Once upon a time, the world was untouched by Covid-19. People jostled each other on the way to their offices, where they could interact with colleagues without worrying about social distancing.
Yet even then, most employees were united in their dislike of meetings. Studies showed that the perception of inefficient meetings was prevalent. In the equivalence of “time is money,” with employees spending an average of 6 hours per week in meetings (even more for managers), organizations lost around $213 billion per year.
The pandemic fast-forwarded most of us into the age of remote work, something that had long promised to change workplace culture, among other things. And it certainly did shake things up for a lot of organizations.
But have we really changed our attitude toward meetings, and more importantly, the way we conduct them?
The meeting strikes back
Long before the pandemic, some companies were already allowing their people to work remotely. Advocates of the ‘digital nomad’ lifestyle enthused about how much freedom they had and how co-working spaces offered a superior working environment.
They had discovered that you don’t really need to be in the same place, with the same people, day after day. You could use an assortment of apps to host group chats, get on video calls, and keep track of projects on which you were collaborating.
By extension, this implies that remote work should lighten our load and liberate more time from the black hole of unproductive meetings. Yet the evidence indicates otherwise.
With more people than ever having to work remotely, we now find ourselves swamped with meetings and related activities, such as email or after-hours communication. Far from being diminished, it would seem that the pandemic has actually encouraged us to spend more time in work-related meetings.
The social factor
In the context of these unusual times, that doesn’t have to be a bad thing. Social distancing, wearing face masks, and being unable to go out as freely as before can take a toll on our well-being. You can understand why, for once, co-workers might want to spend more time in meetings.
That would be great if it had the desired effect of counteracting the general feeling of isolation. Unfortunately, due to the loss of nonverbal cues, online communication is not an adequate substitute for the richness of face-to-face interactions.
Video calls, chats, emails, and social media messages are useful ways of checking in with colleagues and getting status updates on your projects. But they can’t bridge the sense of distance that we’re all feeling during this era of isolation.
If your meetings aren’t helping to offset the loss of this social aspect, can you really justify spending even more time facilitating or participating in them? Isn’t that just magnifying the flaws of office meetings in general before the pandemic?
Efficiency and engagement
In any organization, meetings are supposed to serve two functions. The official function is to get participants on the same page regarding the meeting’s agenda. Unofficially, they help to foster the informal social interactions that bring colleagues closer together, ‘greasing’ the working relationship to help teams function more smoothly over time.
Even under ordinary circumstances, those dual purposes can end up being unfulfilled.
Inefficiencies are what leave people with the sense that their time was wasted in a meeting, that perhaps the whole thing might have been better as an email thread. How do you fix that amid the pandemic and beyond?
First, organizations need to take advantage of emerging technologies. Early in 2020, most teams began to use the common platforms and apps: Zoom, Slack, Trello, Microsoft Teams, and so on. But innovation continues to come out of Silicon Valley as tech companies seek to address new issues.
Second, even as you strive to keep the majority of your meetings brief and efficient, don’t overlook the social aspect. Set aside the occasional meeting strictly for this purpose.
When a big client visits a company, they pull out all the stops, orienting staff, rolling out the red carpet, getting customized tour buses and reservations for a power lunch. In a meeting designed to foster social interactions, everyone needs to get virtual VIP treatment.
That means, at minimum, dressing up and really paying attention to your screen. No pajamas, no switching off audio and video, and probably a smaller group size to allow more focus and interaction (and more real estate on everyone’s screens).
Spice up these meetings with a game, like what events hosting startup Kumospace offers. Or invite a celebrity guest speaker, or host a class where everyone can learn something new.
Remember the Pareto rule. Let 80% of your meetings be quick and goal-focused. For the remainder, though, jazz things up. This way, you can balance efficiency and engagement in the big picture.