Meetings: The Enemy of Productivity

Let's say, hypothetically, you've been invited to a meeting. Sitting around the table are six of your company's employees, with an average pay-rate of R150 an hour. The meeting lasts two hours. That meeting has just cost your company R1800, plus the extra coffee, print-outs and Choice Assorted biscuits, as well as the lost time that could have been spent doing actual work. Was it worth it?

How often do these sorts of meetings actually produce valuable outcomes? Have you ever suspected that some people arrange meetings all the time because they don't have enough work to do?

There are plenty of ways of optimising meetings (such as setting a time-limit, removing the chairs from the room and so on), but since this is a technology blog, I'm going to look at some technological alternatives to having meetings.

When looking for a technology to replace the need for a meeting, let's first look at what the meeting is about.

The Team/Company Announcement (aka the "Town Hall" meeting)

Most companies don't have these too often... maybe once every few months or so. But do we need to have them at all? What's the point of gathering all those expensive people into one room anyway? To give them all the same message at the same time, right?

Isn't there an easier, cheaper way of getting a message out to a large group of people simultaneously?

Well yes: email.

Email is effectively free, and all your staff should have access to it. (If they don't, how are you still in business? It's 2010!) Sending one email costs the same as sending 100 000 of them, and each employee can take the time to read through it when is most convenient for them, without disrupting their busy days.

Of course you may be concerned that your message may not convey well in text format... you'd really rather your staff get to see your face and hear the tone of your voice. This is a valid concern, and fortunately there's a solution to that too: video.

With the webcam on your laptop (or even the camera on your smartphone), you can record a video message (doing multiple takes, if necessary) and put it in a place where your staff can access it and view it at their convenience. If you have an Intranet site, you can post it there. If you don't, you can post it on a free video-hosting site like YouTube and send the link to your staff (just be sure to set the privacy options correctly).

YouTube is a particularly appealing option, since it gives you the ability to provide your staff with a public discussion board on the video page, where they can engage with you and each other about the message you were trying to get across.

The Collaboration Meeting

These sorts of meetings tend to be roughly equivalent to telephone calls in terms of the kind of conversation that takes place. The added benefit of being in the same room together is the ability to share references: printed documents and other visual aids. But how often does actual work take place in a forum like this?

More likely, two workers will have to have several such meetings in which they bring each other up-to-speed on their respective progress, and share input to help each other move forward. Are these constant interruptions really the best way to do that?

Other than the obvious way to share documents with each other, email, there are a few technologies that can provide a more integrated two-way communication flow, particularly when it comes to collaborating on documents. Document collaboration tools are ubiquitous now, and if your company has something like Microsoft SharePoint Services or Google Apps, you probably already have access to them. My personal favourite (and a good example of what these things can do) is Google Docs.

Google Docs collaboration
In Google Docs, you can create a document in your document library and "share" it with your colleague. Once you've done that, you can both have the document open at the same time, and can edit it together in real time. Google Docs even has a built-in Google Talk client that lets you chat with your fellow collaborators in real-time, and right inside the document window!

Whether the document is a proposal, presentation or manual you're co-creating, or a task-list for work happening in another application, a tool like this would probably eliminate the need for most of those meetings. In fact, there's no real limit to the number of collaborators who can share the same document - your whole team could be editing the same task list at once!

The Project Meeting

In my own experience, these are probably the most time-consuming meetings in any given company. They generally require the presence of each member of a project team, even though most of them are only involved with one small part of the project, and don't really need to know, in detail, what's going on in the rest of the project.

So for however long the meeting lasts, probably a substantial portion of the attendees are effectively wasting their time: sitting around with no real contribution to make, and having to listen to people talking about things that don't really interest or concern them.

Now that's not to say that there's no value in these sorts of meetings, but wouldn't it make more sense if those people were able to carry on with actual work during the parts of the meeting that don't affect them directly?

Skype Conference Call
One old-school solution to this is the conference-call, although newer tools have made these easier and more productive. Tools like Microsoft Lync and Skype allow multiple participants to join in on an audio conversation while sitting at their desks (or on the road via their smartphones), carrying on with other work. They can even do it while wearing comfy headsets so they don't have to hold that old phone up to their ear or annoy their coworkers by using a speakerphone.

These tools even allow you to share an image of your computer desktop with the meeting, in case you need to demonstrate something to the group, and they have an accompanying text-chat that allows you to send things like addresses, names, numbers and links through to everyone or to one person at a time.

The One-on-One Meeting

Although two co-workers who sit close to each other would correctly surmise that a quick face-to-face would likely be a quicker and cheaper alternative to a phone call or Instant Messaging session, what if your workers aren't close together? Do you really want them to drive across town for no reason other than to have a meeting?

What if they could get all the benefits of a face-to-face meeting, without having to leave their desks?

Google Talk Video Chat
Video-conferencing is no longer the domain of the large multi-national corporation. If you have a webcam (which most laptops have built-in by now) and an Internet connection, you can video-conference. Most Instant Messaging applications have a built-in video chat feature. And since both participants are sitting at their computers, they can share any and all supporting material through the other channels, as mentioned above.

Video chat can even be used less formally for remote-workers... setting up an all-day video chat session can give them the sense that they're sitting in the office, and make them feel more part of the team.

Try to Have Less Meetings

In general, like telephone calls, meetings tend to be overused because people don't think through the true cost and implications of spending all that time and effort, and what the potential gain might be.

As a rule, I would suggest implementing a policy where staff need to motivate for having a meeting - to make a case for why they need to pull everyone else away from their desks and why the other tools at their disposal aren't adequate. I think you'll find that your coffee and Choice Assorted budget may start to look better after a few weeks.

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