With UK workers facing meeting overload, Bert van der Zwan, from WebEx, explains why cutting the number of face-to-face meetings 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 day, or every other day, would not be unusual.
Recent research by YouGov found that the average 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
Research carried out by Professor Albert Mehrabian in the 1960s found that within any spoken dialogue, 7 per cent of the meaning is in the words themselves, 38 per cent of the meaning is in how the words are said and 55 per cent in facial expression or body language.
Whilst this shows why personal meetings are so important, there are a huge number of meetings taking place that don’t require that level of contact. The research mentioned earlier also revealed that employees believe 37 per cent of the meetings they attend do not need to be conducted face-to-face, and can in fact be counter-productive.
Further research from the London School of Economics, in June 2007, showed that overall UK productivity is lower than in industrial rivals such as France, Germany and the US so perhaps it is time we re-evaluated just how many meetings we attend.
The trick to reducing the burden of unnecessary face-to-face meetings is identifying in advance which require this type of interaction and personal contact, and which don’t. Meetings that achieve little or nothing can waste time, both travelling to the location 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 per cent said that reducing their number of face-to-face meetings would improve overall productivity at work, with a further 21 per cent saying they would feel less stressed and 18 per cent 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, not to mention the carbon footprints they could save, particularly if travelling by air.
Finding a happy medium
By identifying those meetings that could take place just as effectively on the phone, or even a series of emails, we need not damage business relationships or missing out on strategic opportunities. 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. The answer in situations like these is to take advantage of the communications technology enabled by the internet. Employees, 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 other’s 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.