Just as the meeting and events industry has evolved over the last several decades, so has the working environments in which meeting attendees, as well as planners themselves, work. This change in the working environments within the financial and insurance sectors, as well as other industries, has resulted in a need for innovative ways to make meetings a success in this ever-evolving work environment.
Today’s flexible working environment is not at all reminiscent of your grandfather’s working experience. In the ’60s, work was primarily done by people working together in the same office. There were computers, but they tended to fill entire rooms and were expensive enough that most small businesses couldn’t afford them.
“Work had to be done in an office. We shouldn’t forget, either, that at this point in history in the U.S., women could still be fired from a job once they became pregnant,” says Teresa Douglas, co-author of “Working Remotely: Secrets to Success for Employees on Distributed Teams.” “Corporate America assumed that someone stayed at home to care for personal tasks and raise the children. Work wasn’t flexible.”
As Douglas explains, a mix of technological and cultural changes began to shift us out of this way of working. The 1980s brought computers that could fit on a desk, and laptops that weighed 25 to 55 pounds. It wasn’t until the early 2000s, when technological advances that brought us ubiquitous Wi-Fi and lightweight computing devices, as well as smartphones, that work could become mobile.
“While we can’t point to one specific thing that brought about the demand for flexible schedules, increasing numbers of baby boomers and Gen Xers were hitting their mid-career stride and joining the sandwich generation,” Douglas says. “There’s nothing like trying to care for your parents and your children while holding down a job to make a person question why we need to go to an office if all of our work lives on our computers.”
That brings us to today, when you can start a business, hire people who live around the world and sell a product or service without leaving your home.
“According to Global Workplace Analytics, the number of people working remotely has grown more than 159% since 2005. Increased globalism is probably a large part of why work is more flexible now. It doesn’t make sense to hold everyone to a 9 to 5 schedule when you work in wildly different time zones,” Douglas says.
Drew Scott, senior vice president of Scott Insurance, says that, as technology has evolved across the decades, the ease of working remotely has increased. However, sometimes the technology at home takes a while to catch up to the industry standard.
“We offered our first work from home opportunity to staff in the late ’90s. However, when we became fully paperless, it became difficult for employees at home to upload and review detailed inspection files, etc.,” Scott says. It was not until dial-up internet was replaced that the Scott Insurance home office could handle the required bandwidth. And, as systems became more and more web based, it was easier to work remotely.
“However, security concerns have only increased over time with web- and mobile-based applications,” Scott says. “Now, additional software is needed to safely password protect and verify remote employees.”
El Lages is the senior vice president of People and Culture at Flexera, a company that helps organizations realize technology’s power to accelerate their business. Flexera handles software asset optimization for many companies in the insurance and financial world. As part of the flexible workplace, global companies now have access to teleconferencing and video conferencing, where you can hold meetings from anywhere, allowing freedom to connect from most mobile devices.
“The traditional restrictions of needing to be in a conference room real-time no longer applies. Even the conference call has taken on a new dimension with easy video access,” Lages says.
Julie Morgenstern, author of “Never Check Email in the Morning and Other Unexpected Strategies for Making Your Work Life Work,” says there are a lot of benefits and power to the flexibility offered in today’s working environment. But, it’s a bit of the Wild West, with workplace productivity suffering without a lot of training or guidelines on how to work in such an unstructured workplace. Of course, remote workers also may keep non-traditional hours, so reaching them for an impromptu meeting may be more challenging.
“The 24/7 global economy in which we can work anytime and anywhere makes it hard to turn work off at night and on the weekends,” Morgenstern says. “That leads to inefficiency, burnout, anxiousness and a loss of work-life balance.”
Other common challenges include a sense of isolation and disconnection from peers when working remotely and at different hours — which results in a loss of the ‘casual’ conversations that occur when people are working in physical proximity where a lot of information is transmitted and great ideas are born.
Today’s Flexible Work Environment & Meetings
As a result of this flexible work environment, companies tend to over-rely on remote meeting technologies as a cost and convenience savings without much regard for the effectiveness. “Some topics and meeting types work extremely well for virtual meetings; others really require and benefit from in-person get-togethers,” Morgenstern says.
Also, there are not a lot of strong guidelines defined or enforced on virtual meeting etiquette, and too often attendees are multitasking during video or phone conference calls — which diminishes the value of those meetings.
Sunkee Lee, assistant professor of Organizational Theory and Strategy at Carnegie Mellon University’s Tepper School of Business, says there are several key challenges emerging from flexible work environments from the perspective of the company or organization orchestrating a meeting.
The first challenge is getting employees enough ‘face time’ with each other. As Lee explains, although advances in communication technologies have made it easier for employees to virtually interact, there are still unique benefits of interacting in person.
“Face-to-face interaction develops more trust between individuals and allows for the transfer of more tacit knowledge,” Lee says. “Such things as flexible hours and working from home lead to employees not being in the office at the same time, and lead to significantly less face-to-face interactions.”
Of course, people’s facial expressions convey many emotions and subtle opinions. When people have meetings over the phone, it is highly likely that these emotions and opinions will be missed. The more practical challenge is that, because people work on their own schedules in a flexible work environment, it is very difficult to decide on a date and time that works for everyone.
The second challenge is related to possible employee slacking. Although companies have developed some measures to prevent employees from slacking while they are out of the office or working elsewhere, those methods are far from perfect. Especially for tasks that have relatively long deadlines, it is unclear how much of their time employees are actually spending on such tasks.
“Third, there could be serious data security issues when employees work from home or elsewhere. Information is a key resource for an organization. When that information can be accessed outside of the office, it also increases the chances of it being leaked,” Lee says.
This may include employees who participate in meetings and events from remote working locales where security of a corporate laptop or the data within may not be completely secure.
Some additional challenges that today’s flexible working environment brings to meeting planners include collaboration, technology and connection. As Douglas explains, most of us understand how to get work done in a physical office full of our coworkers. It’s tempting to think that working flexibly or from home is exactly the same as working in an office. It isn’t.
“You can absolutely connect and collaborate in the flexible, distributed workforce, but the tools you use to do so must change. Many of us have found that we need a mix of asynchronous and synchronous ways to work together,” Douglas says.
For instance, Douglas uses a combination of Google Sheets, Slack, ToDoist, Trello and Zoom to work with people on projects, to update her boss on what she’s working on, and to keep her portion of the business on track.
According to Scott, you can’t have a departmental meeting if certain members of the department are not on duty and work non-traditional hours. Communication is more difficult in general when you don’t have all staff in one place at the same time.
And, because of today’s flexible working environments, more meeting planners are finding the issue of technology needs to be addressed in a larger way than previously.
For instance, there is a learning curve for virtual meetings.
“Most of us had to learn the hard way to mute our microphones when we aren’t speaking. And the meeting host has to approach each meeting with a strategy. How are you going to make sure everyone gets a chance to speak?” Douglas says. “Is your client silent because she has nothing to say, or because her internet is slow and she has a lag? Will you ask each person to talk in turn, allow attendees to come on mic whenever they want, invite attendees to type answers into the chat, or some combination of all three?”
As Lages explains, while leveraging teleconferencing and video technologies as an alternative to traditional meeting options are being enveloped in today’s flexible working environment, there are still technical issues that come up. Bad connections cause delays and interrupt meeting flows.
“Depending on the nature of the subject, there are times it is essential to have key stakeholders around the room. In these instances, scheduling can be challenging,” Lages says.
The good news is that you can solve 90% of these issues with patience and planning. And, if there’s one thing event planners do well, it’s plan. Douglas suggests getting into a video room and playing with the buttons to see what makes the most sense for the meeting’s size and style.
So how can meeting planners adapt their processes to accommodate today’s flexible working environment? The key to successfully implementing meeting strategies among people who work within a flexible work environment is to clearly communicate the importance of organization, scheduling and being aware of other’s time constraints or conflicts. And it’s important to remember that some people are simply not cut out for the rigors of setting and managing one’s own schedule in an untraditional setting — which can impact the ability to seamlessly orchestrate meetings of all types.
That’s why it is be imperative for the employer to communicate expectations in advance — from turnaround time with project work to the expected attendance at off-site meetings and events. Also, employees making this change should have a space in their home that is strictly dedicated to work, and must acknowledge and find solutions for all distractions.
Morgenstern recommends meeting planners be strategic and intentional. Develop criteria and guidelines for meeting planning — including defining clearly what types of meetings work well virtually and which are best done in person.
“For remote meetings, be clear on topics and the number of attendee limits for teleconference only, and when the camera or Skype version is recommended. And come up with clear best practices and etiquette for meetings, such as recommended length, number of participants, no multitasking, cell phones put away and who is the note taker,” Morgenstern says. “To thrive in an unstructured new environment, we need to create guardrails and guidelines so people know how to make use of the flexible tools and spaces. It’s really all so new to people.”
Another strategy that meeting planners should utilize is over communicating. Start by asking colleagues and clients for their working hours — and be sure you know the time zone in which they work. Use a collaboration application that fits with your style of work. For some, this can mean a shared document in Google or Dropbox. For others, using a project management system like Trello or Asana makes more sense.
“This gives people a way to check in on the work and show what they’re doing during the hours that make the most sense for them,” Douglas says. “That allows you to use meeting time more strategically and focus on the details that really need to be talked out.”
Lages advises meeting planners be aware of the best platforms and technology offerings to communicate effectively, so you can have a real-time video with a seamless ability to share presentations and content.
“Ensure when booking on-site locations that, if you have remote participants, the connectivity is sound and the equipment will accommodate all parties whether on video screens or compatible phones,” Lages says.
The Future of the Working Environment
As the world becomes more global, the way meeting planners and attendees work will become both less location dependent but more location significant.
Lacey Clark, principal of NW Recruiting Partners, an affiliation of Sanford Rose Associates, says it won’t be long before we’ll be interacting with coworkers in an office environment from the comfort of our home office while wearing virtual reality headgear.
“Companies are choosing to give flexible work schedules for many reasons. Commute times are too long, it’s less expensive for the company to have ‘hoteling stations’ rather than a desk for every person, many employees are more effective when working from home without the distractions, and employees are demanding more flexibility for family and personal matters,” Clark says. “Our culture is evolving to value our time away from work as much as we value the money and security a job provides.”
Morgenstern thinks the open work plans and co-working spaces will continue to evolve and gain popularity — with people gravitating toward being around other people more, not less. But they will need to learn how to apply work processes and organization within the flexibility because we are all motivated by the same goals,” Morgenstern says. “We strive to make our unique contribution, accomplish great work, and be connected to others while having a healthy work-life balance.”
Scott adds that history shows us that flexible working environments will only continue to increase. “The workforce continues to be more sensitive to the cost of living, the commuting experience, and the overall standard of living,” Scott says. “Certain lifestyles require that people work remotely. Employers cannot afford to limit their workforce by strict geographical restrictions.” I&FMM