We have to stop meeting like this

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With managers experiencing meeting overload, Bert van der Zwan of WebEx gives a web-conferencer's view of why having fewer face-to-face encounters can benefit both companies and their staff.

How many meetings do you attend every month? For some of us it may only be one or two, but for others a meeting every or every other day would not be an unusual state of affairs.

Recent research on the subject found that on average, each working person in the UK attends almost eight meetings every month, and over 90 every year. Meetings are vital for business in a huge number of ways - from establishing rapport and forging new partnerships to saving time, motivating staff and discussing new ideas. But have we gone too far with the number of face-to-face meetings we attend?

Up close and personal

Much of our modern thinking on how people communicate and the importance of face-to-face interaction comes from Professor Albert Mehrabian, whose research in the 1960s said that within any spoken dialogue, 7% of the meaning is in the words themselves, 38% of the meaning is in how the words are said and 55% in facial expression or body language. This shows why personal meetings are so important - to express exactly what is meant, and foster meaningful business relationships. But we may have taken the concept too far, with a huge number of meetings taking place that don't require that level of contact.

In fact, the same survey mentioned earlier revealed that employees believe 37% of the meetings they attend do not need to be conducted face-to-face, and can in fact be counter-productive. In addition, with further research from the London School of Economics showing that overall UK productivity is lower than in industrial rivals such as France, Germany and the US, perhaps it is time we re-evaluated just how many meetings we attend.

We have all attended a meeting that has been a waste of time, spent staring blankly at a presentation or sales pitch that isn't relevant, or travelling a significant distance for a conversation that could easily have taken place over the telephone. The trick to reducing their burden is knowing and identifying in advance which meetings require face-to-face interaction and personal contact, and which don't.

The problem with meetings that achieve little or nothing is the time they waste, both travelling to the location (whether by car, train or plane) and in the meeting itself. Employees have less time to do the work they are paid to do, and company travel budgets are squandered. Of the people we surveyed earlier this year, 28% said that reducing their number of face-to-face meetings would improve overall productivity at work, with a further 21% saying they would feel less stressed and 18% who would have a better work-life balance. Clearly these employees would be more effective - and probably happier - if they could cut out unnecessary meetings. The environmental impact of travel, particularly by air, can also no longer be ignored.

Finding a happy medium

But how can we reduce the number of meetings without damaging business relationships or missing out on strategic opportunities? Firstly, firms must try to identify those meetings that could take place just as effectively on the phone, or even in a series of emails. By switching these meetings to a purely vocal or written dialogue employees can save both time and travel costs.
In many cases though a degree of collaboration is required that email or phone conversations can't provide.

Imagine three colleagues based in separate offices but working on the same presentation. Meeting up in person would mean collaborating face-to-face, but would involve a day's travel. Working via email would mean that the first colleague makes changes to the document and then passes it on to the next, and so on. The work would be completed, but the repeated emailing back and forth between offices can still take an awful lot of time, as anyone who has wrestled with multiple tracked changes on a document will attest.

The answer in situations like these is to take advantage of the communications technology enabled by the internet. These colleagues, no matter where they are located, can jump into a web conference or online meeting, share the presentation between them, and all make changes in real-time. The loss of in-person body language is countered by using webcams to enable each attendee to see each others' faces and read their expressions. Further technological features such as the ability to share desktops or any application open up a raft of time-saving and cost-effective opportunities for sales or marketing departments who want to reach a greater number of overseas prospects in less time. Using technology in this way, enabled by the increasing speed and prevalence of broadband connections, we now have a happy medium that lies between meeting in person and speaking on the phone.

Face-to-face meetings will always have their place in business. We are social animals by nature, so meeting new people and getting out of the office will always be an attractive proposition. But in an increasingly competitive world, the luxury of business travel and external meetings can now cost more than the benefits they bring. I for one have seen enough reports decrying employee productivity in the UK - and reconsidering the burden we bear from meetings can be one step to addressing the problem. Through careful selection of which meetings can be replaced with alternatives, we may find we can achieve a lot more.

By Bert van der Zwan, Vice-President, EMEA, of online conferencing provider WebEx., for our sister site, FinanceWeek.

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