Many of us haven’t had as many video meetings in our whole lives as in the past two years months. During the first COVID-19 lockdowns, virtual meetings became the new norm for employees and companies all around the world, with 200 million people using Zoom alone every day at the beginning of 2020, compared to 10 million in December 2019. Despite becoming a regular fixture, virtual meetings are still seen as inferior to in-person meetings. Yet, with hybrid and remote forms of work here to stay, companies will need to embrace them and work out how to get the most from them.
Thankfully, the potential here is huge—while virtual meetings might not materially solve the productive problems of meeting culture itself, they actually offer several advantages over in-office meetings. As we learn to adjust to hybrid ways of working, there’s huge opportunity to improve the basic structures shaping our collaboration. We would all do well to remember the biggest benefits of virtual meetings as we rewrite old inefficiencies.
With virtual meetings, the amount of scheduling and logistical faff surrounding a meeting tends to be significantly lower than with in-person meetings. You don’t have to think about booking a room, or worry whether your meeting space is big enough for all invitees, should they turn up. You don’t have to factor in whether or not certain employees are even in the office that day. Plus, the physical act of actually getting to a meeting room can easily take 10 or 15 minutes, as people try to finish up what they’re doing, dash to the bathroom, or make themselves a drink before leaving their desk. When you dial in at a set time, all that disappears.
Experience of the past two working years has spawned a new, unofficial condition: "Zoom fatigue". People recognize that video meetings can be surprisingly draining, which is why most teams want to keep them as short as possible. Analysis from Microsoft on its newly remote workforce revealed a positive new trend: the rise of the 30-minute meeting. They found that individual meetings shrank in duration, with 22% more meetings of 30 minutes or less, and 11% fewer meetings of more than one hour. More efficient, shorter meetings with fewer meanders that cut to the point and get the job done faster is clearly good news—freeing up more space for everyone to get on with the important tasks that matter.
When all your meetings are digital, it becomes infinitely easier to quantify all the time your company spends on different catch-ups and communications. This is crucial if you are billing for all client time, or simply want to map where time goes across different projects. With a flawless digital record of all meeting time, you can instantly see which meetings cost you the most (both in time and money). With an automatic meeting tracker set up, your team can accurately record how long each meeting took, who attended, and any follow-up work it created.
Almost all of us have experienced the frustration of sitting in a meeting we have absolutely no need to be in. No matter how annoying it is, it’s still hard to stand up in front of our colleagues and physically leave the meeting—no matter how good our excuse might be. In virtual meetings, it’s much easier and far less socially awkward to leave a meeting if it’s not relevant to you. And of course, one of the most convenient excuses is that we have another important video meeting we need to join right away….
Because you can’t see where people are looking in virtual meetings, you can’t tell who they’re directing their comments or questions to—so you’re forced to become more explicit in how you communicate. You have to mention people’s names—firstly to let them know you’re speaking to them, and secondly to avoid two people speaking at once. This can provide the opportunity for more democratic participation; it’s easier to become aware of one or two employees dominating the discussion, and ensure everyone has the space to talk. Ensuring everyone feels heard is crucial for creating a healthy company culture, whether you’re working remotely or not.
Virtual meetings are also good levelers, helping employees connect with relatively little effort. Anyone can join video meetings, from anywhere—all you need is a good internet connection and earphones. Seeing our colleagues in their home setting diffuses starchy professionalism and works to humanize them, helping everyone build empathy and become more relatable—an imposing manager doesn’t seem quite so daunting in casual clothes, with screaming kids in the background. Joining video meetings in spaces most of us feel comfortable in (our homes), it’s normal to feel more at ease and more confident than you would if you were sitting around a table in an office.
Another perk of having a tighter agenda means eliminating small talk and unnecessary pleasantries. It’s nice to be nice, but we don’t need to chit chat for the sake of it when it’s eating into valuable time—and hopefully your team creates dedicated virtual spaces for catching up. Without any awkward small talk, meetings can stay work-focused and on track. It also stops meetings from being used as substitutes for wellbeing policies or team bonding. There’s a time and a place to connect with coworkers and build relationships, and an important video meeting (usually!) isn’t it.
Not only do virtual meetings make it easier for you to leave, should you feel they’re unproductive or irrelevant, they also make it easier for you to opt-out ahead. When you’re sent a digital meeting invitation, it’s no biggie to decline it or respond with “maybe”. You probably won’t feel awkward about doing that, but in the office, when a coworker or manager asks if you’re joining the meeting, it’s harder to say no. Circumventing office politics, this makes it easier to protect time for the work that actually matters.
While it’s true that virtual communication isn’t as natural or fluid as real-life communication, and conversations can often be rather stilted, this oddly can make it easier to brainstorm and collaborate effectively. If only one person’s microphone is able to be active at one time, this can lead to more democratic, balanced collaboration, where everyone gets their turn and has time and space to talk. All the tools needed for successful virtual collaboration are still available – like whiteboards, annotation functionality, screen sharing, even virtual breakout rooms – and can provide “more control, speed, structure, and clarity than… [sitting] around a conference table”, according to certain businesses.