Three culture hacks to improve wasteful online meetings
Intercontinental business meetings used to be for top management. COVID19 changed all that: anyone with a broadband access is a global problem-solver now. In general, most people support remote work. But connected cars, fridges, apps and meetings come with built-in flaws. Professional communities are complex systems that take years or decades to reach an equilibrium in speed, quality, risk tolerance, helpful and unwelcome behaviours. New ties between regions (let's say an European and Asian branch) are bound to start with resistance and develop into collaboration over time. Normally, adjustments are so gradual that they remain invisible. Dramatic changes, the sort that disrupted almost every team in the world last year, force people to relearn how to work together. Ironically, just as it happens with over-automated vehicles and ‘smart’ fridges, problems come from the features that are supposed to make virtual meetings effective.
One: Put an end to default attendance
“People use their body to get their head to meetings,” said educational evangelist and TED speaker Sir Kenneth Robinson. Until early 2020, they at least had to walk. As former LEGO CEO Jørgen Knudstorp tirelessly repeats, people think when they move, and a few dozen metres along a corridor or across the firm's yard was useful for mental preparation. Remote work took that away, and left behind a merciless flow of digital work and its forced routines: reminders from emails, databases and apps. They work like computer games: something pops up, the player clicks. Meeting accepted: the player moves on. A reminder pops up again fifteen minutes before the start, in time to hastily reply a few more emails. In an ironic twist, absent-minded colleagues almost always accept invitations, while observant ones often refuse meetings without an agenda or sufficient advance notice. When combined into mixed teams, some cultures want to turn calls into cheerful townhalls, others into exclusive think-tanks.
Warning Sign: When people have no idea why they are in a virtual meeting, including you.
Twenty years ago, our IT specialist at the United Nations had a shirt that read “I’m coming from a meeting that should have been an email”. That still happens. When such playful counterculture turns serious, teams must rethink the way they initiate, schedule and run virtual meetings. It is best to go back to basics and NEVER schedule a remote meeting without a well-prepared, documented agenda. Many top performers of the deliberate, systematic and careful kind despise impromptu meetings and refuse them or hide in digital mazes. People from perfectionist task-focused cultures like Germany and Japan will do the same. Give them a way out while the rest of the team struggles with schedules and preparations—they can use their time better. Meanwhile, aim for productive habits: exchange brief and reliable preparation documents, use meetings as quick decision-making forums and give reluctant members the option to submit their suggestions through proxies or even email. When appropriate, share recorded meetings with those who could have been there.
Two: Don’t allow rap battles among aspiring stars
Disturbingly, many videoconferencing apps auto-focus on the loudest participant. Thoughtful introverts are often stuck on virtual backbenches, watching corporate talent contests among unwanted orators, feeling very lonely (see Statista chart). Many virtual meetings cannot produce results because visionary communicators lack the patience and perseverance to turn suggestions into solutions, while a bombastic meeting culture neglects important practical problem-solvers. How individual temperaments combine into teams is a result of a million-year evolution. Sharing ideas is a straightforward and intangible affair (though not equally natural to all), but Implementing and evaluating them requires complex collaboration and time. This is why obvious extroverts are a minority, and why few nations equally excel at art and engineering. Unfortunately, the culture of videoconferencing fast-paced and attention-seeking because it conquered the world starting from extroverted innovators. It is worth remembering that they hold only half a secret to success.
Warning Sign: When ‘Mute your mic unless you speak’ results in a few monologues and lots of passive observers.
Humans naturally build hierarchies, which can be a problem or a solution for remote meetings. It is a problem when the meeting favours the loudest participant: think of the typically American conferencing apps that zoom in on the strongest voice. Extroverted leaders who take centre stage and then wonder why nobody speaks are especially tragic: chairing a meeting is a coordinator’s job. Whether CEO, specialist or secretary, the person in charge must decide (alone or together) which member or members have the most influence on the current agenda item, and give the floor to them. Yes, that may cause awkward silences: that is when introverts think. Ironically, hierarchical and introverted cultures like the mainstream in Korea, Japan and Sweden struggle less, because their bosses typically speak less and delegate more already. Finally, teamwork doesn’t finish with the ‘End Call’ button. To avoid the widespread loneliness of remote teams, meeting leaders must delegate specific follow-up tasks and resources in a way that connects people with diverse talents.
Three: Stop blurring day and night, dates and issues
Close your eyes and recall the surroundings of an important meeting in 2019. Where was it, and at what time? Who was there and what did they say? Human brains run on connections, and reconstruct memories from subtle details like surrounding sound, light and smell patterns, temperature, people’s outfits, the food served and a film the previous night. Virtual meetings lack all of that as they occur in a roughly thirty-degree visual space of a blinking screen in front. Multiple time zones blur the helpful distinction between crisp morning sessions, lunch appointments, afternoon meetings and intimate evening chats. Virtual routines kill helpful cultural rituals: meal-times, siestas, prayers and socialising. One person’s Friday afternoon is an opposing continent’s Saturday morning. Since it is so easy to involve everyone, remote meetings snowball into crowds. Ultimately, it is hard to separate one discussion and the next. Meetings address different topics but feature the same faces from the usual locations, creating a virtual workplace with no exit.
Red flag: When a meeting has too many people for one screen, it has too many people.
Since the culture of virtual tasks is more reactive than personal ones, managers seldom notice when remote meetings disintegrate into pointless panels from the British TV show ‘Yes, Minister’. If they follow the suggestions above and schedule meetings as needed (by the team, not the boss), specify agendas and schedules, prepare, follow up, allow voluntary attendance and alternative methods of contribution, conflict is less likely and easier to prevent. It’s best to reserve large meetings across multiple time zones for strategic issues, but run frequent 30-minute intensive discussions (it’s hard to focus any longer) with plenty of prep work and follow-up. Leaders should delegate complex tasks to local sub-teams whose members know one another well, meet personally whenever possible and build micro-cultures from personal temperaments, local traditions and professional customs. Let sales reps clash ideas fast and furiously, HR teams start with comforting small-talk and techies compare their cool fake backgrounds—nobody will roll their eyes.
The more intimate and familiar the setting, the better for support and cooperation. That’s because although breakthroughs happen outside of comfort zones, constructive collaboration requires trust and care. In five minutes or fifty, teams with supportive cultures will deliver, and do it their way.