An (all digital) collaborative article with my amazing colleague Tilman Bona
Given that most of today’s knowledge workers class is locked in in home office, we observe a staggering celebration of digital meeting tools that facilitate a digital environment that is ‘just like a real meeting’. Our LinkedIn feeds are flooded with smiling faces spread across laptop screens; all happyily and seemingly successfully participating in digital meetings. It appears like many traditional SMEs (and to be quite frank large corporations too), leapfrogged from the 90s, where home office was something outrageous to ask for, to the 2020s, where everybody is fully proficient and fine with working virtually.
However, looking below the surface, things are very different. Therefore, we think it is time to cut the bs and be honest about our current times of digital working. Here are three important take-aways from our contemplation over the current extraordinary times:
1. It is okay to dislike online meetings and there are good reasons to do so
We both enjoy giving presentations or lectures, facilitating workshops and other formats, and with all modesty, we believe that we don’t totally suck at it. It brings us an immense pleasure to physically interact with other people, being quick on our feet by reacting to the audience’s often subtle feedback, sprinkling in the occasional anecdote or joke — all the things that make personal interactions enjoyable. However, over the last weeks, we started to feel increasing anxiety before and frustration after digital meetings and initially had a hard time to explain why — here are two important answers we developed over the course of (probably too) many digital meetings.
a) Technology brings a new element of uncertainty to the table
While a projector can fail too or (god forbid) we do not have the right adapter at hand to connect to the old VGA-projector, these are things we can largely control by now. Worst case, we just huddle up around our laptop and can at least look at the same screen. Once a meeting becomes digital, we, as the facilitators, are dependent on so many more things: X stable internet connections, X people being able to mute and unmute their microphone, X neighbors not starting to play music during our meeting, … — the list continues. Overall, there subjectively are countless more factors that could make a meeting go wrong in a digital meeting. This feeling of anxiety about things we can’t control will continue until we all have developed a certain routine with and trust into the recently learned systems — and that’s fine and will take some time!
b) Digital meetings disarm us to a certain extent
There are countless books and how to present properly, how sell something properly, how to convince somebody. And we, to the best of our knowledge, do not know one that does not emphasize the subtle aspects of communication: gestures, mimics, being able to feel the room, spontaneous deviation from the script, and so on. No technological failure in an on-site meeting can take away our voice, our humor, and our general implicit knowledge of how to interact with a group of people. Digital meetings still steal quite a few of these ‘weapons’. We never know whether a spontaneous joke was just truly bad or everybody was muted and forgot to unmute before laughing honestly. In digital meetings, the feedback loops of communication are distorted, if they exist at all. Again, that’s a new situation, we must accept to a certain extent. Obviously, and that’s important to note here: Today’s technology has improved tremendously, and new software solutions do increase our ability of true communication. However, as Hans Rosling nicely puts it in his book ‘Factfullness’, things can be both bad and better.
2. The current alternative to digital meetings is far worse
Years ago, in an inspiring lecture (kudos to Espen Andersen!), we learnt that people tend to benchmark new solutions always to the ideal state, not to the status quo. When talking about autonomous vehicles for instance, many criticize them for the fact that they produce fatal accidents without noticing that in certain situations, the status quo (a human driver) will create even more fatal accidents. Anyways, given the current restrictions that force us to avoid unnecessary social contact of any kind, we tend to compare digital meetings to real-life meetings (and probably the most successful ones we ever attended), while we should compare them to the current alternative, which today would mean no meeting at all. Continuing this thought, no meeting would mean no work, and depending on where you live, unemployment. We, personally, would much rather sit through weeks of partly tiresome digital meeting with outcomes that will never reassemble a real face-to-face meeting than worrying about where the next pay checks will come from. Hence, accepting that virtual meetings are not ideal, especially compared to real meetings, and introducing a certain level of personal modesty that supports us in acknowledging current sub-par performance, is likely to help us cope with the current situation much better. Finally, and most importantly…
3. Let’s agree on something long overdue
When work results depend on your colleagues’ contributions (#collaboration), please take a deep breath before sending a meeting invite. As Mr. Eisenhower taught us: some things are important, other are urgent, some are both/neither! We feel the same for (digital) meetings:
An urgent matter might require meeting in time synchronicity (=same time). Something important might be best solved with space synchronicity (=same place). Conventional meetings are at the same time and same place and for many of us, they are the single most used meeting format in times of business as usual — but were they always important and urgent? We know the answer for ourselfes…
Thinking back to before the current pandemic has hit us, our work weeks involved an almost absurd number of meetings, travelling to meetings to align on follow-up meetings. Again, we appreciate the physical interactions and still prefer real meetings, however if there is one good thing that could come out of this pandemic, it is the mundane understanding that certain meetings…
… can be done remotely without the need to meet face-to-face
… non-urgent matters can be a chat message (or blog post, Post-it, etc.) instead
… and other issues don’t really require a meeting (#letmegooglethisforyou)
Obviously, the benefits are quite pronounced. Consulting our collaboration cheat sheet before a meeting may…
… save productive work time: More focused work
… save the environment: Greta already told us, and we can continue this path: By avoiding avoidably journeys (especially by plane) we avoid fueling the next big (and likely much bigger) crisis
… save personal resources: Less time stuck in traffic, delayed on a train, or in airport security queues
All this translates into more time with your friends and family, outdoors, building model airplanes, or any other remarkable leisure activity you enjoy most!
All we ask for after the Covid19 distancing restrictions have passed: Let’s not continue where we left off. When sending out the next wave of outlook invites, please take a deep breath before copy pasting the address of your partner’s office into the location field and take a look at the collaboration cheat sheet: If there is an important pressing matter that is best solved face-to-face, everybody will agree to be there — on location, with post-its! If however, things are not that important, even if they feel urgent, you might just take that matter from your own coach.