I travel a lot for business. In 2008 it was mostly just one trip per year, in 2016 it was three, and in 2018 it was up to thirteen. While some of this travel is to visit family or to attend concerts, most is to attend large meetings that span much of a week.
This seems like a lot of travel to me, yet I know people who travel far more than I do.
While I enjoy the opportunities to see far-flung places, there are good reasons we should try to reduce travel: it’s expensive, it exposes people to new and exciting viruses, and it has a big impact on the environment.
The impact of travel on the climate
The carbon footprint of flying is very high. This New York Times article cites a recent study computing each individual’s share of the mighty carbon footprint of a flight, and it is measured in metric tons per person on the flight. Put in terms that are more relatable, each metric ton of carbon emissions equates to three square meters (32 square feet) of melted ice on the Arctic summer sea.
But the fuel burned and the carbon emitted by the plane is just one part of the hit to the environment. There’s also all those people driving to and from the airport, the enormous number of water bottles and other single-use plastics used to serve the passengers, and the many, many people and pieces of equipment used and fuel burned to build, service, and fuel the plane, haul luggage around, maintain giant airports, and so much more. It’s an incredibly hefty carbon footprint. There is some activity in the world of aviation to improve this, but the industry seems to be only in the early steps of this effort.
Some have argued that business trips to attend big face-to-face (F2F) business meetings is a necessary evil: that too much is gained by the networking aspect to make it possible to replace with meeting virtually.
So let’s talk about these F2F meetings. First I’ll talk about problems with these meetings in terms of effectiveness and accessibility for those calling into them. Then I’ll talk about ideas for completely replacing the F2F with a 100% virtual meeting.
Virtually attending a F2F
Most business meetings have an AV component that allows attendees to call in rather than travel to attend in person. This is great, but there are a few problems, especially for global organizations.
Following are some aspects of F2F meetings that need to be improved in order for it to be possible for someone to meaningfully participate without travel.
- Telephony: This is at the top of the list, not because it is the biggest issues, but because it is the backbone underlying everything else. In much of the world, there can be an entire week-long meeting with no telephony issues at all: everyone can call in without unintended disconnections. However in smaller or less technology-savvy meeting centers, less urban areas, or less advanced countries, there could be interruptions or other issues that can make the meeting grind to a halt, or continue on without any of those who called in being able to participate.
- Audio quality: This is one of the biggest issues with attending meetings virtually. Only those things said clearly into a microphone will be heard by those who have called in. Even if your voice is loud and clear in the room, you will be silent (or nearly so) to the virtual meeting participants. Not only must every single word be spoken into a microphone, the mic needs to be used properly: actually hold it in front of your mouth, and hold it in such a way that your hand does not get in the way. I have almost never been in a meeting in which all of the speakers got this 100% right. This is especially an issue when people in the room ask questions or otherwise contribute to the conversation — as they rarely speak into a microphone. And of course, this means not only that the microphones and audio system used must be of a good quality, it means that there needs to be an ample number of microphones in each meeting room.
- Visuals: There are many screen-sharing solutions available to businesses, and many of them work fairly well, but I’ve yet to encounter one that is flawless or that doesn’t require the presenter to be an expert in it. This of course means that only something that is on the computer can be shared — too bad if a live equipment demo is being shown in the room unless a tech-savvy person thinks to pull out a camera. Of course, all of this rides on the backbone of the telephony solution. Frankly, most of what typically goes on visually in these meetings is on the screen, so as long as the screen-sharing application does its job and the phone connection isn’t lost, this is usually not a problem.
- Time zones: This is in some ways the most unsolvable issue of them all. When a team is geographically diverse, especially a global team that spans the world, time zones matter. For such a team, travel to a face-to-face meeting means dealing with jetlag for a few days before the meeting and as much as a week after it, but at least during the meeting everyone is in the same time zone and can productively work together. One would think that you could save yourself from the jetlag and call into the meetings, but even if all of the above issues were solved, this would mean that at least some of the members would have to meet during an inconvenient time — creating a jetlag result even while staying home. I live in Portland, Oregon, which is on the west coast of the United States. If had to call into meetings in Lisbon, that would have had me out of bed and struggling to stay awake on the phone from 1:00am to 9:30am for three days in a row. Or when my client had meetings in Chengdu, China, the meetings would be from 5:00pm to 1:00am for me. Both of these are certainly possible, but it would be extremely difficult, and I don’t see that I’d be able to be particularly productive. Or, frankly, stay awake.
- Hallway meetings: I have been a 100% virtual worker for more than fifteen years, so I am accustomed to missing out on the element of working that takes place during the occasional encounters with a colleague by the coffee pot or just walking past someone’s desk on your way back from lunch. At business meetings, these are often colleagues who only ever see each other on these trips, so there is an even larger number of these impromptu meetings. Many times they spill into, “let’s get a drink,” or “let’s grab some dinner,” sometimes resulting in incredibly productive work getting done and almost always ending with stronger bonds being formed, which results in a better working relationship. This is perhaps the biggest thing that the virtual attendees miss, and I’m not sure what could be a solution for this. [And no, virtual worlds like Second Life are not going to solve this — at least not yet.]
- Networking: I am a fairly non-social person: I’d usually rather have room-service in my hotel room than join my colleagues at a big networking event. But at least once per meeting, sometimes more, I swallow my discomfort and participate in a team-building or networking event, and I am always glad that I did. I think I am better able to work with these people now that I’ve shared a beer with them. Just like the hallway meetings discussed above, I don’t see a way to include the virtual attendees in this.
All of this adds together to make me prefer to go to these meetings to participate face-to-face rather than calling in.
How is it possible in this day and age that there are still telephony and audio-quality issues at these meetings? There is a real need for “the next great thing” to solve these issues, because the carbon footprint of travel, especially international travel, is massive.
The 100% virtual meeting
Now let’s look at the same factors, but for meeting that are 100% virtual: nobody has traveled and everyone is calling fro their home or office.
First, note that I am not talking about those 60- or 90-minute meetings that people call into with a screen-sharing conference call service every week. I’m talking here about a virtual meeting to replace those 3- to 5-day meetings for which 100+ team members from around the globe fly in to a conference center or big hotel. To replace that kind of F2F meeting, here are some considerations:
- Telephony and Audio quality: With all of the attendees calling in, gone would be the problem of reminding people to speak into a microphone. As long as the meeting planners worked with a large and reputable teleconferencing system, this might go well. That said, virtual meetings will never fully be free from those amusing cameos from toddlers and pets, nor the person eating during the meeting without their phone muted. A few suggestions:
- The first slide in every presentation should include a reminder to attendees to stay on mute unless they are speaking.
- Remind attendees a week or so before the meetings to make sure they have downloaded and tested the conference tools.
- Suggest to those who will be presenting that they do not use speaker phones as the audio quality is rarely adequate and people will likely have a hard time hearing them. While you’re at it, make sure they know a few pointers about public speaking so they help ensure that people will not only hear them, but also understand what they say.
- Visuals: All of the visuals would be through a screen-sharing application, so as long as all of the attendees have downloaded the appropriate software and have sufficiently prepared their presentations, this might be solved.
- Time zones: Those who call in from a different time zone are at a disadvantage in F2F meetings, but when everybody calls in to a virtual meeting, that disadvantage is not really any different. Those participating virtually in multi-day meetings should try to adjust their work schedules and sleep/wake cycles just as if they had travelled to a different time zone. For example, treat your time on the calls as your work-day rather than attempting to attend meetings in addition to going into the office.To choose meeting times, I use timeanddate.com to easily map out meeting times across all my attendees’ time zones. I plug in the timezones I need to compare, copy the resulting table, then pasted it into a Google Sheet. Next comes the color coding. I colored cells red to indicate the times that are simply unreasonable in each time zone—in the example below, midnight through 4am. Any trow with no red is an acceptable time. If this leaves you with too few options, decide if any of your “simply unreasonable” times could maybe be used in a pinch, and mark those rows orange.While it sounds reasonable to move the meeting times around to share the burden of an uncomfortable time zone, doing so might just make it impossible for any of the attendees to acclimate to the time. For this reason, I’d choose one time zone and stick to it for the duration of the full meeting schedule. However, while F2F meetings generally start between 8-10am and go on until 4-6pm in the time zone in which they are located, virtual meetings can be more flexible if that would mean an easier schedule for the attendees.
- Hallway meetings and Networking: These very real benefits of the F2F meeting would disappear in a virtual meeting. Allowing for friendly chatter at the beginning or end of meetings is a way to foster some camaraderie, but unless there are already friendly relationships among the attendees, this won’t take you far, and many attendees will be anxious to get off the phone.
Tying this together
We need someone to come along who can solve the virtual meeting problem.
Most of this seems easy for the right brilliant people to apply the right technology to make virtual meetings a realistic, productive thing. I think if some innovative inventors would just put on their Gene Roddenberry hats and imagine a future where this was all solved, they could make it happen.
Because, frankly, it needs to happen. In light of the very real and very imminent impacts of climate change coupled with the recent issues with containing the spread of a virus, we need to find a way to be able to effectively work without the global travel.