Face off

According to Neil Laver, head of Microsoft UK Real Time Collaboration, recent research has found that business people attend an average of 61.8 meetings per month and they consider more than 50% of this meeting time to be wasted.

If each of those meetings is an hour long then this means staff are losing 31 hours per month in unproductive meetings – or about four working days.

Considering these statistics, it is no surprise that virtual meetings are gaining in popularity, particularly at a time when the work-life balance is so high up the agenda of many organisations.

WebEx, a provider of virtual meetings technology, claims that at the end of every day 30,000 virtual meetings will have taken place across the world. But can they really replace face-to-face meetings?

Research conducted in October 2004 by the University of Bradford into the use of virtual meetings by 4,900 BT employees revealed some of the benefits.

  • It eliminated 296,000 face-to-face meetings a year.

  • Each avoided “real’ meeting saved BT at least £432 in travel cost and time.

  • BT saved about £128m in 2004 by using conferencing – more than 10 times what the company spent on it

  • It cut the company’s carbon dioxide emissions by 47,400 tonnes.

There are other, less tangible, but equally important benefits.

Almost 60% of respondents at BT said that conferencing has had a positive impact on their work-life balance.

Paul Smith, marketing director at recruitment company Harvey Nash, said that about 60% of his company’s project meetings were now being done virtually.

“The main benefit is that we don’t have to wait until everyone is in the same place. We make decisions and deliver our services much more rapidly. We’re also able to keep more people in the loop for a longer time,” he said.

However, not everyone is so impressed by virtual meetings.

Unsurprisingly, general manager of the Strand Palace Hotel, Peter O’Meara, is not a fan.

“People interact better when sat opposite a real person. Until and unless that can be replicated technologically, by speeding up the whole process, making it simple to work and inexpensive, then our meeting rooms at the hotel will continue to be in demand,” he said.

His view is supported by Arabella Ellis, a business psychologist at consultants OCG.

“We depend so much on non-verbal signals – eye and face movements, gestures and postures – that, without them, we don’t feel safe to trust the information,” she said.

“Virtual meetings should only be used when face-to-face is not possible, where the meeting is for information download and not discussion and where people know each other well.”

The ideal solution appears to be to use a combination of face-to-face and virtual meetings and to apply best practice to virtual meetings.

This involves adequate preparation, an agenda, a chairperson who moves the meeting along and ensures everyone is included, and accurate minutes being circulated and agreed after the meeting.

Martin Galpin, a business psychologist at occupational psychology practise Pearn Kandola said that if virtual meetings were well thought through and balanced with face-to-face input at the appropriate times, they could become “an excellent tool to help us get better solutions, in less time, and still finish work in time for dinner”.

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