Constantly getting caught up in them can stop you from doing your job. They should be short, sweet and highly focused - and convened only when face-to-face contact is demanded, says Andrew Saunders. But are conferencing alternatives with a human touch any substitute?
A former MT staffer had the good fortune a few years ago to interview the late Lord Weinstock, managing director of GEC across three glorious decades and, even in the autumn of his life, a forthright and formidable personality. Deadlines being tight, the hack hardly expected to be granted an audience with the great man, a legend in his own lifetime and at that moment probably the last surviving old-school industrial tycoon left in the country. So our man was much surprised when his offer to conduct the proceedings on the phone was swiftly rejected. 'No, boy,' intoned Weinstock, whose company's turbines powered the National Grid and whose electronics kept RAF fighters locked on target. 'You had better come and see me. I want to look you in the eye.'
The wily Weinstock had a point. As every aspiring boss who likes to keep their interpersonal skills well-honed knows, 75% of communication is non-verbal. What you do and how you behave in a meeting are at least as important as what you say. And when it comes to weighing someone up before deciding whether or not you can do business together, there's no substitute for fleshtime.
'We are an evolved species and we are designed for face-to-face communications. It's the only form of interaction that is instinctive; all the other media are learned,' says Nigel Nicholson, professor of organisational behaviour at London Business School.
But does that mean that you should insist on having every meeting in person? Ask the bleary-eyed members of the sales team this question as they struggle, catatonic, through the weekly 7am Monday team-building session and the answer is unlikely to be in the affirmative.
Unless you are self-employed, work for a very small business or have an exceptionally high boredom threshold, the chances are that you spend more time sitting in meetings than you want to. A recent survey by 3M suggests that managers spend as much as a day and a half every week locked in meetings. No wonder the company's famous sticky Post-It notes are so popular with listless meet-ees for doodling, circulating surreptitious remarks about the chairman and playing 'meeting bingo' - scribble down half a dozen management cliches ('run it up the flagpole', 'at the end of the day', 'win-win scenario' ... you know the kind of thing) and see how long it takes for all of them to be used.
Says workplace consultant and meetings coach Judi James: 'In terms of time management, meetings are the antichrist. I can't believe how much time people spend in them, it's appalling.'
You can take practical measures to avoid blocking up your diary with too many meetings. Setting a tight time limit in a meeting and sticking to it can help to control the ramblings of colleagues who are too fond of the sound of their own voice. And if you really want to speed things up, you could take a leaf out of former Asda boss Archie Norman's book.
He liked to express solidarity with customers queuing at the checkout by holding management meetings standing up. It remains to be seen whether he will adopt the same approach in his new job as boss of Energis Hard-nosed James is a fan. 'No meeting should last more than half an hour, and people do get on with things if they can't sit down.'
But there are also many technologically assisted meeting substitutes that should, in theory, drastically increase your bingo handicap and boost your productivity into the bargain. From e-mail, video and teleconferencing to instant messaging and sinister-sounding 'collaboration tools', there are any number of alternatives for the harassed manager whose spirit rebels at the thought of another flip chart and whose stomach can't take any more coffee and chocolate digestives. 'You don't have to be face to face, there is room for other approaches,' says Ros Jay, author of Fast Thinking: Going to a Meeting. 'If what you want to do is disseminate information to a lot of people, e-mail can be better than a meeting, and it's amazingly quick.'
It's true that e-mail is a powerful tool for keeping in touch - the fact that it is so prevalent today when a little over five years ago hardly anyone had heard of it is testament to that. But as a meeting substitute it's seriously flawed. 'Words alone are capable of causing lots of problems,' says James. 'We're all full of insecurities that can be unintentionally triggered by others, and people are capable of reading anything they like into an e-mail. If you are tactless or hurtful in person, at least there's a chance you'll see it in their face and be able to do something about it.'
Increasing use of e-mail has also spawned a new kind of workplace threat - the e-mail bully. These are people who tend to avoid 'real' encounters and use indirect communication to browbeat others into doing what they want. 'E-mail bullies tend to be pussycats in reality, because it's much harder to lose your temper with a real person than it is with a de-personalised e-mail,' says LBS's Nicholson. He believes that personal issues and professional problems at work are best solved one-on-one. 'People often don't want to open up to their manager, so you may still have to be quite skilled to get to the real problem. But you stand a much better chance of doing so if you're there with them.'
So if you are a serial e-mailer, stop and think about what you are trying to achieve and whether there's a more appropriate way of doing it before you send another one. Would the recipients be pleasantly surprised if you picked up the phone and talked to them instead, or even paid them a visit?
Of all man-made means of voice communication, the phone is the oldest and the one we're most familiar with. Talking on the phone is second nature to the majority of us by the age of 10, and even the most rampant technoplegic can manage to lift the handset and dial a number, although more advanced features like call divert and hold may leave them baffled. When it comes to getting together with far-flung colleagues, the teleconference is increasingly the medium of choice.
'The audioconferencing market is worth dollars 3 billion worldwide, and is growing at 40% annually,' says Steve Gandy, co-founder of teleconferencing business MeetingZone and former head of teleconferencing at BT. 'We estimate that there are 20,000 conference calls daily in the UK alone. They're a very effective means of keeping in touch, and they are quicker than face-to-face meetings. Not only is there less chance to waffle on the phone, but if someone comes to see you, you have to give them 30 minutes out of politeness, even if you could achieve the same result in five minutes on the phone.'
In a crisis, teleconferences are often the only way of fixing the problem, argues Gandy. 'They are immediate. If something crops up unexpectedly you can be on the phone to all your relevant people very quickly.' Add in web-based collaboration software, which allows people wherever they are to look at and work on shared documents through their PCs, and teleconferencing starts to look like one of the sharper tools in the meetings box.
But there are occasions when even this keen blade isn't quite bright enough. 'They're not ideal for groups of people who've never met,' concedes Gandy. 'I know a firm of accountants who manage all their ongoing client relationships by teleconference, but always meet new clients in person.
Their attitude is that if the first meeting is on the phone and isn't a success, the potential loss of business far outweighs the cost of making the trip.'
Which brings us to the last, and theoretically most powerful, meeting substitute of all: the videoconference. Combining speech, vision and (with more sophisticated systems) presentation and document-sharing capability, the videoconference is the last word in meeting technology and really seems the next best thing to being there.
'Our US offices on the east and west coasts have weekly videoconference progress meetings. It's a great timesaver and works very well,' says Patrick Dunne, MT contributor and head of the independent directors' programme at 3i. 'But training is important, and some things are best done face-to-face. It's easier to decide whether someone is telling the truth that way. They may say one thing but their body language is telling you another.'
Not everyone is so keen. 'Videoconferences are no better than the phone,' says LBS's Nicholson. 'There's still no eye contact.'
Others agree. One senior banker lets on that using video-conferencing for a pitch to potential clients is seen as a very weak opening shot. If rival banks are flying out for face-to-face meetings, a videoconference just won't cut it.
James agrees that for many users, videoconferences are disappointing: 'Many companies have the gear but don't use it. All that expensive kit sits in the corner gathering dust,' she says. 'Even though we're not always very good at reading the non-verbal cues, we like to have them. People like to follow their gut instincts, and that's much easier when you can see the whites of their eyes.' No doubt Lord Weinstock would approve.
THINK BEFORE YOU MEET
Choose your medium according to what you want to achieve. Face-to-face is best when you need to build rapport or tackle tricky negotiations, but if all you have to do is pass on information an e-mail is much quicker.
Have an agenda prepared, and stick to it. Never include Any Other Business - it's an invitation for whingers and windbags to take over.
Remember that conference calls and video link updates can't replace personal contact, but they can help a little fleshtime go a long way.
Don't hide behind indirect communication. It can be tempting if you have to deal with a situation that you know will cause friction and dissent. Instead, tackle it face to face, let people have their say and move on.
Before calling a meeting, do a quick mental sum. How much will it cost in salaries to have everyone you need present? Then decide whether it's still worth it.
If you want creativity, try going to the park or playing a game. It's hard to be creative in a meeting - Isaac Newton didn't come up with the theory of gravity in a stuffy room surrounded by bored colleagues.