Modify meetings

Last year, as the pandemic began to bite, the business media was full of helpful advice on how to behave in a video meeting. I’m not sure many of us foresaw how much we were going to use this channel in formal business communication. But many welcomed the upside: the opportunity to do more, in more places, within a working day. Chopping out of our calendars the weeks we spent every year commuting or travelling to meetings. (Even with the improvements to Nairobi’s road infrastructure, a one hour meeting in the centre of town always meant three hours out of your day.)

The downsides were many. Putting aside the stress involved in home working in a crowded household, the reality is that video meetings don’t work well … unless you choose to make them work.

That has been a particular challenge in Africa because, to be honest, we haven’t yet mastered the modern business meeting. Our heritage of the bizarre formalities of political or public sector meetings are still very much part of our DNA. The stilted introductions, spending so much time acknowledging everyone who has turned up. The painful working through of agenda points, pausing for contributions that are slow to come. The realisation that many of the contributions are being made by people who have nothing to say but just feel they should be heard. The vain hope that younger people will speak before older people express their ‘wisdom’. The minutes, arriving long after the meeting has been forgotten, and containing action points swaddled in archaic language.

So, has the video meeting changed any of this? In part, yes.

We now turn up on time or, better still, we start meetings on time and latecomers miss out. We now talk regularly to locations and teams we would previously have visited occasionally. In many cases, whole companies have been joined together in video Town Halls and webinars.

But successful digital transformation is 60% about human behaviour change and 40% about technology. And in video meetings our behaviour change is lagging behind. Participants hide behind ‘camera off’ so they can do other things or simply reduce their contribution, unnoticed. There’s little use of the ‘chat’ function – a great place to queue up questions or record ideas that pop up during the course of the conversation (and often not when you’re asked for a contribution). There’s even less use of the ‘emotion’ icons which give you a chance to react without waiting to be asked.

My recipe for starting better video meetings? Turn on your cameras and smile.