'We were together in the room until someone graciously said it was lunch time or the fire alarm would go off. The most advanced technology around that could pull a meeting off course was a box of donuts.'
Let’s be honest; don’t you miss the days when having a meeting was a simple event in your life? Armed with even just the basic data as to where, what, when (why could often be questioned), and who, one could arrange his or her time without a great deal of pain and strife. Oh, there were major technical issues to confront then, no doubt. Would there be enough time to hit the men’s room before the meeting started? Could I squeak a coffee refill in before the boss got into the room? Who would remember to reserve conference room B for the two mods necessary for today’s session? These were top stress points one had to confront just to get things started. Yet now in today’s multi-dynamical work environment – with all of its paradigm shifts – we are in a realm we don’t completely control and unless more of us brave workers and communicators raise awareness on this, we’re doomed to a penance of unproductive meeting time and lost tooth enamel as we grind our way through what’s become the standard in meeting practices at the office, online and whatever combination thereof.
Let’s take a look a few examples.
The Mobile Device Fumbler: During the height of the Reagan Administration on into the first Bush presidency, people would attend a meeting without a cell phone in hand. We had a presenter, meeting leader, committee chair what have you running a session to greater or lesser degrees of success. Dialogue would ensue with the chatters, the alpha types and the ones who felt compelled to repeat things other people had already said. Good, bad or indifferent, we were together in the room until someone graciously said it was lunch time or the fire alarm would go off. We didn’t take or exchange texts or fumble around like a fool to silence childish ring tones coming from our pockets or purses. The conference table never vibrated, and the most advanced technology around that could pull a meeting off course and off purpose was a box of donuts.
The Open Mic: This insidious piece of technology crept into our culture with stealth. When I worked for a large publishing company, we had several staff writers working from regional offices in key areas of the industry. It was not uncommon to have a simple conference call with two or more individuals on one phone line; audio only then. It worked fine at first, but since then we seem to have made this communication line so complex that it has become entirely impossible to begin a meeting without it sounding like the tropical bird section of your local pet store. You have the squawkers who never seem to realize that telephones and telecom lines can only handle so many people speaking at the same time.
There are the chirpers who try to chime in to inject a thought or two only to stop mid-sentence to let the person they’ve interrupted complete his or her thought. This only leads to the awkward “go ahead, no you go ahead, sorry what?” exchanges that can go on for several minutes if unchecked. We then face the dreaded long good bye as each member of the call extends their best wishes to each other like the Walton family did at the end of that obsolete television show. And then one of my absolute favorites of late; the home-base staff member, client or customer who in order to make everyone feel more comfortable, washes the dishes, yells at the kids and kicks the cat right in the middle of item 3 on today’s agenda.
Dysfunctional MeetingWare: We have succumbed to technology; there’s no denying it. The newer and sleeker it is; the better. That it can literally speak to us is pure gravy. I’m still in glee over the fact that I can tell my Jeep to “ignore” text messages I don’t want to confront while I’m running off to the deli. But how many minutes of our lives are being lost when meeting technology engines and parts fail? How painful does it get when you have to watch your company captains and your department lieutenants spiral downward onto the floor in a fetal position in an effort to troubleshoot broken baud rates, dispersed bundles or a PowerPoint seizure thus killing any momentum the meeting had up to that point? White boards and erasable markers rarely bring the house down if and when they’re even necessary, and pre-printed agendas or handouts have unlimited data transfer rates unless your audience cannot read type unless it’s backlit on a screen.
According to another writer who quoted another source who did a survey three years ago, 47% of workers say their biggest source of wasted time at work comes from attending too many meetings. There are many reasons why this statistic is what it is; and technology isn’t the sole trouble source to which we can assign the blame. It’s how we apply the technology or whether or not we leave it at the door that makes the difference between sanity and productivity. Not so long ago, the technological barriers that prevented organizations from having efficient meetings were relatively benign. If the room was too cold, you wore a sweater. If the lights in the room went out, you waved your hands around to buy another 30 minutes of illumination. These things didn’t impede communication. They didn’t block our thinking and computational abilities. We listened to voices, absorbed the vibes, read the body language and all of that Zen stuff.
Those of you young enough to remember the Terminator movies before the recent reboot will recall the big antagonist against mankind was SkyNet and it’s machine crunching effect on the human race. I’m not suggesting we’re heading in that direction as a whole, but I do sense that we are on the verge of losing a good chunk of our freedom in the conference (or teleconference) room by letting the wagon reigns get a little too loose. We need to deputize the vanguard of people who can whack that 47% figure down where it belongs so staff can walk out of the building at the end of the week feeling brighter, more informed and more engaged with their projects, tasks and goals. Some disarmament will need to go in. The mobile devices can be holstered in silence. The home-based staffers can find a quiet room away from the cat in heat before they chime into a group call. We can even help the PowerPointers from jamming their laptop screens. All it takes really is a little coaching and a lot of agreement to change.
What say you?
Tim Votapka is reachable at tel: 631-782-7762 or email.
On Meetings and Conference Calls:
It's Time for a Cool Change