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“Can We All Turn Our Cameras On, Please?” – Are Face-To-Face Meetings Ever Really Needed?

A new framework, designed to help managers assess the best ways to conduct meetings, is helping companies to connect better.
A new framework, designed to help managers assess the best ways to conduct meetings, is helping companies to connect better
  • New framework provides guidance on when companies should utilise face-to-face meetings and when they shouldn’t
  • Face-to-face only needed for meetings with high levels of engagement, or those that build trust and relationships
  • It’s predicted that 75% of meetings will be online by 2024

Cast your minds back to 2019, and a pre-covid era – I know it’s difficult. You’re working in the office and have been called into a department-wide meeting, where your boss decides to give you a long list of updates for over an hour, and then dismisses you all without anyone else being given the opportunity to provide any input. You might think to yourself, “that was a waste of my valuable time“, or “that could have easily just been put in an email“.

Fast-forward to the same time next year – during the covid pandemic. Your boss conducts a similar meeting but this time, whilst you all still join, nobody turns their cameras or microphones on as they know they do not need to contribute. Your boss goes through his updates and then you’re dismissed. Though it probably still didn’t need to be a meeting, it might feel like less of a waste of your time when you’ve been able to log in from your desk at home and only had to listen in.

During the pandemic, it was made evidently clear that many of the interactions we have in our working lives do not need to be conducted face-to-face, in-person or even live. The necessity to work remotely, forcing many businesses go 100% online, shone a harsh spotlight on the assumption that work has to be conducted in person to be of a high quality. So much so that, once lockdown rules ended, companies struggled to decide what aspects of their employee’s work had to return to a face-to-face format, and which aspects could continue to be virtual.

Fast-forward one again to today, more than a year after the majority of covid restrictions have been removed from our lives, many companies are still struggling to decide where to find the balance between in-person and digital working. This is why business school researchers have developed a new framework to help organisations decide the best possible method of conducting meetings in a post-pandemic world.

The framework, developed by Steve Muylle, Professor of Digital Strategy and Business Marketing at Vlerick Business School, alongside his colleagues – Willem Standaert, Associate Professor at HEC Liège, Belgium, and Amit Basu, Professor at Cox School of Business, USA, focuses on four key modalities of conducting a meeting; audio-conferencing, video-conferencing, telepresence and face-to-face.

The researchers state it is imperative that, before you decide how to host your meeting, managers need to consider two key questions; why the meeting is occurring in the first place, and the main capabilities of the modality used.

Reasons, or objectives, for a meeting occurring included elements such as; a simple exchange of information, the making of important decisions, communicating specific sentiments and the building of relationships. The capabilities of the modalities considered were; the ability to hear the attendees’ voices, the use of shared computer screens, seeing attendees’ body language and facial expressions, experiencing co-location and observing what attendees are looking at.

As well as this, the researchers also compared short and long meetings, in order to decide if there was a difference in effectiveness as the time of the meeting lengthens.

According to the framework, virtual meeting technology can be effectively used for any of the four key meeting objectives that managers are looking to achieve. In fact, the researchers say that the only type of meeting that specifically needs to be in-person and face-to-face is long meetings that require a high level of engagement from participants, or meetings that are being used to build trust and relationships between the parties involved.

Telepresence, they say, is needed for shorter meetings where the key objective is to build relationships, as well as longer meetings where the key objective is to communicate sentiment.

The framework also reveals that video-conferencing can be effective in shorter meetings where the participants are hoping to communicate sentiment, as well as in any meetings where business decisions are being made, and in longer meetings where exchanging information is the key objective. Even audio-conferencing can be effective for short meetings, where the one key objective is the exchange of information,

The team of researchers also suggest that, if a meeting has a large number of participants or is scheduled to be longer than one-hour visual capabilities become more important, which is why video-conferencing or face-to-face should be required. If a meeting is small – around five or less people – and is scheduled to be shorter than an hour, then even audio-only meetings could be sufficient.

“Research from Gartner predicts that by 2024 that 75% of meetings will be online, and organisations need to be cautious about not only the cost of face-to-face meetings, but also the environmental effects that they can have, as well as the need to make effective business decisions,” says Professor Muylle. “Organisations need to better understand the impact of each modality, and balance both the costs and benefits of each method.”

With this in mind, the researchers also suggest that businesses would do well to think about selecting the modality that best matches the experience of in-person meeting when hybrid gatherings occur. The bigger the difference in modalities of those participating, the less effective the meeting will be – for example, if one participant is conducting the meeting face-to-face, and another participant is only joining through the audio-conferencing method, it is likely to be an unproductive session.

Whilst investing in some virtual technologies can be costly, the researchers point out that the cost for employees to travel to the office, as well as the environmental costs of them doing so can also be costly, if in other ways. By using this framework, the researchers hope that organisations can assess their investments in virtual meeting technologies and the capabilities that they need more effectively, as well as helping meeting organisers select the most appropriate methods, which will work best for all of those concerned.

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