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.