The future of meetings The Economist

A LOBBY CAN SHAPE the first impressions of a business. Guests of the building that housed the New York headquarters of Jefferies, an investment bank, once received a section of the Berlin Wall purchased from the East German government. At the Slaughter and May office, a London law firm, water trickles down a wall in the atrium to a shallow pool made of natural stone. The home of Salesforce, a software giant in San Francisco, greets visitors with a 32-foot video wall showing everything from relaxing waterfalls to Pac-Man clips.

As covid-19 closed offices around the world, these crucial first impressions were mediated by video calls. With workers trapped at home, business meetings — with subordinates, co-workers, customers, and investors — became almost entirely virtual. Everything that previously involved people crowding into spaces, from performance reviews to shareholder jamborees, road shows, and initial public offerings, was moving into cyberspace.

Since March 2020, the Nasdaq exchange in New York has held more than 150 virtual bell ceremonies. The Hong Kong Stock Exchange has made at least 140. The aggregate amount of time people spent on the Microsoft Teams video conferencing platform tripled to 45 million hours a day. Zoom went from being a moderately successful start to a verb (and, for some, a four-letter word).

Now that many companies are reopening their offices and reconfiguring their work into something hybrid, they are also rethinking their approach to meetings. Love them or (more often) hate them, powwows are an integral part of modern commerce. Therefore, administrators must decide which parts of the remote experience, if any, they want to retain. A Zoom survey of more than 7,000 people in ten countries showed that two-thirds would prefer a combination of virtual and face-to-face meetings in the future. As with all work that is a remote part and not, in other words, the future of meetings seems messy.

Completely virtual meetings go nowhere. Lumi, a service that helps organize shareholder meetings, says 90% of this year’s meetings will be completely remote, compared to 11% in 2019. OpenExchange, a company that provides virtual and hybrid events for to companies and investors, it expects to execute 200,000 in 2021, compared to 4,000 in 2019.

One reason is the rampant variant of the covid-19, which forces companies to postpone their fuller return to the conference room. But not the only one: virtual meetings allow more people to attend than if participants had to travel to distant places. Online meetings can also be more flexible. During the pandemic, British workers scheduled meetings on occasions when they would normally go to and from work, according to research by Doodle, a scheduling service.

Video conferencing also seems to work well for many purposes. Deloitte, a consultancy, surveyed 1,000 U.S. executives involved in private equity transactions and mergers and acquisitions. It was found that 87% of respondents said their companies were able to close deals in a purely virtual environment. More than half would prefer to keep it after the pandemic.

But virtual meetings also have drawbacks. They can be packaged more in one day, which causes fatigue by zooming (another phrase that has come into common parlance). They are also less likely to finish on time. A Microsoft study showed that the average meeting of Microsoft teams lasted 35 to 45 minutes, compared to a year earlier (probably because they have no physical indications, such as people getting up to leave or the next group entered the conference room on their own conclave).

Hybrid meetings where some people are present in person and others set a particular challenge. Most organizations have invested little in audiovisual technology that ensures that branders are seen, heard, and not felt by second-class citizens. In most pre-pandemic meeting rooms, these considerations were a later reflection. Poor lighting and poorly placed microphones are common.

These technical problems can be solved with better technology and smarter design of office space. Companies are experimenting with larger, higher-quality screens, voice-tracking cameras that track the speaker, and tools that limit background noise. Software that transcribes or records meetings is becoming standard, easing pressure on employees to attend each session. Silicon Valley giants like Microsoft and Facebook want to take things a step further, developing an augmented reality “metaverse,” where users anywhere can interact with each other in real time.

Not everyone is convinced. Some companies are backtracking on virtual culture. Many Wall Street leaders have taken a tough stand against remote work, including meetings. JPMorgan Chase called employees back into the offices before most. He now urges his bankers to return to the planes to meet customers in person. JPMorgan chief Jamie Dimon has made his fleet of private jets available to CEOs. An informal contest at the bank began this summer, where employees earned points for face-to-face customer meetings. According to reports, the reward was a meal with the best JPMorgan professionals. Mr. Dimon may be on the verge of something: Seven out of ten respondents in the Zoom study thought it was important to physically know customers.

Fearful of abandoning the good ideas that emerge from the moment-driven meetings, many companies are reforming their spaces to facilitate this serendipity as long as workers deign to show up at the office. A survey of 400 international companies conducted by Knight Frank, a real estate consultant, found that more than half expect the share of collaborative spaces in their portfolios to increase over the next three years. Nokia, a Finnish manufacturer of telecommunications equipment, says that from next year 70% of its office space will be dedicated to collaboration and teamwork. Dropbox, a cloud storage company, has sold its headquarters in San Francisco. Its new venues, known internally as studios, will feature larger conference rooms with versatile designs.

And while the vast majority of people tell polls that they favor hybrid work, they clash about what that means specifically for meetings. As for large meetings, it seems that the clear preference is virtual setup, which favored 61% of Zoom respondents, compared to 31% who opted for the physical conference room. But preferences differed by gender, with about 44% of men preferring to attend large group meetings in person, compared with only 33% of women (studies show they are less likely to speak in meetings and that men interrupt them). As for smaller team meetings, remote workers were evenly distributed between wanting to join in person and preferring to do so virtually. And the labor cultures of some countries seem particularly opposed to virtualization: 41% of French workers insisted that they would only meet in person (see chart).

Some decisions will be simple enough. Meetings where crucial calls are made or new customers are introduced will almost certainly bow in person. When it comes to less important but still important confabrications, the calculation will be more complicated. One thing is certain. Many meetings will continue to be a pain for scheduling administrators and, for many of their subordinates, a pain to attend.

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