My meeting hell

Whether videoconferencing or audio conferencing, using the right communications tool is the only way to get the best from everyone attending your meeting. And sometimes, face-to-face is the best tool of all.

Thu, June 20th, 10:44


At a family get together a while back someone observed how a relative had great hearing for a man of his many years. “He’s never had a hearing problem, but he’s always had a listening problem,” came a long-suffering reply.

I must admit to suffering of late from a little conference call fatigue, and I don’t want it to develop into a full-blown listening problem.

The upsides of communication and collaboration technology are eloquently discussed by my colleague Stephen Mulligan here. Whether you’re at the ‘business case’ end of things (living in a Power Point and Excel spreadsheet cloud) or the ‘business end’ end of things, unified communications is all about making better use of the time your employer buys with your salary.

It’s great that it makes your time and your salary more efficient. It’s also great that you can participate in a heated debate with your colleagues while still in your pyjamas and avoiding the school-run traffic jam, or that you can work at home on some task that requires less ambient noise than is likely to be available on ‘bring Jedward to the office day’.

In a previous blog I mentioned the ‘two pizza team’ in Amazon, which had been constructed to encourage autonomy, and to minimise the need for meetings. An attractive view, but for most of us meetings will continue to form a significant part of the working day. Is sitting on a call on mute preferable to sitting in a room, waiting for the part of the meeting where you have a contribution to make?

A company I meet with frequently tends to bring a lot of people into discussions. A number of people might sit in for the duration, spending most of their time typing away on their laptops, with little impression that they are actually listening, engaged or interested. This can become a real distraction, and sap the energy from the room. Whether this is culturally acceptable will vary from company to company. No doubt the number of calls or meetings that you are expected to attend to the detriment of actually completing actions assigned at such meetings will be a big motivator.

Minimise those awkward silences

As with the folks typing away in a meeting room, you can detect the level of engagement on a video meeting. Voice-only conference calls are another matter entirely. Who has not suffered that awkward moment where out of the burble of conversation in your earpiece comes a direct question addressed to you, which you have only noticed because of the pause following what half-sounded like your name? Keeping participants actively engaged on long calls is difficult. While IM certainly helps, video is a big improvement in terms of the speed at which you can determine how someone feels about a topic under discussion. The information rate of body language outstrips that of a voice-only interaction every time.

Consider immersive Telepresence solutions that put you ‘in the room’ with colleagues and customers, independent of geography. This is not an investment that you would make to recreate the experience of seeing a colleague busy on their email or Facebook. The same economics apply to all meetings, independent of the communications tools used; people’s time is valuable. For a perspective on how to tackle meeting sprawl, take a look at this.

At one recent design session over Telepresence I shifted into some ‘blue sky’ thinking, and within seconds could see that I had drifted into the twilight zone as far as my colleagues were concerned, and therefore knew the comments that had tipped them over and caused most concern. This was tackled openly and a way forward was reached within minutes. On a combination of email and conference calls a similar result would have taken multiple iterations to bottom out the substantive issues, let alone resolve them constructively.

The right communication tools for your organisation or team will depend on context, your own communication style, the company decision-making approach and the business you are in. The right communication tool will not make you any better at communicating than you are in a face to face setting: to be a better communicator, do a communications course.

Andy O’Kelly is Chief Architect at eircom and a speaker on IT solutions and innovation. Follow Andy on Twitter, connect on LinkedIn or contact Andy here for more information.

Andy O'Kelly

eircom Business Centre