In recent months most of us have rushed from one online video meeting to another. Some of these meetings we have found frustrating, others not.
Online meetings will remain with us after Covid both because the conferencing technology has reached a high standard and their potential for greater efficiency and savings has become obvious. There will soon be more physical meetings again, but rather as an exception.
It is therefore appropriate to think carefully about new forms of communication that will be a part of our everyday professional lives for the foreseeable future. After all, we strive to work in a way that fosters progress and success. And we are slowly realising that we can achieve much more with video meetings. Thus, we should aim for these meetings to be as effective as possible.
In line with our habits we have transferred both good and bad working practices from the pre-Covid era to the post-Covid era. This also applies to meetings, wherein Covid has exacerbated existing difficulties. We should strive to seize the opportunity to adjust our working practices to the new possibilities and constraints.
The proposals presented in this paper are pragmatic. They are based on the acceptance of practical necessities and are derived from observations. In addition, empirical findings by specialists are helpful in this context. In the end it is empiricism that counts, not personal preference.
This article is focused on professional events, e.g. board and business meetings, shareholder meetings, scientific conferences and sales pitches.
Why we need meetings
The professional meeting is the appropriate place to gather people who together have the ability to perform specific tasks. It is about presenting proposals for good decisions, improving them, deciding on them and bringing them to fruition. The meeting also has the purpose of assessing the implementation of previously made decisions and to modify them if necessary. It can also be used to exchange information and experiences that are not available outside the meeting.
After a constructive meeting, the participants are satisfied because they have enjoyed the movement towards a goal and know what they have to do by when as well as why it is necessary. Good meetings are incentives for good work.
We owe a debt of gratitude to the programmers who have developed the now high standard of conference technology. They have been working for years with sophisticated messaging systems, acoustic and visual networks, through which they distribute tasks, track progress, exchange assessments, and complement each other in a flexible way, regardless of the place of work. They work as if they were taking part in meetings all day long. In their work environment, brevity and accuracy are virtues. Their technical tasks do not make them models for the business world, but pioneers.
In what respect is the DNA of video meetings different from physical ones?
The choice of the appropriate technology and its correct use can be debated,
Participants are free to choose where they wish to meet. The place can be their own flat, the office, a hotel room or a business centre. It is only important that fast internet is available and that focus and discretion are guaranteed. This new and previously underappreciated flexibility creates room for manoeuvre in terms of time and place. It increases efficiency.
The visual contact with participants and shared documents is much worse than in the old world, because it is confined to a fixed frame of usually only 15 inches. This permanent limitation goes strongly against human nature, and reading texts and numbers and even facial expressions takes effort and patience. Smaller print on the screen is barely legible. Fatigue sets in earlier than in physical meetings. Fatigue lowers the probability of making good decisions.
Acoustics are transmitted via small loudspeakers or a headset. This is also of lower quality than in a physical meeting.
Commonalities that are helpful for finding consensus among people, such as drinking coffee or eating snacks together, are not possible.
The following comparison is therefore apt: Less water can be passed through a thinner pipe than through a thicker one.
The above inevitable constraints suggest that there is no reason to think that everything has got better now. They can be mitigated with even better technology, but not eliminated. They imply that it has become more difficult to convince participants with pertinent arguments and to reach them on the emotional level.
The firm interim conclusion is that it is necessary to compensate for the technical constraints.
In the past, thorough preparation has always been a good foundation for meetings leading to good results. However, in the case of video meetings, additional preparation can help address the constraints mentioned, helping to take full advantage of the new medium. The necessary change includes the overdue reduction of weaknesses from the old world of physical meetings.
In effect, this means that the leader of the video meeting has much more responsibility than in physical meetings. The role is comparable with the conductor of a symphony orchestra. The conductor knows the requirements of the audience and the critics, (s)he selects the musicians for the instruments, (s)he knows their strengths and the patterns of their interaction, and (s)he plans exactly how to ensure success through proper interplay. The conductor makes the decisive contributions to the success of the concert before and after the performance.
Goal setting is always primarily about activity. So, items that trigger the activity of participants and are of practical use to the outside world (clients, company, organisation) must dominate the meeting. Unclear goals lead nowhere and impair the motivation of the participants. Tasks resulting from the preparatory dialogue between the chairperson and a specialist must be clear enough for the specialist to be able to work out an easily understandable and consensus-oriented proposal: workflow, time, resources, expenditure.
Submissions for set goals:
The participant responsible for an item should send her or his substantiated submission to the participants a few days before the meeting. These can then concentrate on their preparation and clarify some or most of the questions bilaterally.
Form of submissions:
Strictly logical thinking is always suspected of distancing itself from reality, which cannot always be logical. The objection is fair. On the other hand, the serious effort to bring a maximum of logical order into a text is always helpful. The participants understand quickly and can put forward their arguments. In the new context this is more important than before.
Powerpoint has the advantage that this medium meets the natural human need for colours and images. In physical meetings Powerpoint is often used massively. However, it is an illusion that viewers can still understand the logic of the argumentation after a few slides. Even the highest intelligence will then only take up individual aspects.
These institutions usually require concise memos of not more than 6 pages instead. Yes, such a tight framework can make even the best specialist sweat. But this argument also applies to the authors of Japanese haikus consisting of only three or four lines. However, their impact can be overwhelming.
The use of Excel spreadsheets only in a video conference is even more doubtful. It is hardly possible to correctly grasp numbers in the small space available and to react to them intelligently. In any case, participants need to have such documents on their screens a few days before the meeting.
Form of exchanges:
Since video meeting technologies allow only one speaker at a time, it is difficult to maintain a fluent dialogue, and silent characters become even more silent. Nevertheless, their knowledge is important for the quality of the results. Therefore, the leader of the meeting has to make sure, more than in a physical meeting, that each participant is consulted.
The agenda, distributed at an early stage, therefore consists of items on which decisions are to be taken, each accompanied by an annex containing a proposal, and references to reports, the contents of which are briefly summarised. Every item on the agenda needs to be conducive to action. Only short messages or concise reports should be an exception.
There is a lot of research on how long participants in an event can maintain their attention under normal conditions (not via the screen):
At the Congresses of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, delegates listened to monotonous and agonising speeches for many hours, always staying wide awake and showing enthusiasm. No one complained about difficulties with comprehension.
There are credible people who are firmly convinced that they followed and enjoyed every minute of Richard Wagner's "Ring of the Nibelungs", which lasts over 15 hours (with breaks).
These unusual groups of people have not yet been the object of scientific research. And I have never met anyone from either example in a physical or video meeting. It would therefore not be appropriate to infer requirements for participants in video meetings from their unusual skills.
The ideal duration of a video meeting can therefore only be described in such a way that a brevity of perhaps one hour is a desirable goal. Within this framework, the engagement of most participants should be able to remain constant. One of the pillars of this proposal is “C. Northcote Parkinson's law”,
which states that the given time frame effectively incites people to accomplish their assignments within it. Conversely, the work for a task expands to fill the time allotted to it.
If it is not possible to deal with a complex issue in one meeting, a second meeting should be held quickly.
The end of cosiness
We must recognise that participants in video meetings can only live up to their responsibilities if a large part of the work is done before or after the meeting either individually, in couples or in small groups. Of course this is regrettable, but there is no other way to achieve efficiency. Efficiency is an obligation, not an option.
The horse-drawn carriage was closer to human nature than the car. And yet it became a rarity, simply because it is slower. The quote “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses” is attributed to Henry Ford. Its authenticity is controversial, and yet it fits the situation we face today.