The New Normal
When COVID-19 first spread across the world earlier this year, it was impossible to predict how much our lives would change. For companies across the United States, one of the most impactful changes has been the transition to remote work and virtual meetings. However, we are now more than six months into this “new normal,” giving us an opportunity to step back and take stock of how the transition is going and how we can improve it.
Since the transition to work-from-home, virtual meetings via Zoom, Teams, Google Hangouts, and other video conference platforms have become the primary tools employees use to collaborate face-to-face. Dataprise recognized the growing importance of this technology, and our strategic consulting team collaborated with our marketing team to survey over 125 coworkers, clients, friends, and family to capture the thoughts, feelings, and challenges we are all experiencing when it comes to virtual meetings.
Policy is the Best Policy
Working as a vCIO at Dataprise, the most important part of my job is helping customers solve problems. So, I decided to approach the challenges associated with virtual meetings, and the data we collected, with my vCIO thinking cap on. As with many technology challenges, the best place to start is with a good policy. Just as organizations need policies governing disaster recovery, security, and other operations-critical technologies, they can also benefit from established rules of engagement and formal written guidance around virtual meetings to maximize their benefits. So, I took our poll results and a little of my own research and started to dig deeper to see what we could learn.
All Zoomed Out
As an extrovert, I love virtual meetings. They give me a great opportunity to interact with my coworkers and customers without risk to anyone involved. But, as a human being with limited energy, I also prefer not to have them all day long. And I’m not alone; we asked the individuals we polled how long they spent on virtual meetings before and after the pandemic. Before the pandemic, the average answer was 8 hours or less per week; since the pandemic, many responded with 8 hours or more per day.
Aside from begging the obvious question as to when in the day these individuals are supposed to work, the advent of overpacked video conference calendars has given rise to a new phenomenon known as “Zoom fatigue.” This refers to the feel of mental, physical, and emotional exhaustion many of us feel after a long day of virtual meetings, and the results of our survey show how real this feeling can be.
Organizations can help eliminate Zoom fatigue and burnout by setting policies which enable employees to cut down on unnecessary meeting time. For example, organizations can designate specific hours to remain virtual meeting free – setting aside the hours from 12:00 PM to 3:00 PM, for example, ensures that employees get time to eat lunch and catch up on work before launching into afternoon meetings. Similarly, organizations can create a policy against booking meetings at the half hour, giving employees the chance to recharge and do work when virtual sessions end in less than an hour. Lastly, our study suggested that many employees are either ambivalent about or against company Zoon happy hours due to Zoom fatigue. These types of meetings provide a great opportunity for employees to connect and here company news in an informal setting but making sure to keep them at reasonable intervals can help with burnout.
Call Me… Maybe
Though virtual meeting software has become increasingly prevalent, it is by no means the only option. Our survey showed that just over 50% of respondents have participated in a virtual meeting conducted over the phone in the last week, and many organizations still seem to prefer phone calls, either due to tradition or force of habit. But consider: which is more engaging? Virtual meetings offer the option to interact with coworkers face-to-face, and usually chat and file-sharing options as well, while a phone call is much more limiting as a medium.
The results of our survey back this approach; when asked, 88% of the 125 people surveyed found meetings to be more productive when virtual rather than over the phone. To keep meetings as productive as possible, then, organizations can set a policy requiring that a virtual meeting link be sent out, either on its own or alongside a phone number, with all remote meetings.
Lights, Camera, Action
Even if we accept that virtual meetings tend to work better than phone calls, virtual meetings can be carried out either with or without video. When asked whether they prefer their coworkers to have their camera on or off during virtual meetings, 41% of those we surveyed said they prefer cameras on and 40% said they have no preference, while a mere 11% preferred cameras off. This seems to suggest that most people either prefer to use the video option or at least have no preference against it.
Our study also suggested that teams can achieve more in meetings when everyone has video on; over 85% of respondents found video meetings productive, and over 40% found video meetings more productive than virtual conferences with cameras turned off. Keeping cameras on enables team members to replicate in-person conversations as closely as possible and communicate using facial expressions as well as words. Even your background, whether real or virtual, can provide a catalyst for conversation and connection. Furthermore, our survey indicated that most participants were not deterred from using their camera by concern over revealing their personal space at home.
Organizational or departmental leadership can provide guidelines on how employees handle the camera decision on a day-to-day basis through policy and precedent. Everyone needs a break from the camera sometimes (see: All Zoomed Out) but encouraging employees to participate with video during particularly important meetings, or simply whenever they feel comfortable, has the potential to boost productivity and engagement.
All-In-One, One for All
An organization’s technical capabilities are only as good as the tools they use. As a vCIO, I have seen firsthand how impactful the right tools can be, especially during times like these when we depend on technology for communication. Based on all of my experience, I have come to the conclusion that a secure, cloud-based, all-in-one communications platform that allows real-time collaboration on any device anywhere in the world, is the ideal approach to virtual communication for nearly all organizations.
To demonstrate why this type of platform is so universally useful, let’s look at some of the very real threats to productivity that companies are facing today:
• Bad communications amongst departments
• Too many emails and difficulty finding the right emails
• A virus or ransomware that takes away your proprietary work
• Lost documents, or inability to access the right document version
• A slow or broken computer
• Delayed communications
• Inaccurate interpretation of communications
• Internet outages
By using the kind of cloud-based communications platform I have described, companies can help fix these issues; emails and documents are stored in the cloud and easy to locate and share, data and information are accessible from any device, communication happens in real time, and collaboration is possible at the touch of the button via video, voice, or chat. Popular examples of these types of platforms include Microsoft Teams, Slack, and others.
When asked in our survey whether they would continue to use their virtual communications platforms after returning to work in the office, most respondents said yes. Thus, crafting a clear and effective strategy for all-in-one virtual communications represents a worthwhile long-term investment, as does developing policies around how that tool is used (e.g., authentication, security, meeting hours, etc.).
Have you ever ended a wasteful or superfluous meeting and felt the need to mentally disconnect? If so, you are not alone; an MIT study shows that disorganized and unnecessary meetings can have a significant negative impact on employee morale and productivity, stating:
“Poorly run meetings have a tremendously negative impact on team success, innovation, creativity, and on individuals’ well-being and stress. In fact, experiencing a poor meeting can even result in meeting recovery syndrome, where employees lose additional time and productivity mentally recovering from a bad meeting.”
Any complete policy on virtual meetings should offer a meeting outline template to help the meeting organizer stay on-topic and inform attendees of what needs to be covered. Training and tools such as Whiteboards, brainstorming apps, and intuitive project management software such as Microsoft Planner can help make meetings more focused and interactive.
A New Hope
If we have learned nothing else about technology and business in the last eight months, please take away this: embrace technology as it evolves. Before the pandemic, I was pushing Teams to as many of my customers as I could as an easy, intuitive option for remote communication. Some companies were hesitant, and others took the chance to try it. When March came around, companies with Teams were able to continue to work and communicate successfully from home, often without missing a beat. Those which refused to adopt Teams or a similar tool found they were in trouble and had to spend additional time and resources on last-minute projects, training, software platforms, and even hardware in order to survive.
The good news is that organizations seem to already be moving in this direction; vCIOs at Dataprise have already found our customer base more willing to listen to IT direction, introduce new technologies and processes, and embrace fast-paced changes rather than worrying about how their employees will cope. Companies see the value that innovative technology provides to advance productivity, communications, security, or the bottom line. As an IT leader, I am excited and optimistic to see the future of businesses now that there are fewer hesitations about technical advancement. Building policies and standard practices around virtual meetings are just one step along the path towards the future.
Finally, below are a few more results from the poll I did not use for this post but thought to add for your benefit: