Come for the Good Ideas. Stay for the Better Work Conditions
Many people have a conflicted relationship with business meetings. The good ones accomplish a lot and leave us with a clear sense of purpose. The bad ones waste time we will never get back again.
Something curious happens, though, when you bring up the topic of online meetings. The very same people who complain about pointless meetings suddenly wax poetic about in-person ones. As a remote worker, I find this is especially true of people who work predominantly in a traditional office. “There’s just something about sitting in the same room together,” I’ve been told. “I get my best work done when I can brainstorm with people face to face.”
Maybe you feel the same way. If so, here are some reasons why you should jump on the online meeting train anyway.
Flexible Work Hours
People want more flexible work hours. Clutch, a B2B research firm, conducted a survey of 507 full-time employees, and found that flexible hours are the most popular employee perk. This may or may not explain the results GlobalWorkplaceAnalytics.com found in their data. As of 2016 4.3 million US employees work from home at least half of the time, and the overall telecommuter population grew by 11.7%. Flexible hours usually work best if you can also flex where you work.
This was certainly true in my case. Back when I worked in a traditional office, I used to start work at 6am on Fridays so I could get off at 2pm. Sometimes I had to come in the back door because someone was sleeping across the front door. And I know I scared the janitorial staff a few times when they turned the corner and saw me sitting at my desk. My work life is less fraught now that I can roll out of bed early and work from home. I miss having a janitorial staff though.
Some might argue that people can choose to flex their schedules on non-meeting days. This runs the risk of marginalizing people who may flex their schedules to care for relatives, or chronic health conditions. Giving people flexible hours means becoming flexible in the way we do business. If management allows you to work from home, but then requires you to come into the office to attend a meeting, that isn’t very flexible.
Whether your company already has a flexible work policy, or handles these requests on a case by case basis, you can strike a blow for equality by holding online meetings.
More Equitable Communication
We’ve all been at meetings where one percent of the attendees get 90 percent of the attention. If that hasn’t ever happened to you, you might want to do a little soul searching. The elephant in the room could be you.
All joking aside, online meetings aren’t magic bullets. It’s possible for a minority of people to take up the majority of air time during any meeting. However, online meetings come with more tools to fight the dysfunction. Instant messaging lets you share an idea with the group even if you can’t get an (audio) word in edgewise.
My company went remote in 2010. I have attended both in-person and online meetings, and I am here to tell you that the chat box increases the number of people who participate in a discussion. Sometimes this is because the person holding forth will notice the (written) chat and incorporate the idea into the discussion. Other times, attendees will hold a parallel discussion in the chat, and the weight of all of that activity forces the main speakers to pause to catch up on what they missed.
The chat function is useful even when everyone can talk. Some people who would otherwise remain silent will type their thoughts because it is less intimidating than speaking up. Whether you are looking for people to buy-in to your solution or to help solve a problem, your end result will be stronger if everyone participates in the discussion.
Brainstorming works very well in the online environment — especially if you want the best ideas to rise to the top. It’s far too easy to pick ideas because they came from the highest ranked (or loudest) person in the room. There are well documented ways to get around these pitfalls. Professor Leigh Thompson, J. Jay Gerber Professor of Dispute Resolutions and Organizations, uses one method called Brainwriting. Each attendee writes down an idea on a card, the cards are put up on a wall, and everyone votes on the ideas that they think have the most merit. The key to unbiased voting is to keep the authors of the ideas anonymous.
Implementing this idea in person involves post-it notes, stickers, and using meeting time for reflection time as people formulate their ideas. This benefits people who like generating ideas in a short period of time, and disadvantages those who innovate best by letting things marinate in the back of their mind. And attendees might still find a way to signal which ideas belong to them.
The online environment provides more flexibility for different types of thinkers. My team submits ideas to improve our jobs, our company, or our work culture via an anonymous survey. We then hold a vote to see which ideas rise to the top. There’s a two week window to submit ideas and a two week window to vote. Those that like to sit with an idea can get started thinking right away. Those that like generating ideas in a short period of time can do so at any point during the two week window.
Anyone who feels strongly about the winning ideas can join the team tasked with research or implementation. You end up with a group of people who want to be there, that work on a popular project vetted by leadership.
Structuring collaboration sessions this way is also more efficient. We don’t use meeting time for reflection time. That leaves more room for problem solving.
Greater Career Agility
We live in an age of job insecurity. Companies close, downsize, divest, merge or swallow other companies whole. The job you do, the colleagues you work with, may all change from one day to the next.
One day in October of 2010 I walked into what I thought was a normal business meeting to find out that in 30 days I would either be working remotely or looking for a new job. I had a week to read over the available roles, to talk to my current boss about fit, and to learn how to interview via video call before applying for a new role. I was six months pregnant with my second child and the primary breadwinner in my household. I suspected — I hoped — that remote work would resolve some issues for me.
Perhaps you would find a new job if confronted with the same choice. Perhaps I would have made a different choice if I’d had different circumstances. Regardless, having remote work experience gives me more choices now. I work from home in Vancouver B.C. because it’s convenient, it fits with my current life goals, and I actually like the work that I do. There are a lot of people who can’t say the same thing.
You too can increase your job choices even if you have zero intention of pursuing a remote career. The list of companies that offer remote roles is growing every day. Some of these companies manage remote employees from a centralized headquarters. Managing remote employees and running online meetings are skills that come with a learning curve. Learn these skills now and set yourself up as a competitive candidate in the future. Granted, it’s hard to practice working with remote colleagues if you don’t have any. Running an online meeting has fewer hurdles, as more and more people work odd hours. If you’re motivated, you can find a way to set yourself up for future success.
The truth is, not everyone wants the remote work lifestyle. Some people really do need to sit in a cubicle in order to get their best work done. However, everyone can benefit from learning a handful of remote work skills. Whether you’re a fan of better ideas, better work conditions, or a consistent salary, it pays to get comfortable with online meetings. The job you save may be your own.