People go online – how virtual meetings are transforming business and personal communication

Preview How virtual meetings are transforming business

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Over the past two years, the demand for virtual meetings in the world has grown many times. And contrary to the fears of many, business only benefited from this, as evidenced by the data of many studies.

 

The most important:

 
  • In 2020, compared to 2019, the number of personal online meetings increased by 1,230%, and group meetings by 613%.

  • Online meetings accounted for 42% of all meetings in 2020, but are growing rapidly.

  • Nearly 65% ​​of companies in the UK reported increased productivity from their employees working fully or partially remotely.

  • 70% of companies in developed countries have long-term plans to implement and develop the remote work concept.

  • Group meetings most often last about 60 minutes, personal meetings are one-half to one-quarter that length.

  • Over 46% of all remote meetings in 2020 were between employees within a company.

  • 65% of companies representing different countries and sectors of the economy reported that they did not lose a single client after switching to an online work format.

  • Only 32% of companies believe face-to-face meetings are more important than online communication.

  • In 2019, less than 50% of all online meetings were held using a mobile phone, in 2020 this figure exceeded 60%.

 

People love to meet. Communication and social interaction is one of the fundamental factors in human development, not to mention the fact that effective communication, both within the team and with external partners, is the most important factor in the development of any business. From year to year, communication grows more and more. According to the Harvard Business Review, the average time employees spend monthly in business (and non-business) meetings has increased from 31.4 hours in the early 1960s to 72.3 hours in 2020. Here, the change in the general business paradigm played an important role. So, if 50-60 years ago the operational sector played a key role with a predominant number of working specialties (for which meetings are not so important), then somewhere in the late 80s, a rapid “flow” of employees began, conditionally, from factory floors to offices.

 

Office work, by definition, involves numerous business meetings, both internal and external. But, for whatever reason, the result is obvious – the volume of communication is growing. The COVID-19 pandemic did not affect this global process, however, it led to a change in the very approach to communication – personal, physical meetings most times switched to an online format, and this situation seems to be fixed for a long time. In any case, a number of studies show that remote work, in the presence of modern IT tools, suits everyone – both employers and employees.

 
Remote work
 
These are general trends, but what are the details? How has the approach to organizing online communication changed because of the pandemic? And what will be the long-term consequences of the current processes? The answers to these questions were provided, in particular, by Doodle, which conducted a large-scale study on this topic, which resulted in the State of Meetings 2021 thematic report. The analysis was based on data from over 30 million meetings held around the world during the period from January 1 to December 31, 2020. The full version of the document is available on the company’s website, and here we will consider the most interesting points of the study. Note that the report is based on data on the situations in the US, UK, Germany and other economically developed countries. But, given that they are the ones who set global technological and market trends, the data will be quite relevant for almost all regions, at least in the Western Hemisphere.
 

Demand for virtual meetings is on the rise

 

During 2020, the number of virtual one-on-one meetings held online (typically using video) increased by 1,230%, and the number of group meetings increased by 613% compared to 2019 totals. It may seem that the key drivers of such impressive growth were quarantine restrictions and the transition to remote work. But, do not rush to conclusions. If we compare, say, 2018 and 2019 (when the pandemic had not yet had a global impact on business processes), it turns out that the average increase in virtual meetings reached 600%. Despite all the restrictions, even in 2020, the online format accounted for only 42% of all meetings. The pandemic has become a catalyst for the process of changing the paradigm of business communication, while the changes are still not happening as quickly as they seem.

 
Growing demand for virtual meetings
 
One of the important consequences of the growing demand for remote communication is that most companies have significantly increased their efforts to modernize their digital infrastructures at all levels and have increased investments in IT. So, indirectly, the coronavirus pandemic has pushed organizations around the world to innovate. Although the pandemic has put many companies in tough positions, most of them still believe that in the current conditions it is worth increasing, not reducing, technology spending.
 

Organizations have basically rebuilt their IT infrastructures, but now they need to be maintained, developed, cyber-secured, and so on. In addition, for many companies, the decline of 2020 was replaced by business growth in 2021. As a result, there was an acute shortage of qualified personnel. According to an IDG Research report, in such a situation, up to 75% of organizations turned to internal reserves and planned to improve the efficiency of existing employees. The method here is the automation of various business processes, including sales, customer interaction, etc. Through the use of modern online tools, an employee, for example, in the sales department can cover a much larger layer of potential and existing customers without loss of efficiency, and can also be trained on new products much faster.

 

Fears that the remote work format will reduce the productivity of employees have obviously not been realized. Consider that, according to the UK Office of National Statistics,, at some points in 2020 only 37% of people in the country went to work due to quarantine restrictions. According to the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD), about 65% of companies reported an increase in the productivity of employees working fully or partially remotely. This situation is pushing employers to develop and support this format, which will lead to a further increase in the number of virtual meetings. An even more telling situation was observed in Germany, where according to the Deloitte report, 70% of companies already have long-term plans to implement and develop the remote work concept. Similar trends are being observed in other developed countries in Europe.

 

Anatomy of virtual meetings

 

According to Doodle research, in 2020 the most popular group meeting format included an average of five people per meeting (in Western Europe, meetings were attended by more people, 8-10 on average). The situation was largely unchanged compared to 2019. However, most group meetings lasted about an hour.

 

In terms of one-on-one virtual communication, the number of such meetings during the pandemic has grown significantly faster than the number of group meetings. This is quite obvious, given that, in most cases, personal meetings occur spontaneously. If earlier it was possible to approach a colleague in the office to discuss current issues, now, often, the only way to communicate is to call them on Zoom, Teams, Cisco Meetings, etc.

 
Anatomy of virtual meetings
 
Most often, 1:1 meetings last about 30 minutes, but in 2020, the number of short video calls lasting up to 15 minutes increased significantly, by 10.8%. Actually, this trend has a completely scientific basis – according to various studies, on average, a person can withstand only 10-18 minutes of concentration, after which there is a decline in perception and every minute of communication becomes less and less effective. The critical limit is half an hour. Further, the vast majority of people are simply pretending to take part in the conversation. In a group meeting, concentration lasts longer, as attention switches between meeting participants.
 
15 min meetings increased by over 10%
 
It is also noted that over 46%, or almost half, of all remote meetings in 2020 took place between employees within the same company, which shows the powerful role of virtual communication tools in internal business processes.
 

Another interesting, albeit obvious, trend in 2020 has been a dramatic increase (by 78%) in the number of huge online meetings, with the number of participants up to a thousand people or more. In most cases, we are talking about protocol meetings and shareholder meetings, the frequency of which is regulated by law. In most countries, large companies are required to hold shareholder meetings at least once a year. The COVID-19 pandemic and global quarantine restrictions have turned this procedure into an actual test. But the use of cloud platforms for remote communication has solved this problem.

 

Sales go online

 

For years, it has been widely believed that not being able to approach a customer is a recipe for decreasing sales. Confidence in this belief was so high that few seriously tried this approach. But, the pandemic has given companies a tough choice: go online as much as possible or leave the market altogether. The majority chose the first option, and it turned out that many previous fears were unfounded. A 2020 Doodle survey showed that 65% of respondents representing different countries and sectors of the economy stated that they had not lost a single client, and 30% of those surveyed reported that clients were less likely to cancel virtual meetings, compared to their face-to-face counterparts.

 

This is confirmed by research by the McKinsey consulting company, which compares traditional and digital sales. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, 52% of respondents believed that classic methods such as face-to-face meetings were more important than online communication, but by the end of 2020, only 32% remained so. This is a very significant shift in perception, considering how short a time frame it has taken place in.

 

Perceptual Issues

 

It may seem that the widespread use of remote communication solutions and the transition to remote work only brings advantages, but this, unfortunately, is not entirely true. There are also some shortcomings. One of the key problems is that not all employees, especially those over the age of 50, have mastered all the tools and skills of digital communication. This somewhat reduces the overall productivity of the company. Although, of course, adaptation is a matter of time.

 

More serious is another problem, which even received the original name of Zoom Fatigue. It occurs because online communication, even with high-quality video, is not the full equivalent of face-to-face meetings. In real life, the human brain receives a significant part of its information about the interlocutor based on non-verbal signals, while when communication takes place on a platform like Zoom or MS Meetings, the number of such signals is sharply limited, since a person sees only the face of the interlocutor.

 

As behavioral analyst Laura Dudley points out, Zoom Fatigue is caused by overworking our brains to compensate for the lack of non-verbal cues we normally rely on when talking face-to-face. In 2020, the Zoom Fatigue phenomenon has grown exponentially. You can also add the inability to focus on work while at home (especially with small children), which many people who work from their own apartment complain about. According to Harvard Business, telecommuters who live alone are increasingly feeling alienated from other colleagues. Remotely, without personal communication, their sense of isolation grows.

 

What to do about all these potential problems is not yet completely clear, but it must be done, because we are nearing professional burnout on a global scale. At the moment, it is optimal to introduce a hybrid approach to the work structure in organizations, combining remote and office modes.

 

It is also worth noting that virtual (especially group) meetings require a more careful approach to planning, since employees of the same company may work, for example, in several time zones.

 

The future is in mobility

 

If we talk about long-term forecasts, then as we move forward, more meetings will be held online. This applies not only to business meetings within a company but also to work with clients, as well as interviews when recruiting. The meeting format itself reduces the time spent. There is a growing body of evidence that short meetings are more productive and help reduce the likelihood of employee burnout.

 
The future is in mobility
 
While most people still work from a desktop computer or laptop, the number of tasks performed using mobile devices is growing. So, according to Doodle, in 2019 less than 50% of all online meetings were held in conditions where one or more participants connected using a mobile phone. But, by 2020, this figure had exceeded 60%. Using tablets also increased from 12.6% to 17%. The share of the PC as an online meeting terminal in 2019-2020 has been gradually declining.
 

After the initial shock caused by the need to transition to a new format of work, most organizations have already adapted to the transformation and are now looking for optimal formats and methods to solve potential and actual difficulties – both technological and organizational. So, there is still a lot of work to be done, although a radical change in current trends is not expected.

 

Аuthor: Igor Kirillov

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