Readers with long memories might remember that I once wrote a book about how awful business meetings were, and how much better it would be if we did things differently. The book was called Mote. The Super Meeting, and it came out 5 years ago (Urbane Publications 2015).
A lot has happened since then, and the key problem I identified – endless unproductive meetings with people behaving badly – has solved itself. But not in the way I envisaged! I had hoped that decision makers would read the book, plan meetings more frugally and carefully, manage them better, and make sure that people behaved in a more collegiate way. I also argued for meeting leaders, not chairs. And for every meeting to have a navigator to plan, support the leader and advance the agenda. And for meeting attenders (‘moters’), and people calling in (‘remoters’) to become more professional.
But along with everyone else, I completely failed to predict two global events: the pandemic and the poisonous legacy of President Trump, the rudest leader the western world has ever seen.
Let’s start with the pandemic. Management and staff staying at home under lockdown has emptied meeting rooms in a most emphatic way. Everyone still has a busy calendar, but nowadays that calendar is full of remote calls on Zoom, Teams, Google Meet, Goto and dozens of other video conferencing providers. Lockdown has almost certainly changed office life forever. Working from home is with us to stay, except in what’s left of manufacturing industry, construction, and among those we have learned to call key workers.
Millions of square metres of office space, all over the world, are fast becoming redundant – destined to be turned into much needed urban living accommodation. Not quite swords into ploughshares, more meeting rooms into living rooms. And, if we are looking for silver linings, a win-win.
Office workers in their millions will be freed from the expense, grind and stress of commuting to unsatisfying working lives. Hundreds of thousands of new homes can be created every year, without the need to bury the countryside. But it’s not all good news. Furlough cannot be extended indefinitely. Mass unemployment will surely follow, fuelled by technology and AI.
For many, the sequel to working from home will be not working from home.
Trump? Any chance of persuading office dwellers to be more civilised in the way they interact with each other has not been helped by the ‘world’s most powerful man’ using Twitter to morph into the world’s nastiest, rudest leader ever. OK, Genghis Khan was no gent, but he found time with his six wives and 500 concubines to become the direct ancestor of around 16 million men alive today. And we have learned that Stalin was good with his grandchildren, and Hitler liked cats.
Donald has spent most of the last four years setting an appalling example in terms of his personal behaviour and total lack of tolerance. It is hard to get across a message about the virtues of manners and consideration in the workplace if the CEO of USA Inc is a poisonous bully. And in fairness our own political cockpit at Westminster hasn’t been exemplary either.
So let’s return to our new world of remote meetings. What works well? And what doesn’t?
Here is my stab at 5 plusses and 5 minuses:
- I think we have all worked out that commuting and air travel are incredibly indulgent, expensive and life-shortening. Meetings (face to face meetings) were the direct or indirect cause of a lot of that travel
- We have shorter meetings now. Busier (more important?) people have settled for 30 minute units to cover more ground, and the rest of us have fallen into line
- Fewer meetings for most. With people not being on site, meetings are more complicated to organise. The exception seems to be top bosses, who are into virtual wall to wall
- Much less time wasted in the meetings themselves. If you are on your own home ground and on your own time, you prioritise differently
- Far less grandstanding and bad behaviour. Why? My theory is that people can see themselves on screen, and don’t want to come across badly
- Very little actual progress or decision making takes place on remote calls. Short time frames. Most of these calls create an environment which is more about sharing information than getting on with it
- We can put off the evil hour (like making a decision), by simply fixing another call
- The technology often performs very disappointingly. Not least because the UK’s state of broadband is one of the worst in the world. Also because functionality between the various platforms varies annoyingly
- It’s very easy to hide on a video call
- It’s very easy for the strong to get stronger, and the weak get weaker
Despite the genuine plusses above, my feeling is that the meetings themselves are really no more effective and efficient now that they are populated by remoters, and not moters. Lack of leadership in the meeting is a problem. Navigators would make a real difference.
The only clear net gain is that, despite the POTUS factor, remote calls are a good deal more civilised!