zoom is not the problem — meetings are

When all you have is Zoom, every work-from-home office looks like an endless face-to-face video call. I have been working remotely since 2003. Video calls have been a regular part of my work and I have used pretty well every platform available. In the early days my favourite platform was Marratech, until they were bought by Google and some of the technology created Hangouts. But video communication was only part of my work.

Asynchronous communication — threaded discussions, blogs, and wikis — was always part of my work conversations. Writely — which became Google Docs — was a great tool and helped our distributed team, from British Columbia to New Brunswick, write the specifications for the Pan-Canadian Online Learning Portal. This was the first time that all the Ministers of Education had agreed to do something together. But CMEC cancelled the project after a vendor was selected. It would be interesting to see how the current pandemic would have been handled by schools, with a national online learning resource already in place and with over 10 years of experience. But I digress. Let’s just say that technology is not usually the issue in the workplace — it’s how the technology is used.

A recent article on working from home puts much of the blame for additional work-related stress squarely on Zoom. In 5 psychological reasons to reduce the number of Zoom meetings, the authors list these ‘problems’.

  1. lack of non-verbal communication
  2. anxiety about possible distractions, like children
  3. no casual conversations, or ability to walk and chat
  4. the stress of looking at your face all the time
  5. dead air

It seems that the Zoom gallery view of seeing everyone’s face at one glance has become the default type of Zoom meeting. This shows the lack of creativity, or even basic understanding of the medium, by those who run the meetings. I agree that non-verbal communication can be an issue. That’s why I often have one-on-one video calls, as these are more intimate and great for getting to know someone better over time.

I have successfully completed many projects with people I have never met in person. Anxiety about children bursting in is only a problem for control freaks. My discussions over the past month unanimously show that people appreciate having more human conversations as people are no longer wearing their ‘office armour’. We see the person behind their job title.

Yes, you can Zoom and walk (just don’t chew gum as well). Our perpetual beta coffee club meets regularly on Zoom and one member was out walking during our last call. He just turned off his video, and would stop from time to time and turn the video back on. Finally, there is no reason to always have your video camera on. Video is great to get to know other people but after the first few meetings, it’s no longer necessary. And dead air (nobody talking) is actually good for thinking. You are not running a radio broadcast.

The problem is not Zoom. It’s your bloody meetings!

In meetings, bloody meetings I highlighted age-old problems with business meetings, which I learned about in the 1980’s and which continue today. Meetings should have an objective, a clear format, and be run by a competent person to facilitate the process. Most importantly there must be a clear reason why the meeting is necessary in the first place. Quite often, an alternative would be more effective than calling a meeting — e.g. one-on-one conversation, email, wiki, blog, discussion thread, etc.

Liberating Structures offer 33 open source methods for convening meetings for different purposes. Use one of these instead of an ad hoc Zoom chat wasting most attendees’ time. These have been used and tested around the world. In addition, Liberating Structures are now being frequently adapted for distributed workers. There is no excuse for “Chairing without due thought & preparation”.

Like most organizational changes, meetings will only get better when those in leadership positions decide to make them so. Perhaps the ubiquity of all these Zoom meetings over the past month will get people thinking and talking about better ways to communicate and collaborate at work.

Whether you stay with distributed work or go back to a location, improving meetings will not only raise morale but make room for what is really important in every workplace now — learning. The problems with meetings are not new, so let’s use this crisis to compensate every person who has ever been stuck in a useless meeting, and make meetings better.

“In 1973, Canadian business management expert Henry Mintzberg was among the first to examine the problem [frustrations with meetings]. His book ‘The Nature of Managerial Work’ found that more than half of managers’ time in his sample was spent in meetings.”CNBC 2015

4 Responses to “zoom is not the problem — meetings are”

  1. David Wallace

    To true. We use MSTeams for work. The issue isn’t the portal, it’s the volume and length of meetings. Most of these could be deferred to the Forum function, email, Yammer, OneNote; even a good old-fashioned audio-only conversation. We recently introduced a drive to reduce meetings to 45/50mins with a short break halfway through, purely to stop people booking your calendar with back-to-back 1 hour (or much longer) sessions. The campaign continues!

  2. Kevin Wheeler

    Really good insights, Harold.
    I love a method used years ago at Intel and many other semiconductor companies. They divided meetings into three basic types: discussion, decision, or briefing.

    Briefing meetings were 15 minutes. One speaker or two maximum. Purpose to update, inform, or explain.

    Decision meetings were limited to 20 minutes. Purpose to vote on something that has been discussed and studied in a discussion meeting or offline. Result was a go or no go decision on a topic that required group knowledge and concurrence.

    Discussion meetings had no fixed time limit and were used to fully explore a topic and look at relevant data or listen to experts. No decisions were made in discussion meetings.

    Steve Jobs and others also had methods of limiting meetings and making them as short and relevant as possible.

    • Harold Jarche

      I like that system, Kevin. It’s simple enough that everyone understands it.


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