The Meeting: Can’t live with it, can’t work without it. It’s been around for what seems like forever, and regardless of the new types of technology and apps that are constantly developed and introduced to finally “fix” meetings once and for all, it seems that the meeting tribulations never go away. As an executive in the high-tech industry, I find myself constantly intrigued by the possibility that technology may truly pay-off one day and provide the working world with a way to work better together, both in terms of the process that technology can enable, but also philosophically, sociologically and structurally. We are all searching for that nirvana of “better together,” which, once and for all, truly reinvents the meeting. In 2017 when Microsoft introduced Teams, I had that moment of excitement and anticipation – could this be it? Could Teams be the forum which would launch a new way of working? Alas, as Bono constantly laments, I still haven’t found what I’m looking for….or at least not yet. Here’s why.
Let’s face it, the universal sentiment toward meetings is not good. What’s worse is that we as a workforce, and even a society, seem to just accept that meetings are bad with failed attempts at improvement. Sure, you can add more tech into the mix, and in fact we continue to see new technology solutions (like Zoom or Slack) continue to emerge with a different approach to either try and fix the issue or simply try to take the high road and work around the problems. Even when using new technology such as white boards that enable meeting goers to access the information written on it from anywhere, the reality is that even if the employees in one room are using the white board and the remote employees are dialed in using smart headsets on a strong connection and secure conference line, the meeting can still be flawed. Software and hardware cannot solve everything. Or can they?
Speeds and feeds obsession
Conventional wisdom says that technology should make it easier for people to work and collaborate efficiently and effectively in meetings. There are many important tasks that occur during meetings: sharing information, discussion, decisions and allocating actions. Information and communication are important, but only on the path toward beneficial outcomes like making decisions and taking action. Otherwise, the outcome is just more meetings. Yet, the news and web information readily available on Teams (e.g. coming out of the recent Enterprise Connect conference) doesn’t focus yet on the beneficial outcomes, but rather obsesses on the speeds and feeds: new background blur feature, Cortana translation feature or meeting transcription feature. These are all cool technologies but focusing on the means doesn’t help us actually evolve our meeting to get to the ends. Despite the opportunities for technology to be constructively disruptive, it is surprising how, with the exception of some mid-meeting innovations, we’re still allowing technology to simply digitally replicate existing processes. Software calendars are still just calendars and software meetings are still just meetings.
Back in the old days…
Maybe there is some sort of legacy-lethargy or nostalgia holding us back. After all, if you look at how organizations are formed inside of most businesses, the basis is still the military command and control models of the 1800s. But that’s simply not how we work today, or at least not how we work innovatively and successfully. For example, according to Gartner, the average U.S. office building is 60 years old, private offices have existed for more than 80 years and the cubicle for more than 50 years. But modern work projects are completed with an array of people that are pulled from different groups, geographies, and backgrounds. Are our meeting outcomes being inhibited by obsolete work settings and organizational models? Can we achieve more and in an efficient manner by selecting physical and virtual work spaces that fit business goals and personal preferences?
Before, during, and after
Assuming then that Teams and its new technology has nailed the “during” part of the meeting experience, then it appears the real opportunity to innovate in the work journey is in the pre-meeting and post-meeting phases.
There are many different aspects of how Microsoft (or a Microsoft Teams partner) can innovate in the ‘before’ phase. In no particular order, here are some:
Calendaring reinvention: Remove the calendar from its binding with email and/or completely remove the paper calendar as the metaphor for scheduling. How can the scheduling of the meeting be different and more agile?
New workspaces: Gartner tells us that by 2020, 25 percent of organizations will have a catalog of smart workspaces maintained by IT, real estate and facilities management departments. Giving end users a choice of environments to suit the type and function of the meeting could be offered in the form of a smart catalog with up to 10 different options based on the type of meeting that is required. Users are likely to shift between different spaces and devices as they move between types of meetings. Let’s allow the meeting planning process to shift with them.
Artificial intelligence: The information about potential meeting participants is already in the cloud, so can the system do AI-based auto-scheduling to streamline and simplify arrangements?
Video simplicity: Gartner estimates that spending on premises-based videoconferencing infrastructure by IT buyers will decline by 11 percent by 2021. How can the entire video process be more “instant-on” and laptop or smartphone centric with regards to the video device?
Reduced spontaneity of calling: What if only 10 percent (up from less than 50 percent in 2017) of all phone calls were unplanned? Could this Gartner documented trend help ensure that the meeting voice experience worked much more flawlessly in the future?
Or, what about the “after” phase? Again, here are some ideas:
More artificial intelligence: Timely and accurate sharing of the information in the meeting to all participants (and necessary, but not-in-attendance, team members), informing non-participants of what they missed and sharing action items from the meeting can help improve work flow and accelerate the digestion of information.
Proactive engagement: Can the tools tell us who the right participants are? Auto-scheduling follow-up meetings, including anticipating the correct cadence or frequency between meetings, finding the right type of rooms, and, if necessary, bringing in new participants would bridge the gap between hanging up the phone and moving forward with the discussion.
Segmentation: IT possesses a wealth of information in the form of digital bread crumbs (e.g. usage of mobility, conferencing services, device usage, type of meeting room, type of meeting, etc.) that could be used to inform how the next meeting should go. Rather than creating a one-size-fits-all model for meetings, can software segment users into different dynamic categories which are then applied to the post-meeting process? User segmentation of this sort, which is continuously evolving (more machine learning here) can significantly contribute to the user experience (and also avoid tedious and low participation surveys) by helping to inform about the types of meeting spaces needed and who is using what space for what sort of meeting.
The question continues to repeat: How can we make meetings better and different? In the software world, the now not so new (and highly effective) agile model is to examine the areas of greatest inefficiency, apply technology to make incremental improvements, assess the results and then repeat. Why aren’t we all applying this model to meetings? Looking at how people are communicating and collaborating in 2018 and beyond and iterating on change. Or, can the process of making better meetings have the agile process itself be part of the answer? Most small startups have some form of a daily standup gathering; is that the right way for us to meet in 2020 and beyond?
I have climbed the highest mountains…
And yes, you might have run through the fields too, but do you really want to only be with me in yet another meeting, if nothing continues to change? As the world moves to Teams, how can doing meetings “right” impact the workplace? The answer is anyone’s guess, but to find our way to that answer, we’re going to need a real shift in thinking from the unified communications and collaboration space to something new, agile and bold. The whole lifecycle of meetings needs to be enhanced, automated and renewed. And maybe Microsoft Teams can get us there…
John Case, President and CEO of Unify Square
Image Credit: Pressmaster / Shutterstock