Get ready for the next wave of virtual meetings

Yes, many of us are starting to return to the office, but meetings will never be the same—and new tech promises they’ll keep evolving.

Most of us have a love-hate relationship with meetings. The COVID-driven rise of Zoom, Teams, Webex, and the rest has made meetings easier to set up and attend (or politely ignore if you turn off your camera), and it has also put remote workers on a peer footing with everyone else. But few would say that videoconferencing has made meetings significantly better.

A few near-term improvements may help change that.

With hybrid work likely to become a permanent fixture of the future workplace, a flood of innovation has been unleashed in conferencing technology. I believe this will forever change our assumptions about how we meet and ultimately make our workplace gatherings more productive and inclusive. It’ll take a while to get there, but the stars are aligning to shake up the way we meet in some pretty fundamental ways.

More, better meetings

For one thing, we’re likely to have more, shorter, and more focused meetings. Face-to-face interaction can now happen over phones, tablets, and even watches. There’s no longer a reason that everyone who wants to be involved in a meeting can’t be there.

Meetings will also include more people. We can easily loop in third-party subject matter experts to contribute advice when they are needed and available. Videoconferencing has already redefined the company meeting—historically a top-down, one-way oratory—into a more inclusive discussion. The 45,000 devices and estimated 100,000 people who participated in a video call in advance of the Jewish 3 Tammuz observation last June testifies to the fact that interactive meetings can now be global.

Observers needn’t be passive anymore. Zoom and Teams already offer real-time polling, enabling meeting organizers to take the temperature of people in the virtual room, get feedback on ideas, and channel conversations more productively.

Flood of innovation

Makers of collaboration technology are currently racing with each other to bring new features to the market. Cisco says it has introduced more than 800 new features and devices for its Webex videoconferencing system since last September alone. Expect the best ideas from each technology provider to be broadly adopted by everyone.

Microsoft has put forth a vision of future conference rooms that integrate large screens with eye-level cameras and spatial audio that makes it easy to know who’s speaking. Virtual participants will be arranged in a familiar panel format with each virtual participant seated at the same virtual table. Presentations and chat discussions will be merged into the workspace instead of separated into discrete windows. Shared whiteboards will let people mark up each other’s work. Makers of big video monitors will make a killing, since all these features eat up a lot of screen space.

In most cases, the technology to do all this has been in place for some time, but there was little incentive to use it when most meetings were in a common physical space. A changing workplace will spur technology providers to make these advanced features commonplace.

Some startups are going a step further. Gather creates virtual spaces that resemble patios, parks, and other common community spaces in an experience that is reminiscent of Second Life. Pluto takes a similar approach, letting visitors walk around and interact with others selectively. Both aim to reproduce one of the most ineffable aspects of office life—serendipitous meetings that foster relationships and spark ideas. Although they’re currently aimed at consumer markets, the more popular features of these platforms will migrate to business use over time.

Two features are already becoming a permanent fixture in the business meeting landscape: recordings and transcripts. Recordings transform the transitory nature of meetings into an archive that can be reviewed to document exactly what was said and who said it. The major videoconferencing systems now offer transcription options that yield remarkably accurate results, including correct attribution of statements to speakers. That gives us an instant, searchable archive of complex multi-speaker conversations—and the technology is only going to get better.

People will continue to be the weak link in business meetings. Technology can’t do much about vague agendas or bores who won’t shut up. But as advanced features become commonplace, we can hope that behaviors will change as well. Technology can’t make meetings fun or end the pain of Zoom fatigue, but it can make them a whole lot more productive.

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