The hidden costs of virtual meetings
Most large companies these days have staff that are scattered across different floors of the building, different buildings across the city, across the country or even across different countries and time zones. Working in a distributed team has become the norm, rather than the exception.
Because teams are still — in most knowledge-work environments at least — the primary unit of productivity, collaboration is really important.
What organisations are really good at paying attention to is the visible cost of collaboration — the cost in real money of the office space required to get large teams of people to work together in close proximity, or to travel to meet face-to-face on a regular basis. And these costs are going up. It is becoming more and more expensive for people to get together and collaborate. And companies are becoming less willing to spend the money to make that happen.
This has given rise to the large and growing number of platforms (Skype, GoToMeeting, Hangouts, Zoom, Slack and others) catering for virtual meetings, some aimed squarely at the corporate market, others at smaller companies or individuals. There are numerous articles promoting these tools as the most cost-effective way to run meetings, but none that I could find describe the hidden costs of running meetings in this way.
I am frankly astonished at the penny-pinching that goes on in the name of cost saving, while completely ignoring these hidden costs. Hidden, because no-one adds them up, no-one even thinks about them as costs for that matter, because they are not paid for directly. They are paid for indirectly, and organisations are blind to indirect costs.
One such company boasted that they saved £5,000 by holding a virtual meeting for ninety people across six locations. First, I am astonished that the travel costs for so many people was so low, but let’s look at the potential costs of not travelling to get together face-to-face.
The first ten minutes of any virtual meeting I have ever attended is usually spent not collaborating, but rather fixing the equipment, sending out the correct URL or meeting number, finding out you’ve reached the limit of the number of people who are allowed to dial in, and so forth.
That’s 900 minutes wasted already. How much has that cost?
When we are in the same room together and you and I start talking at the same time, we look at one another and one of us instantly stops talking so that the other can continue. This is not the case when we are dialled into a meeting. And there are a number of problems with this.
When two people in a room are talking at the same time, or even just overlapping, to anyone on the other end of a phone or internet connection, it’s just garbled noise. And this happens frequently in every meeting. Does anyone ask to pause the meeting and replay what was just said? No, because that would waste time. It’s easier to just remain quiet and live with the fact that you didn’t hear what was just said. Effective communication ceases for a few seconds.
This is a particular problem when the majority of attendees are in the same room together and the minority dialling in from elsewhere. It is all too common for people who are normally garrulous and interactive when face-to-face with their colleagues to simply not speak when on the other end of a phone call.
More lost communication. How much does that cost?
It is said that a significant percentage of our communication is non-verbal. When we hold audio-conference meetings, that percentage of communication is lost. How much does that cost?
While there is probably a higher bandwidth of communication going on when holding audio-conferences than audio alone, there are significant issues here too.
In just the last few weeks, I have witnessed meetings in which it is impossible to share a desktop or presentation and view each others faces at the same time (which kinda negates the whole point of an audio-conference), and people switching off their cameras (going audio only for a while), which is simply distracting. I’m wondering what they’re doing that they don’t want you to know about. And, of course, you just know they’ve stopped paying attention to the meeting.
Then there was the time that a presenter asked a question, and got no response for a few seconds before someone asked him to repeat the question. At that point you realise you’ve been talking to the metaphorical brick wall and no-one is really communicating.
And communication, to paraphrase Peter Drucker, is what the listener does.
When you are in a virtual meeting, you are more likely to get distracted or lose interest at some point. And the other attendees don’t notice unless everyone is watching the faces of those they are meeting with.
All these moments when communication ceases to occur or ceases to be effective, are a cost in terms of information sharing. And this assumes the rest of the meeting is otherwise well-run and facilitated.
Next time you are in a virtual meeting, count the minutes lost to a lack of effective communication and multiple that by the number of attendees and convert to hours. Multiply that by the hourly cost to the company of the average employee and see what you get.
I estimate something in the order of 25% of meetings is lost. Call it 15 minutes per hourly meeting. At an average of say 10 people per meeting and you get 150 minutes of lost productivity. In one elapsed hour! How many ineffective meetings do you have per week?
And how much does all that cost?
The problem is not just the lost time, however, The real problem lies in the knock-on effect of the lost communication. Because something wasn’t properly understood, a follow-up meeting is required. Or even worse, mistakes happen and work needs to be re-done. This is rarely, if ever, attributed to the original ineffective virtual meeting; it is put down to “just the way things are done around here.”
And that’s a whole ‘nuther topic for a future post.
This article was originally published at Medium.com