everyone loves a conference call
Meetings don't have to suck the life out of your day. Unfortunately, they usually do PHOTO: Bart Everson

Listen to your coworkers or skim the latest hacks on maximizing efficiency in your workday and one recurring scapegoat will emerge: the meeting. 

Meetings can be derided as the scourge of your daily schedule, a pox upon your productivity, a morale-depleting morass of fuzzy agendas and awkward silences while you wait for someone to call in remotely.

The Difference Between Dumb Meetings and Smart Meetings

Whether in-person or virtual, meetings aren’t the real problem, though. For every hour-long conference call that could have been a two-minute online discussion thread, there’s another meeting that makes it much easier to move ahead with a project or deliverable. 

Good meetings bridge the knowledge gap between departments and teams. They lead to solved problems and stronger relationships with customers and coworkers alike. “Smart” meetings, however, lead to better collaboration, which can yield stronger business results.

Meetings often exist outside of a company’s collaborative environment. In many instances, they are scheduled in Outlook and an agenda is distributed to attendees prior to, via email or a shared collaborative workspace. However, the meeting itself seldom cleanly integrates back into those environments, and when it does, it requires tedious manual work. 

As the emerging era of unified communications and collaboration (UC&C) shakes us out of these siloed or fragmented work processes, meetings will remain a cornerstone in how we work together.

For this reason, virtual tools — like audio, video, chat and web conferences — will get a lot smarter and sooner than one might think. As our tech tools get smarter, they will free us up to apply our own smarts to the actual action points, rather than getting stuck in a perpetual cycle of recapping and planning meetings.

A Better World of Meetings is Within Reach

The future of work and business collaboration likely includes a new perspective of meetings acting as productivity tools in their own right, rather than productivity-antagonists. 

Smart virtual meetings will make life easier before, during and after the meeting. Here’s how:

Before the Meeting

The smart meeting is all about automation. What can our tools learn about our meeting preferences and needs that will allow them to do some of the heavy lifting themselves? 

To begin, ask: do you really need the meeting in the first place? Imagine a virtual personal assistant combing through chat logs, email threads and shared workspaces to determine whether a web conference is really necessary. 

Second, do you need that conference call more than you need other meetings that are already cluttering your calendar? Rather than showing you as ”unavailable,” your virtual meeting assistant will have the contextual capability to bump lower-priority conference calls as necessary, while working to automatically reschedule your other meeting if needed.

Additionally, it can be hard — especially for conference call hosts in larger organizations — to always know which stakeholders and topic experts to invite to the meeting in the first place. That same imaginary assistant in the cloud can handle the RSVP list, drawing on tagging services and contextual data to make sure the right people have a seat at the table. 

Once you have your topic and your team solidified, forget the protracted back-and-forth just to agree on a day and time. “Subscribers copy in the software robot on emails; it scans their calendars and chooses a convenient slot on their behalf,” explained a 2015 Economist article. “On average it takes humans around seven e-mails to set up a meeting, so virtual assistants can save lots of time.”

Lastly, poor preparation is one of the big time-killers in hosting an efficient meeting. Smart meeting tools can prompt hosts to share agendas and assign action items in advance, then auto-prompt those attendees to be sure they’ve prepared their deliverables. Hosts can also be prompted to start meetings on time, and to automatically fire off notifications to dawdlers.

During the Meeting

Industry analysts including Gartner, Frost & Sullivan and Wainhouse Research have all proclaimed that meetings will increasingly live within — and originate from — overarching collaborative environments and workspaces, rather than existing as “offline” events. 

This evolution is driving robust growth in the global web conferencing market, which is predicted to be a $3.6 billion industry by 2020. Instead of thinking in terms of synchronous versus asynchronous collaboration, businesses and software vendors alike will pivot toward a more comprehensive, all-in-one approach to the workday. 

The aim of smart meetings is to make meetings and the technology more effective and efficient without requiring additional work or data from users and attendees. All the information is available today, ready for analysis and, most importantly, immediately actionable.

During a conference call, the most obvious manual process to be displaced in a smart meeting is the taking and distribution of notes or minutes. Expect this service to evolve from mere transcription to providing breakdowns of takeaways and due dates, with notifications automatically sent to the respective stakeholders. Notes and recordings will be immediately available within a shared workspace, putting an end to manual uploads. Additionally, automated tagging will make it easier to find notes and attached files at a later date.

After the Meeting

Meetings, conference calls and web or video conferences often immediately create busywork, as minutes have to be distributed, absentee colleagues need to be briefed, client records must be updated and follow-up meetings need to be scheduled. 

Smart meetings will reduce, if not eliminate, these manual post-meeting headaches. In your smart project management suite, team workspaces, calendars and client records (where applicable) in your CRM or task lists will all be updated by the time you grab a coffee and get back to your desk.

Attendees can expect to easily find indexed and tagged notes and action items, as well as calendar synchronization so that no deadlines or follow-up meetings are missed. Invitees who missed the conference or meeting can automatically receive minutes and recordings, without the host needing to track attendance or follow up.

Prior to the next virtual meeting, the organizer will be able to automatically receive a status update on all of the action items from the previous meeting. Based on the status of these action items, the smart meeting will calculate whether or not another meeting is actually needed or if automated email reminders can be sent out to deliverable owners, prioritizing team members’ time and creating efficiencies in the workplace. 

Our Smart Tomorrow

As Gartner analyst John David-Lovelock noted in 2015, “‘Smartness is now everywhere in the work environment and in a continued pursuit of efficiency, routine tasks consisting of non-value added activities and repetitive tasks are ripe for replacement by some form of automation.”

A well-known statistic from a few years back estimated that an incredible $37 billion is lost each year to inefficient meetings. That’s a mind-boggling (and borderline mind-numbing) number. Harvard Business Review offers a handy, if alarming, calculator for estimating how much your own company is spending on meetings, avoidable and otherwise.

Smart meetings offer an opportunity not just to get those costs under control, but to rethink our perception of meetings. The ultimate goal is to ensure that the meetings of tomorrow are pivotal pieces of an interconnected process rather than unwelcome, busywork-generating clutter on our calendars.