The annual kickoff meeting has fallen victim to the worldwide recession in many organizations this year. The yearly offsite conference where far-flung staff come together, or colleagues from the same location get away from the daily routine, has become a ritual of long meetings and late nights in many organizations. Rather than traveling to a conference location, many organizations decided to save the money and hold virtual meetings instead. So long hours in a conference room were replaced by hours on the telephone or in Web conferences. At Gartner we also decided to cancel the yearly meeting in Las Vegas and hold phone conferences instead. Here are a few things I learned after spending two days on the phone.
- Extra time is like a surprise gift.
A trip to Las Vegas is at least a four day commitment for me, traveling from Europe. Having those extra days available is like Christmas came twice this winter. Since I live in Europe, the mornings were free so I could get some extra work done, and even see the city without the normal weekend stress.
- Face to face (F2F) meetings remain a more intense, immersive experience.
This really is no surprise, but the difference is striking. Even in an environment as potentially distracting as Las Vegas, it is easier to focus attention when groups meet in the same room than when they are sitting in their regular offices. Long meetings can be a trial (especially the dreaded after lunch and before cocktails slots), but I find it even harder to maintain the same level of concentration when sitting at my desk for a long string of meetings.
- Goals are important.
Defining what each meeting should accomplish before the sessions start is critical to accomplishing anything. The temptation to simply talk about stuff for awhile without reaching conclusions or making decisions is seductive. Deciding beforehand what the concrete goals of each session are is crucial to accomplishing anything.
- A variety of tools helps.
Audio is the minimal level of conferencing that should be provided. Web conferencing and brainstorming tools can increase the richness of interaction in remote meetings significantly.
- Scale is the enemy.
Remote meetings with many people are very difficult to pull off. When hundreds of people need to enter the same conference simultaneously, things are bound to go wrong. Discussions in meetings with many people are hard to manage. Nothing can kill the spirit like waiting 20 minutes to get into a one hour meeting. In a conference room, it’s easier to see the people who have something to say, but can’t get a word in.
- Bar talk and bumping into people are hard to replace.
The unplanned encounters are one of the biggest advantages of a F2F kickoff. The analyst whose work you’ve admired but never met. The sales person who landed a difficult account with your help through phone calls and emails. I had the experience once of discovering an entire line of business that I didn’t know we did over a barroom chat. These encounters are very difficult to replicate remotely, and probably the aspect I miss most. I certainly don’t miss the sitting on airplanes and more nights in hotels.
Remote meetings can be productive and rewarding. Overall, the experience was good and pretty productive, although there are some things I’d like to see changed if we do it this way next year.
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