The Future of Business Meetings

By Rick Farrell 

Social distancing in the office raises questions; technology offers answers

From sharing constructive feedback to ensuring the alignment of team objectives, business meetings provide critical benefits. Yet the very announcement of an upcoming meeting prompts a negative reaction from many employees. Many seem to share the attitude that underlies a popular meme circulating on social media: “We will continue having meetings until we find out why no work is getting done.”

With as much as 37% of his or her work time spent in meetings, it’s no wonder the average employee dreads the prospect of an unproductive meeting. But despite the jokes, are ineffective, time-wasting meetings really the norm in the real world? The good news is that eight in ten employees report spending 5 hours or fewer each week on unproductive calls or meetings. Assuming a 40-hour work week, a little back-of-the-envelope math indicates that among the large majority of employees, two-thirds of all meeting time is considered “not wasted.” No one should see a reason for complacency in that figure, but at least it counters the notion that a majority of meetings are a poor investment of participants’ time.

As workers gradually return to the office following the pandemic, there’s been a lot of speculation about the likelihood of continued social distancing as a precaution. This, of course, has implications for how business meetings are conducted, including the possibility that meetings will continue to be held virtually with each attendee in their own work station. But before we discuss how that might or might not work, it’s important to understand just what makes for an effective use of meeting time in the first place.

Flipping the lens on views of productivity  

Google “how to have a productive meeting” yields approximately 180 million page results, and a quick scan-through of the first one or two pages reveals that most offer very similar advice. Possibly the most common recurring item on those various lists is “Have an agenda.” An amazing 60% of meetings lack an agenda prepared in advance. According to one source, correcting this oversight can result in an 80% reduction in unproductive meeting time.

Yet Steven Rogelberg, a management professor at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, says the reality is more nuanced. He’s conducted thorough scientific studies of meeting effectiveness, and he’s concluded that “having an agenda in and of itself does nothing for meeting effectiveness.” What’s much more important are softer criteria, such as the attitude of the meeting organizer and whether they recognize that they are “fundamentally a steward of others’ time.”

In a sense this view flips around the lens through which we view the criteria for a productive meeting – from “What makes a meeting productive in the company’s eyes” to “What makes it productive from the employees eyes?” A recent survey revealed that the answer relates to more internal satisfaction than external recognition: 92% of those surveyed felt the criterion for a good meeting was that it gave them “an opportunity to contribute,” while only 66% cited “an opportunity to be recognized.” One might paraphrase this as “a meeting isn’t productive in my eyes unless I help make it productive.”

What’s next?

So if employee engagement is critical, what are the implications for in-office remote meetings via video call? In general, employees would much rather have face-to-face meetings, with three in four expressing that preference. Only 5% prefer video calls.

It’s important to keep in mind that there’s a recurring theme here about what people are seeking, and that’s a greater degree of personalization. It’s the desire for a more personal meeting experience that makes them want to feel they contributed. A face-to-face meeting is similarly more personal than a remote meeting.

But while technology in this case can make a meeting more impersonal, the right technology can also make it more personal. For example, 79% of those surveyed said that, if a meeting must be held remotely, participating through their desktop computer is preferable to doing it via the conference room. In the office of the future, an even more personalized technology may well be widely utilized: wearable communication technology consisting of a simple, comfortable headset along with a transceiver and receiver combination. Using these, people can participate in the meeting from their desk, from the halls, or even from the break room. But the real positive impact may be psychological, in that hearing the speaker’s voice directly in one’s own ears can create an almost intimate sense of connection to the meeting.

The look and feel of the office in the post-pandemic world is still an unknown, but it’s clear that some ingenuity will be required to restore productivity and productivity growth. If meetings have been a barrier to productivity in the past, the new world may offer some solutions to that. And personal, portable communication technology used within the office environment may well top the list.

About the Author

Rick Farrell 

Rick Farrell is North America’s foremost expert in improving manufacturing group communication, education, training and group hospitality processes. He has over 40 years of group hospitality experience, most recently serving as President of Plant-Tours.com for the last 18 years.  He has provided consulting services with the majority of Fortune 500 industrial corporations improving group communication dynamics of all types in manufacturing environments. 

The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of The World Financial Review.