. It also announced new meeting policies, such as no-meeting Wednesdays, and restricted big meetings (50 or more participants) to certain times of certain days.
Meetings are an easy target. They are, after all, something we do when we are not actually working. Work is what happens between meetings. That’s because most don’t go to meetings to be productive. Work is how we whittle-away our virtual or physical inbox, and there isn’t much whittling during meetings. The value of meetings also varies among participants. This is nicely covered in Paul Graham’s classic Maker’s Schedule, Manager’s Schedule post.
In addition to interfering with efficiency and productivity, common complaints about meetings include frequency, relevance, lack of focus, and a lack of actionable outcomes.
Complaining about meetings is nothing new, especially among technical professionals. However, with layoffs in season, everyone wants to look busy, so it’s a good time to shun meetings.It doesn’t make sense to complain about productivity in meetings. Meetings are rarely where work actually gets done. Instead, meetings are mostly about making sure the "right" work gets done. Organizational alignment is not something that can or should be assumed, and that’s where meetings shine. They contribute to productivity by reducing rework and wasted work. And, the good news is that online meetings improve this process.
Communication and collaboration are the key ingredients to create shared values. Yes, there are meetings that could be replaced with an email or Teams Chat, but those modalities can’t replace all meetings. In order to realize the best from a team of talented, diverse individuals, it’s critical to get them spending time talking, listening, and understanding each other. High-performance teams meet, share, and learn together.
Meetings are different from textual or even telephonic conversations for two main reasons: they involve a full range of conversational cues beyond words that make conversations more effective. I’m talking about eye contact, a raised eyebrow. We communicate things like fear and confidence largely through non-verbal actions. Meetings also invite interactive and interactive collaboration.
While a no meetings policy may seem more efficient, it’s a short-term benefit. Communication breakdowns will create rework and cause teams to become dysfunctional. Individuals get off track, and are denied the benefits of team problem-solving. Meetings foster alignment and informed decisions, they propagate organizational values.
Online tools are part of the solution. Let's start with convenience. Microsoft’s and Google’s calendaring tools default to full hour meetings which allow zero minutes to get from one meeting to the next. By eliminating travel (regardless if it’s steps, cars, or planes), online meetings are more convenient. They can be scheduled more easily and on short notice.
Online meetings also enable asynchronous meetings. In the simplest form, this means recording the meeting and making it available to those that could not make the actual live meeting. However, it can also be used in lieu of a real-time meeting. Instead of invitations to attend a meeting, send invitations to view a recording.
I’m a big fan of asynchronous meetings. They don’t necessarily foster collaboration, but meetings often have an information sharing component that can be separated. This allows an increase in efficiency because we can hear the presentations on our own schedule, and as an added bonus, we can increase the playback speed. We can hear and retain information faster than we can speak or share it, so recordings that allow recipients to play back meetings in less time saves them time. The collaborative aspect of the meeting can be treated separately. So, effectively broadcast the presentation part of a meeting, and then schedule a separate interactive discussion for a shorter time. Breaking up the meeting into two distinctive components gives employees more control over their time.
Peter Drucker, an influential management consultant and educator, said that, “Time is the scarcest resource and unless it is managed nothing else can be managed.” By allowing employees to control their time, and dedicated blocks throughout their day to different tasks, they will be able to accomplish tasks more efficiently. You’ll see yourself getting more productive and avoiding time-consuming distractions. Better control of our time allows us to focus and prioritize accordingly.
Another option is to skip the meeting, and just send a video message. It’s the modern equivalent of a voicemail. Examples of this feature include Video Clip in Microsoft Teams and Webex Vidcast. These services allow users to send screenshare-enabled video recordings. It allows anyone to create effective videos for status updates, announcements, and check-ins.
Online meetings also increase participation. In-person meetings can be intimidating. In online meetings, everyone has a great seat, and everyone has personal control over their volume and visual layout. Participants can contribute to a whiteboard without having to fight for a marker or walk to the front of the room.
That said, online meetings have a few features I recommend avoiding. I am not a fan of voting or polling unless it materially impacts the content. The vast majority of polls are pointless surveys with no purpose or impact. If the poll results do not contribute to an outcome or objective, skip it.
It’s not the meetings that are the enemy of productivity, but the poor use of them. . Unfortunately, efficient meetings, especially online meetings is not something they taught in school (though that may have changed during the pandemic). Online meetings are indeed a part of the solution. Banning meetings is not.
Dave Michels is a contributing editor and analyst at TalkingPointz.