Kill meetings (before meetings kill your company)

Meetings have been problematic for decades. They’re often used as a catch-all solution to unresolved problems. And a chronic lack of meeting discipline means that, for all the time spent getting people together, little is accomplished.

Now, in a post-pandemic remote work world, where hybrid work and flex work are common, meetings are turning into something like an ongoing crisis at many organizations. They’re harming productivity and causing havoc with employee morale.

And yet with many remote workers saying they feel disconnected, the misguided consensus is that even more meetings are the answer.

How to connect the disconnected

A happy employee might be found in a home office. But there’s also an elephant in the room. The elephant is that many employees feel isolated, alone and disconnected from the people they work with and the mission of the company.

It’s more than just a feeling. A recent Gallup survey found that only 28% of remote workers feel a connection to their employer’s mission or purpose, the lowest level since the COVID-19 pandemic.

That sounds like a strong case in favor of back-to-office mandates and against remote work trends. But it turns out only 33% of full-time office workers felt that connection. So, the lack of connection among workers is a problem for remote and in-office workers alike.

The solution is more meetings, right? Well, not so fast.

I talked to Molly Sands, who leads Atlassian’s Team Anywhere Lab. (The lab designs evidence-based practices for high performing distributed teams, according to the company’s website.)

“Meetings far and away are the most overused tool,” she said. “People are using them for everything, and they have far too many. This isn’t a new problem.” The problematic nature of meetings seems well understood: 80% of the people surveyed say they would be more productive if they spent less time in meetings, according to Sands.

“More than half of people are saying they’re working overtime because they have so many meetings that they can’t get their work done during the day…. So this is an efficiency problem for companies.”

And while the overall in-office experience might reduce a feeling of isolation, Sands says there’s no evidence that meetings themselves make people feel more connected.

Hybrid meetings, less connecting

Part of the problem is the new world of meetings — which tend to happen in real time over videoconferencing tools such Zoom, Cisco Webex, GoToMeeting, Google Meet, Microsoft Teams and BlueJeans — are less connection-enhancing than in-person get-togethers. These tools encourage meetings between people globally, which creates a new problem.

The demand for two, several or many people to devote the same range of time to a real-time meeting is a major problem. It burdens some employees over others, depending on their time zone. (That 2 p.m. call for California is a 10 p.m. call for Germany — and a 6 a.m. call in Japan.)

And it undermines the goal of flex work, which is key for employee satisfaction. An employee working from home and needing a flex-work schedule isn’t getting that flexibility if half the day involves scheduled, real-time meetings.

Another way the remote work revolution has affected office work is that, even for people in offices, a much larger percentage of meetings are with colleagues not present in the room. In-office workers now spend most of their time collaborating with co-workers who are not physically present.

The result: office and remote workers alike feel increasingly disconnected while simultaneously being burdened by meetings.

Sands’ research found that, in addition to a couple of short update meetings each week, the key to success is asynchronous written and video communication, focused on priorities and recognition. (The video communication took place using Atlassian’s Loom tool, with which people can record a video to overlay on desktop screens, presentation material and other content, then send to be viewed later when the recipient has time. Loom is an amazing tool, which Atlassian explicitly markets as a powerful way to replace some meetings. It gives the psychological impact of an in-person meeting without the need to sync up in real time and waste time on frequent and long meetings.)

Asynchronous video greatly reduces the burden of real-time meetings while providing many of the psychological benefits. It offers the time flexibility of email with the personal visual satisfaction of video calls.

More to the point: “There are a lot of better ways now that new technologies have unlocked for us to share information, to connect,” says Sands.

The best part, in my opinion, is that we’re just getting started.

Augmented or virtual meeting spaces?

Augmented reality and spatial computing promise to create an even better sense of connection through holographic avatars. That means many of the interactions in offices that do foster a sense of connection become possible just about anywhere. The “pop-in” can be replaced by the “pop-up” hologram. Those water cooler conversations and spontaneous collaboration and brainstorming can take place in virtual spaces.

Artificial intelligence (AI) tools promise to revolutionize internal communication, helping organizations engender a sense of connection among employees, overcome communication barriers and surface the right data from organizational communication for better decision-making.

The ability of generative AI (genAI) tools to slice and dice content means that communication can be served up to match recipients  learning styles, informational needs and specific languages. A single missive from a manager can be received by one employee with detailed complexity, another as bullet points, yet another as a spoken-word “voice mail.”

AI can help break down silos and share more information from across an organization without overburdening employees with time consuming meetings.

GenAI tools can also hoover up large bodies of back-and-forth information within an organization and perform sentiment analysis detailing for information managers and business leaders any points of frustration, confusion or lack of direction. AI tools can even tap into the communication hive mind and offer up micro-learning sessions for employees who are not understanding something.

It’s time for a total re-think on meetings

The bottom line is that now is a perfect time to reconsider every aspect of the meetings that happen every day at your company. They are now way too frequent, way too long and way too ineffective. It’s time to move to asynchronous and advanced forms of communications offered by a raft of new tools and new management practices.

Your overburdened, over-scheduled  employees will thank you.

Copyright © 2024 IDG Communications, Inc.


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