Blame it on Zoom: meetings are the new work

It seems hard to imagine that there was a time when Zoom meetings were not a thing.

Thanks to Zoom organisational life will never be the same again, thanks not being the operative word.

The role of meetings has long featured in management training and seminars, how-to books and business magazine articles but over the decades the emphasis has shifted from how to conduct more effective meetings to how to reduce the exponentially growing volume of meetings. In the period BC – Before Covid – consultants were doing a roaring trade advising CEOs and senior executives on how to cut back on productivity-sapping meetings. Some organisations were even hiring coaches to help managers break their addiction to meetings.

Whatever few gains were made in curtailing the organisational mania for meetings went out the window with Covid-19.

Meetings have always been a staple – and pernicious – feature of the organisation but with the advent of Covid, and Zoom, the meeting now lies at the centre of organisational life.

The snap lockdowns and restrictions on movement at the height of the pandemic in 2020 saw organisations move as one to remote working models. Video conferencing technology – principally Zoom, but also others such as Microsoft Teams, Skype and Webex – connected employees working from home with each other and their managers. To employers’ surprise, productivity levels were typically maintained, and in many cases surpassed, by their remote workforces.

Employees also got a taste for working from home. The result is that most organisations, many of which previously paid only lip service to flexible working policies, permit some employees to work entirely from home while others work to a “hybrid” working model, dividing their working time between home and office.

The upshot of scattered workplaces is more meetings. A lot more.

While calling a meeting was once the preserve of managers now anyone can call a Zoom meeting. With employees less likely to be in the same place at the same time conversations and everyday workplace interactions that once took place in corridors, over the phone, by email or across partitions are now conducted over Zoom. And that’s in addition to the regular run of meetings called by managers.

The meeting has always been an organisational enigma. Nobody likes meetings – or would admit to liking meetings – and yet they flourish. Meetings are the cockroaches of organisational life: for every one you stomp on another half dozen will appear from nowhere.

For meeting tragics Zoom is a godsend

Complain as we might about the number of meetings we have to attend, and knowing as we do that most meetings are a waste of time, there will always be the meeting tragics who consider them a status symbol. They make a point of sighing that they have “back to back” meetings, rushing from one meeting “pod” to the next, wrestling with armfuls of manilla folders, secretly celebrating their full dance card while feigning exhaustion.

For the meeting tragics, Zoom is a godsend. But it’s not just those with a round-table fetish who will celebrate the proliferation of Zoom meetings. Zoom conference calls, partly fed by their novelty value, partly because of the prevalence of distributed workplaces, and partly because we can, Zoom has taken the meeting from adjunct activity to primary activity. Zoom is now how we work, in part through necessity, but overwhelmingly because meeting junkies can’t help themselves.

There were good reasons for disliking meetings pre-Covid. There were too many of them; they were invariably too long; they were often hogged by the usual suspects; and they were generally inconclusive. All those reasons apply to Zoom meetings, but Zoom has generated a whole new set of objections.

While some Zoom meetings are discreet affairs limited to a few participants, others have casts of thousands, or so it seems when surveying the Brady Bunch-on-steroids vista on your screen. If getting a word in was difficult in meetings of old, now it is a titanic struggle. Better to bring a good book and let the meeting run its course.

Zoom meetings are a new hell on earth. Where does one begin? The inevitable freezing, blurring, jerkiness and out-of-sync audio; the mute on/off travails (initially amusing, now a pain in the fundament); unflattering angles that give participants the appearance of looking up, down or to the side; the plaintive cries of “Can you hear me?” and “Can you see me?” and participants speaking over each other, leading to multiple stop-start utterances and a never-ending stream of “sorries”.

Some semblance of meeting etiquette applied pre-Zoom; now it’s an anything-goes free-for-all. And so we must endure participants eating and drinking (a visual blight made so much worse when their vigorous mastication and chugging provides a background soundtrack); participants who think nothing of appearing in hoodies, inelegant t-shirts and, inevitably, there is the wag who appears in his dressing gown or bunny-rabbit pyjamas. And can we please let it be known that the besuited Zoom participant who “unintentionally” gets up to reveal his nethergarments is no longer amusing.

A sure sign that Zoom has become a permanent fixture in our working lives is the proliferation of consultants, specialist trainers and assorted experts providing advice on how to excel in Zoom meetings.

Enter the Zoom Quotient

A recent arrival in my inbox this week is a press release from the US promoting a new book, Suddenly Virtual: Making Remote Meetings Work, by Karin Reed, who coaches executives in “the art of communicating on camera” and Dr Joseph Allen, Director of the Centre for Meeting Effectiveness at the University of Utah and “the world’s leading scientific expert on workplace meetings”.

The book, which promises to become “a bible and lifeline for anyone whose livelihood is currently tied to looking, feeling, and presenting their knowledge and creativity virtually”, has added to the bulging lexicon of management jargon. The authors raise the prospect of employers measuring candidates’ and employees’ ZQ – Zoom Quotient.

“With all the new expectations associated with moving our skillsets onto a virtual platform and having to constantly be on camera…[s]uddenly, a whole new subset of communications skills [are] required. [I]f you are one of the people who [has not taken] to virtual, on camera communication…can your aversion or lack of virtual skills negatively impact your career and your ability to climb the career, sales or corporate ladder?” the authors caution.

Maybe there are new skills that will have to be mastered in the Zoom era, but as always with new corporate fads, a little bit of caution won’t go amiss.

Zoom played its part in enabling organisations to withstand the worst of economic and social lockdowns, but now that Zoom looms as a permanent feature of working life the biggest issue to be addressed is not so much mastering the art of video conferencing as ensuring that organisations don’t become addicted to Zoom.

Before Covid the meeting had become an organisational menace; chewing up time, interrupting work flows, ostensibly a mechanism for making decisions but very often producing only indecision. Now Zoom threatens an environment of perpetual meetings.

Fads are an endemic feature of organisational life but the hold that Zoom has on organisations is particularly pernicious. Zoom is emerging as the most gratuitous of technologies.

This is abundantly clear in my own work as a journalist. Whenever I set up what once would have been a routine telephone interview through a PR or personal assistant it is now always – always – scheduled as a Zoom interview. And always I inform the organiser that I wish to conduct the interview over the phone. It is now my practice when seeking an interview to specify from the outset that I don’t Zoom. On one occasion a PR apologetically explained that it was company policy that all external communication be via Zoom. I insisted on a phone interview or nothing. Surprise, surprise: a phone interview it was.

Occasionally an interviewee will enquire why I don’t do Zoom interviews. “Because I reserve the right to roll my eyes with impunity,” I reply. Not infrequently, an interviewee – CEOs, senior executives and the like – will confess that they are over Zoom. “I’ve had Zoom meetings that once would have been easily dealt with by phone and email,” one admitted.

Fads are by their nature dangerous because they skew behaviour. Fads take the kernel of a good idea and exaggerate it to the point where it becomes a caricature of itself, its original intention long forgotten.

The challenge for managers and organisations is to ensure that Zoom does not become the tail that wags the corporate dog. My money is on Zoom winning the day.

Leo D’Angelo Fisher is a Melbourne journalist, writer and commentator. He is a former associate editor and columnist with BRW magazine. Connect with him on Twitter @DAngeloFisher But not on Zoom.

When a female colleague revealed her brush with a sex-crazed CEO my view of sexual harassment in the workplace was completely transformed

I once wrote a column for BRW in which I expressed ambivalence about a sexual harassment survey which showed an alarming incidence of aberrant behaviour in the workplace. My concern was the survey’s wide selection of behaviours that constituted sexual harassment. This, I argued, trivialised what was a demonstrated and serious issue in the workplace. The gist of my conclusion was: we know there is a problem, so instead of yet another survey of dubious robustness, let’s get on with fixing the problem.

Upon publication I was contacted by one of my female colleagues at Fairfax, someone I held in very high regard personally and as a journalist.

She explained that women were concerned by what might appear inconsequential behaviours – a remark passed off as humour, a light touch on the shoulder – because these women had very likely faced far more egregious behaviour during their working lives.

One might be more forgiving of workplace cut and thrust if that were the extent of behaviour to be tolerated by women. But “harmless” banter might take on a completely different hue if taken in the context of behaviour that is rooted in more sinister attitudes of male entitlement and the relative place of women in the workforce and indeed society.

Women who have been groped on public transport, propositioned by strangers while walking down the street or assumed to be “available” simply because they choose to be in a bar or café alone have every reason to be less patient with the axiom that “boys will be boys”.

It is a forlorn hope that the workplace provides women with sanctuary from the realities of the outside world. For no matter how collegiate and professionally fulfilling a workplace might be, the sad truth is that attitudes in the workplace are a mirror image of attitudes in the wider community.

An incident no male journalist would find himself in

My friend, who gently suggested that my column lacked empathy, confided in me an experience, not an isolated one, which took me aback.

She recounted an occasion when she, a prominent journalist, was interviewing a prominent CEO (whom she did not name) in his office who not only propositioned her but briefly mounted a chase around the boardroom table. Now, she is someone who can well take herself and she managed to defuse the situation, but the ordeal would have been no less objectionable not to say terrifying.

I was aghast. This was an incident that no male journalist would find himself in. Many thoughts raced through my mind. How many other female journalists have had such experiences? What if it had been a junior or less composed journalist in this case – how traumatic would such an experience be? How many other women had this CEO threatened and very possibly scarred? And what impact must this CEO have had on his company’s culture and attitudes to women in his workplace?

My column, taken in a vacuum, might have made perfect sense. But sexual harassment does not occur in a vacuum.

It is behaviour founded on prejudice, bias, discrimination, misogyny and entrenched attitudes of male entitlement, power and privilege. “Just a joke” starts to sound pretty thin in such a charged – and manifestly inequitable – context.

Of course there are those women who can hold their own and give as good as they get. But although their lines of tolerance may be further down the track, they are no less subject to toxic work cultures for women – for example, when it comes to career advancement.

A decent, respectful workplace ensures that all employees, from the most junior to the most senior, are valued, empowered and heeded. A workplace founded on dignity and respect is no less disposed to being a place of amity, good humour and vibrancy – indeed is more likely to be such a workplace – which is to debunk those who charge that “do-gooders” would turn workplaces into mausoleums.

If the more ardent proponents of sexual harassment-free workplaces have set the bar very high for what constitutes such a workplace, it is because women have had to endure so much for so long simply and only because they are women.

Leo D’Angelo Fisher is a Melbourne journalist and commentator. He is a former columnist with BRW and the Australian Financial Review. He was also a senior writer at The Bulletin magazine. Follow him on Twitter @DAngeloFisher

Before you sign up for that leadership workshop or weekend retreat beware the flim-flammery of the ‘leadership industry’

When was the last time you heard a CEO say: “I’m so glad I attended that team-building-for-leaders weekend”? Or have you ever heard a senior executive marvel: “I’ve been so much more innovative since I attended the blue-sky-thinking-for-leaders workshop!” And how many times have you attended an “exclusive leaders breakfast” only to find yourself sitting at a table of pleasant but not exactly C-suite material listening to a second-rate speaker on the secrets of successful networking?

Spruikers of leadership “products” promise big but rarely deliver. They know that all they have to do is stick the word “leadership” to whatever they’re flogging and they will clean up.

No connection to leadership is too obscure or ridiculous, such as the “body language for leaders” course. The course’s promise: “Learn the six nonverbal signals you need to establish a leadership presence.”

Unlike most business fads, leadership as a buzzword has shown remarkable staying power. The problem with buzzwords is that the more pervasive they become the less clear their meaning.

Leadership genuinely fascinates, as it should; it’s why people that are determined to achieve business and career success are so hungry for the essential elements of leadership. What is it that sets a hero-CEO apart from an also-ran CEO? What are the attributes of a CEO who successfully turns a struggling business around? What is it about your boss that would make you follow her to the gates of hell and/or Ikea?

The answer does not lie in the flim-flammery of the leadership industry. And make no mistake, it is an industry, populated by product-wielding leadership consultants, trainers, facilitators, authors, academics, coaches and speakers.

Leadership spivs (they would much prefer “guru”) are easily identified. They typically share these attributes: a fondness for obscure postnominals, a mystical reverence for anything written on butchers’ paper, a tendency to attach great meaning to the bleeding obvious, the capacity to render normally resilient people insensible, and the belief that the more complex the diagram the deeper the insight.

They also tend to speak in mysterious tongues. Take this gibberish from a Melbourne “speaker, facilitator, coach, mentor, author” et alia: “Australian leadership teams are unsustainably over-committed on activities that will not achieve the phase shift you need.” Whatever.

Oddly enough, most of these self-proclaimed leadership gurus seem to have in common the distinction that none has ever been a chief executive.

The leadership industry’s little secret

The leadership industry has an inconvenient little secret: you can’t teach someone to be a leader. You either have the makings of a leader or you do not. Someone who is demonstrably not a leader cannot be taught to be one. And yet the leadership industry continues to prosper, based on the false but alluring premise that a leader’s halo is one workshop away.

If you do have innate leadership qualities, there are certainly skills and attributes that can be learned, honed and refined as your career progresses. But as to whether the leadership industry can transform a mild-mannered middle manager into an Alan Joyce, Richard Goyder or Gail Kelly: save your money.

There is no instant pathway to the C-suite. Successful leadership consists of multiple attributes. We may take a leader’s technical knowledge as a given, but then there are those singular attributes that distinguish one leader from another.

Even the most penetrating analysis of leadership in action will not unlock what makes a successful CEO tick. Such studies will guide and inspire, shed light on new ideas and techniques, they may even plant a seed that turns into a garden of plenty, but they won’t turn you into someone you’re not.

When corporate leaders reflect on the training and education that has shaped their careers it may not surprise that weekend retreats with former football stars, workshops facilitated by certified masters of the Six Thinking Hats or presentations by spruikers of leadership development “tools” tend not to figure.

Almost universally successful leaders will cite the impact of either a Master of Business Administration (MBA) degree, or increasingly, executive education courses at blue-chip business schools. What both have in common is the value placed on the exposure to high-level executives in their “cohorts”. The experience of those executives and how they handle particular problems and issues means much more to emerging leaders than off-the-shelf leadership courses.

MBA graduates often cite the benefits of building life-long networks, opening up career opportunities in new sectors and even new countries, and compressing years of valuable knowledge in a one- or two-year MBA program.

The MBA has been a staple of management and leadership education for more than a century.

Harvard University offered the first MBA in 1908, while the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business offered the first Executive MBA in 1943. The University of Melbourne’s Melbourne Business School pioneered the MBA in Australia, awarding its first degree in 1965.

It’s not always smooth sailing for the MBA. Times of economic upheaval, financial crisis and corporate collapses give rise to questions about the relevance or currency of MBAs. Business schools regularly review their programs, seeking to strike the right balance between theory and practical skills.

MBAs not out of the GFC woods yet

MBA programs around the world faced arguably their most serious existential crisis following the global financial crisis when business schools were held to account for the wayward behaviour of MBA-toting executives.

Business schools expressed their mea culpas, did their penance and brought their MBA programs into the 21st century.

But MBAs are not out of the GFC woods yet. The global economy has failed to regain its equilibrium and remains skittish. This partly reflects the seismic shock of the 2007-08 meltdown. It also coincides with the dawn of the digital economy spearheaded by rapid and profound developments in “disruptor” digital, artificial intelligence and machine learning technologies which are transforming consumer behaviour, work practices, business models and whole industry structures.

The economy is in transition, arguably its most significant in a century, which inevitably casts a deep shadow over traditional avenues of learning.

Even the venerable MBA is feeling the pressure.

Much of that pressure is coming from short and intense executive education courses which once complemented the MBA. Now they rival the MBA as busy executives working in hothouse environments of change look for the benefits of the MBA in a fraction of the time.

In the United States, the spiritual home of the MBA, some business schools have called time on the once sacrosanct MBA. The University of Iowa’s Tippie College of Business, Wake Forest University’s School of Business in North Carolina and Virginia’s Pamplin College of Business have ended their full-time MBA programs as a result of flagging student demand. The Wisconsin School of Business recently reversed a decision to suspend its full-time MBA program following an outcry from its alumni, but the school will continue a review of its business strategy.

University of Iowa provost Sue Curry explains that the decision to discontinue the traditional MBA anticipates “the business education that students and employers need to thrive in a changing economy”.

The impact of a changing economy will be no less felt in Australia’s overcrowded MBA marketplace.

With 40 universities, business schools and private providers offering MBAs a consolidation of the market is surely inevitable. This is no bad thing. A buoyant market is more accommodating of the varying standards that 40 MBA programs must entail.

It remains to be seen whether those “leadership” retreats, workshops, training modules and exclusive breakfasts/lunches are also thinned out. We can only hope so.

Leo D’Angelo Fisher is a Melbourne journalist and commentator. He is a former columnist with BRW and the Australian Financial Review. He was also a senior writer at The Bulletin magazine. He is on Twitter @DAngeloFisher