Future of jobs: What lies ahead for the water-cooler conversations?

MEETINGS IN THE POST-COVID WORKPLACE

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As a person who has attended probably a few thousand short and long meetings, I can vouch for the fact that you cannot run a company without meetings. And even if a lot of employees feel they are a waste of time, the alternative to having meetings is the ‘command, control, dictate’ system of working. Where all decisions get taken by a few people who then dictate their decisions to the rest of the organization.

Without meetings, what we call the modern day organization will collapse. But researchers have been trying to figure out ways to make meetings more productive.

In the article ‘Stop the meeting madness’ [HBR July-August 2017], the authors pointed to the dramatic increase in time devoted to meetings, from less than 10 hours a week in the 1960s to more than 23 hours a week in the current decade.

Meetings, the authors said, are supposed to improve creativity, group work and productivity. But often they end up being excessive, badly planned/scheduled and poorly run. They interviewed more than 180 senior managers in a range of industries and an overwhelming majority said that meetings came in the way of them completing their work.

The solution, they recommended, is to figure out the time wasted in meetings, by individuals, groups and both. Then collect impressions from each member to figure out a group goal for improving meeting efficiency. With regular monitoring to ensure bad habits don’t return.

Today, thanks to COVID-19, we are at the cusp of a major change.

As the world adjusts to a new normal, many companies, in India and abroad,  have announced that post-COVID they will start offering their employees a more flexible way of working. Working from home for two days in a week and from office for three or vice versa. 

Will we then be seeing a tempering of the meeting mania? Or will we see a new phenomenon of ‘Zoning out on Zoom Meetings’ (where people tend to switch off their video and audio and doze off)? Not just Zoom but on other similar platforms like Microsoft Team Meetings, Google Meet Meetings, Webex and more. 

In the early days of the lockdown, companies organized numerous virtual meetings to ensure executives stayed motivated. There was also what psychologists call the ‘new toy’ syndrome. What could have been a simple call for three people, became a 45-minute Zoom meeting. Now, employees have started complaining of Zoom-Fatigue.

Many kept their video off and surfed the net as the meeting progressed [for those not aware, there is a business strategy meeting time-buster called the ‘Bullshit Bingo’ which is played by a group of people not engaged in the proceedings!]

How to run a virtual meeting

There are some basics that smart executives have learnt 

  • Dress right. Have adequate face light. Keep background clutter free etc.
  • More important is the use of video; testing technology ahead of time; making all faces visible
  • Minimize presentation time and use icebreakers
  • Have a designated facilitator, capturing feedback
  • Tackle tough issues up front 
  • Companies and trainers have also used Break-Out room facilities offered by services like Zoom to great effect 

Arianna Huffington, in her talk at the ET Global Business Summit (October 2020), said, “Right now, companies around the world are busy building and implementing new technologies to allow employees to collaborate remotely or share office space safely. But without also giving people tools to nurture their own well-being and mental resilience, new technologies, however impressive and necessary, will not be enough” [emphasis mine]. 

New meeting protocols

Echoing that sentiment, several companies are implementing protocols to protect personal time of employees working from home. These measures are a direct result of complaints from employees who are working from home getting drawn into endless meetings and calls. 

For instance, Mondelez India has implemented a ‘Do Nothing Day’ and a concept of ‘Line of Closing’ to define the end of a work day.

General Mills India has implemented a ‘No-Meetings Friday’ to ensure that employees are able to complete their assigned work before the weekend starts.

No doubt, meetings play an important part in building organizational culture and ethos. As Rishad Premji, Chairman Wipro Ltd., observed at the 47th National Management Convention organised by All India Management Association, “We want more people to come back some of the time, [where] everybody comes back for 3-4 days a week. It is important that people come back. Culture grows, spreads and [is ] understood in an environment where people get to connect face to face. The watercooler conversation and gossip are important for an organization to grow.”

Vibrant and growing organizations have what is called ‘Social Capital’, the capital generated when people work together and build relationships. Most of us in our 40s and 50s have made enduring relationships with past colleagues. This is not something that can be measured with a number.

Some companies actively encourage building social capital. For example Hindustan Lever or Hindustan Unilever has a Chairman’s Dinner once a year where all past directors are invited. Social capital is built by such small measures.

A company with a high social capital encourages cross table conversations. The watercooler conversations that Rishad Premji spoke about is actively encouraged. A bit of it is cribbing about the boss, but a lot of it could end up benefiting the organization: “I am stuck with this problem”. “Oh, I think so and so had a similar problem, ask them, they will help”. 

But the big question is if organizations are built on social capital, what will happen if the office of tomorrow is a pale shadow of what it used to be, gleaming towers of steel and glass, with full floors dedicated to the cafeteria?

Hybrid meetings

Physical meetings that happen inside a conference room will dramatically come down. We will be seeing a growth of hybrid meetings with some dialling in through Zoom or whatever, and some in the office. These hybrid meetings may actually end up being more productive. 

Yet, the challenge of creating Social Capital remains. Companies will have to see how to build more enduring ‘bonding’ meetings. As against a big annual party for the whole company, organizations have to create numerous such occasions for smaller groups.

As the future of work changes, we will see the future of meetings change more dramatically. 

The Zoom mania will die down as people start using tools that measure their productivity. Companies will start providing employees with computers that monitor their meeting time and warn them if they are spending too much time in meetings. Similarly, the tool could even inform the company that the said employee has slept through most meetings [privacy issues permitting]. 

We will see a change in the way meetings, both virtual and physical, are planned, conducted and catalogued. A decade ago Cadbury India instituted a practice that there will be a ‘pre-read’ before each meeting, to be distributed at least 48 hours before the meeting. All participants had to come with specific questions and the meeting was not expected to run for more than one hour or so. That did bring about a quantum change in the company in the way they maximized meeting productivity.

We will soon be seeing more such innovations. And hopefully they will result in better morale and better productivity. 

About Ambi Parameswaran 4 Articles
M G (Ambi) Parameswaran is a Brand and Leadership Coach and Founder Brand-Building.com, a brand advisory. He is also the author of several best-selling books on brands, consumers and advertising.

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