Technology platforms that have quickly become communications mainstays for organisations grappling with the Covid-19 lockdown should not be used as one-size-fits-all solutions, according to two tech leaders.
In a recent blog (The HR Director, 23 April 2020), Ab Banerjee – CEO of team-rating and feedback tool ViewsHub – points out that, as popular as they are, synchronised meeting services such as Zoom, Google Hangouts and Microsoft teams have their drawbacks. “In a bid to compensate for the loss of everyday informal interaction,” he writes, “managers and co-workers often lean towards having more phone calls, scheduling more frequent videoconferences, and sending more emails.
“All of a sudden, momentary and informal discussions in the office have escalated into regular, lengthy video seminars involving multiple team members and often with no guarantee employees will gain the knowledge they’re looking for. Communication overloads. Productivity slumps.”
Banerjee thinks that platforms such as Zoom “are effective for brainstorming sessions and formal business meetings, but they shouldn’t be relied upon as an effective forum for receiving feedback and performance assessment. Not everything you see on people’s faces is necessarily easy to interpret.”
In a similar piece (Quartz at Work, 14 April 2020) Darren Chait – co-founder of meeting-notes software firm Hugo – says that frequent, synchronous meetings among remote teams can be as disruptive as an excess of meetings in a physical setting. “Working from home should not be cause for more meetings,” he writes. “Applying a simple ‘when to meet’ framework can slash the number of hours competing with productive time, and lead to meetings being reserved for a specific way of working that truly needs everyone’s attention. Count the number of internal meetings you and your team are attending this week and ask yourself what is left when you remove the updates, reviews, syncs and discussions?”
Chait argues: “Asynchronous collaboration embodies ways of working where we don’t need each other’s focus at the exact same time … The idea that collaboration requires everyone involved to simultaneously be available is antiquated.”
In the current era of mass team dispersion, it is impossible for a member of staff to have a quick work with a manager in a corridor and ask for a refresher on complex instructions. Instead, an entirely new meeting has to be scheduled. So, how should remote teams make the best use of available communication tools to ensure that everybody understands what needs to be achieved, but no one feels overloaded?
The Institute of Leadership & Management’s head of research, policy and standards Kate Cooper says: “When teams move from physical to remote working, one factor that can lead them into the woods is how cheap and easy it is to include everyone. As there’s no need for any member of staff to travel anywhere, the temptation to just run a finger down the list and say, ‘Oh, they can come… and they can come, too…’ and keep filling out the roster, is very strong. And what we’re forgetting here is that firstly, it’s more difficult to communicate in a videoconferencing scenario in any case, and secondly, you can’t be effective as a leader if the meeting is overstuffed.”
She notes: “You have to limit the number of people who are invited. If you apply the same discipline to online meetings that you would to discussions involving people who’d have to travel, you’d automatically find that you will have fewer people present. Five or six colleagues having an online conversation is probably about the maximum. If you have 12 or 15, quite a few of those individuals will be in attendance – but not actually participating. It’s also important to recognise that not everyone will be able to provide their best ideas in the moment, so yes – giving staff the scope to use asynchronous communication tools for floating out ideas that you can catch up on later in a live setting is very sensible.”
Cooper stresses: “We’re not about to sound a warning against videoconferencing – but it would certainly be helpful for leaders to revisit the basic principles of communication. How many people can we usefully talk to at the same time if we genuinely want their input? If all we want to do is tell them stuff – in the manner of a corporate, ‘town hall’ gathering – it could be hundreds. But if we want productive dialogue between the various people involved, we have to set a ceiling on numbers.”
She adds: “We also have to remember that concentration is much harder to maintain in an onscreen setting than it is in person. It’s not good for people’s physical or mental health to be staring at a screen for hours on end. So, let’s get good at best practices for working this way, rather than waiting to bump into communication obstacles on our way up the experience curve. That will cost us valuable time.”
For further insights on the themes raised in this blog, check out the Institute’s resources on running meetings