Nobody likes them, but everybody has them.
I'm speaking, of course, of meetings.
Executives spend an estimated half of their days in meetings and other employees while away three hours a day in meetings.
One of the biggest hassles with meetings is actually setting the meeting up, with multiple emails flooding inboxes deciding who could meet, what the meeting is about, and forget about trying to pin down one time when everyone can attend.
But what if there was a better way?
Scheduling Tools for Meetings
A large number of tools aim to solve the issue of booking meetings — over 200 to be precise. I broke down this list by major function into four main categories:
- Publish and subscribe tools (Doodle is a good example),
- Added functionality to your calendar tools (i.e. Outlook or Google Calendar),
- Resource management tools (meeting rooms, employees, etc.) and
- Smart meeting tools.
For the purposes of this post, we will go quickly through the first three categories and then focus on the fourth category, which I find the most interesting.
Publish and Subscribe Tools
With Doodle, users publish a list of available meeting times to so other people involved in the meeting can pick the time(s) that work best for them.
The example to the right shows March 29 at 11:00 am works for everyone, so the meeting is set for that time.
What happens when none of the times you've published works for everyone? Remember, this meeting had only three people. For every person added to the meeting, the chances of finding a common meeting time goes down exponentially.
One person I spoke with told me that “getting a meeting set between 12 board members of a non-profit was close to an impossible situation, and you just had to find the date the most could attend and hope for the best.”
Another big problem arises when stakeholders hold meetings hostage. In other words, the whole meeting is waiting for one late stakeholder, and you can’t start without them (I often do).
But getting people to show up to a meeting is another problem, and probably a whole different article.
Calender Add-on Tools
A number of tools look to use the rich data available in your calendar to help set up meetings. The two main calendar programs are Microsoft Outlook/Exchange and Google Calendar.
Applications like Boomerang Calendar, Meeting Planner, TimeBridge and Calendly all use data found in personal calendars to start the process of setting up a meeting. But unfortunately, from there on it often follows the publishing model above or devolves into the back and forth emails that we all know and loathe.
TimeBridge Meet-with-Me in action
This might help to a certain extent, but almost all of these tools use email for notification and discussion — not the most reliable or best option by any means.
Resource Management Tools
This class of tools looks at the most productive use of assets (people, time, meeting rooms, equipment, etc.). In many companies meeting rooms are at a premium, and booking one can be a major hassle.
A host of tools aimed at the enterprise deal with this, including Concierge Booking, Condeco, Meeting Room Manager, Resource Central, Room Manager and more. Many of these tools come equipped with Microsoft Outlook/Exchange integrations, and a number of them, like Condeco seen to the right, offer a mobile app that allows you to book rooms from your phone.
This group of tools also approaches meeting rooms from a facilities and resource perspective. For example Schedule It is a resource and task scheduling tool for staff, office equipment, meeting rooms, events and expenses tracking in project planning.
Foxoms helps schedule facilities, staff and equipment. Resource Central allows you to look for suitable meeting rooms across several physical sites, and works with the Microsoft tool set (Outlook/Exchange, Office 365, etc.) to do this. Resource Guru does much the same thing.
Other tools, like RoomManager, allow you to book vehicles and parking spaces as well as rooms and AV equipment. Many of these tools, like Roomzilla, will use a website or internal web page to show meeting room status.
An Alternative Approach: The Process Approach
Before we move on to smart tools, let's look at tools that look at the meeting as a process, offering ways to make that process more effective without reinventing the wheel. The best example here is Lucid Meetings, which takes a comprehensive and thoughtful approach to meetings and all their itinerant problems.
The Lucid Meeting Pyramid below shows booking meetings as the lowest step of the pyramid (“Coordination”). While addressing scheduling, Lucid Meetings incorporates multiple tools to offer a comprehensive solution to the meeting challenges represented in every step of the pyramid.
Lucid breaks the meeting up into three time-bound sections: planning the meeting, executing the meeting, and following through on the meeting. For example: here is what they do to help with scheduling and invitations.
Lucid Meetings Pyramid of Services
Lucid’s more holistic approach uses a scheduling poll similar to Doodle's, but also translates meeting times into each person’s time zone, and sends out a professional looking meeting invite email. It also makes sure that people get the meeting on their calendar, sends meeting reminders, and saves contacts for future meeting invites.
Instead of trying to provide all solutions, Lucid integrates with a wide variety of other tools that also help with meetings including: Box, Dropbox, Glance, Basecamp, Confluence, Harvest, TurboBridge, Skype, Google hangouts, as well as calendar integrations with Microsoft Outlook and Google Calendar.
Lucid Meeting's process-based approach to meetings, which deals with all of the problem entailed (before, during and after) is one of the more comprehensive meeting solutions I found in my research.
Smart Meeting Tools
The newest group of tools rides the wave of artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning bots and personal assistant technologies that have rapidly advanced over the last two years. Some good examples of this type of tool include: Skejul (Private Beta), Aurora, WizCal and x.ai (Amy). All of these new tools have their challenges.
Hello to the Personal Assistant Bots: Amy and Clara
Everyone is familiar with Apple’s Siri, and Microsoft’s Cortona, but have you had Amy help you schedule a meeting?
Amy is the personal assistant from x.ai that helps schedule meetings and other mundane tasks. She is the only smart meeting tool in this review that has a conversational interface. But Amy is a bot, a smart chat bot, although some of the smarts still appear to be human. X.ai “trainers verify the vast majority of information in emails so the system can improve."
In other words, x.ai employees train Amy for greater accuracy by verifying that phrases are tagged correctly.
Clara, another bot scheduler also relies on some human interaction to help it. This area is called “human–assisted AI” and is a step on the way to having a robot personality schedule your meetings. Clara, like most of the tools covered in this review, uses email as the messaging and notification platform, and also as a data source.
While this area is rapidly advancing, these tools are basically statistical pattern matching tools being used to predict the best time for a meeting for all of those involved. Although some of them have sophisticated algorithms, a big issue is context and if they can get it right. That’s where the “human assist” comes in.
Often these tools are emulating the same process you would go through with email, but they are representing you, so you don’t have to spend the time (as the meeting owner/initiator), but often times, the other meeting members do.
Amy, like a savant child, can do brilliant things, but also makes simple mistakes. Other companies have similar, yet different, approaches to this problem.
Privacy Protectors: Skejul and WizCal
Skejul, which is just coming out of beta (production in the fourth quarter), is a bit more consumer-oriented than WizCal, which is more team- and enterprise-oriented. Both Skejul and WizCal are very concerned with privacy and security.
Skejul works for individuals, families and larger groups (also more consumer-oriented) and only allows you to see specific information about the meeting. In other words, you only see what you need to, and everything else is kept private.
WizCal also works in the background, so once you click their button in Outlook, name your meeting and include the participants, it does the rest, and keeps all the information private, except for what you need for the meeting.
The Skejul interface is based on cards, which contain all of the information for a meeting, and can even be shrunk to a button and placed on a website. This card interface is very focused on the person (which is the center of the Skejul universe) but also can act like a team space where you add multimedia items, documents and even the agenda to the card. Skejul also has a strong API, so expect to see future integrations as it comes out of beta.
The Final Option: Don't Book Meetings
While scheduling meetings may seem like a small problem, it's a persistent one that robs productivity gains made from the use of other collaboration tools.
Look at it this way: with an average burdened cost of management at $200 an hour and burdened employees at $100 an hour, with an average of four people in a one hour meeting in an organization with 500 employees and 20 management, if these tools can save you 4 minutes per meeting, that could allow the organization to save over $80,000 a week or over $4 million a year. How's that for ROI?
My best advice for saving meeting booking time: don’t book meetings!
Status meetings or meetings to talk about the status of the status meetings are the worst offenders — a waste of time that could be better used. Our research shows productivity gains of 20 percent by just getting rid of status meetings. Consider instead offering a dynamic, ongoing update in a project or task space, so people don’t have to meet just to see where a project is.
There's a clear future for online personal assistants and chat bots that help us deal with the mandates of work, which is why so much R&D is going into conversational interfaces. Apple’s Siri, Amazon’s Alexa, Microsoft Cortana, and other voice-based interfaces offer a lot of promise.
But don’t look at these personal assistants for creative solutions to meeting scheduling. The best AIs, personal assistants and bots will know when to pass these on to you for scheduling.
For a more complete listing of the tools in all of these categories see: Scheduling and Calendaring Tools Consolidated.