Big Idea 2023: Harvesting meeting data
We live in a world obsessed with data. In many ways, with our every move being tracked, analysed, and used by innumerable organisations, data is the new currency. This holds true for our workplaces too and while we've begun harvesting more data than ever, even more stays unexplored. One such highly potential source of insights continues to be consistently overlooked and the more I think about it, the more perplexed I am as to why.
We spend most of our working life in meetings. In fact, far more than we should be. Yet despite endless advice on how to schedule more effective meetings, almost all meeting data continues to be existent yet inaccessible. We all use tools - calendars, Outlook, Gmail, that capture our meeting information. In some cases, when we use select version of accounts, we may find access to nascent insights.Google Calendar, for example, on a work or school account, shares "Time Insights" that shows us how we spend our time in meetings. This is the most sophisticated set of insights I've found so far but it is little known and inaccessible to most.Zoom and Microsoft Teams also capture some meeting statistics but are so well buried that utilisation by users is close to negligible.
My big hope for 2023 (product managers, I hope you're listening!) is: Every user has easy access to the yottabytes of meeting data they generate every single working day coupled with actionable insights.
Here are the top five things I’d like my meeting data to tell me:
How much time am I spending in meetings?
Everyone has an ideal ratio of what their meeting to quiet time should be. I am sure there also exists research to tell us what the ideal split is; but it doesn’t take research to tell us that the actual split is nowhere close to the ideal. At its most basic level, I’d like Outlook (or whichever tool you use) to send me a weekly report on how many hours I spent in meetings along with the distribution of hours. I’d also like to view this trend monthly and then yearly to help me analyse peak months and check for improvement.
Are Thursdays my busiest meeting days? Should I then go into the office on these days to maximise facetime? How do I plan my task list so that I can do ‘real work’ on days with the fewest meetings? Am I successful in pulling down the time I spend in meetings or is it getting worse? This data exists and I can’t fathom why I don’t have access to it yet.
What kind of meetings am I in?
Why limit the insights to only analysing time spent in meetings? There’s a wealth of insights that analysing the nature of meetings can provide. Let’s start with audience. Am I spending most of my time in one to one meetings or am I drowned in meetings with more than ten participants? Maybe I need to analyse the larger meetings for effectiveness and determine if my presence is critical; and if most of my time is spent in one to one meetings, I need to rethink how many people I am scheduling these with. The other thing I’d like to know is the duration. Is the norm 25, 30, 45 or 60 minutes? Are the shorter meetings more effective or do some need to be longer?
Additional feature needed: Was there an agenda?
We all know that the key to effective meetings is a clear, stated agenda shared ahead of time. My biggest grievance with Outlook and Gmail (both used to schedule my calendar) is that they don’t have a field called agenda. Many meetings today arrive on my calendar without a specified agenda and no matter how much rigor I attempt to build into my team and myself, nothing can beat the addition of this simple field in the invite. This wonderful field has the potential to provide additional insight into how many meetings landed on my calendar without an agenda. And maybe as time passes by, this number will drop sharply.
In today’s wonderful world of hybrid and virtual meetings, we have the added privilege of having access to a lot more data. While a lot can be learnt from how many users had their camera turned on and for how long, let’s talk about two that will be of far more value to me:
How long was I speaking for?
My biggest fear is that in some meetings I speak more than I should and in many others it’s less than ideal. If I had to bet I’d say that my duration of speaking declines proportionally to the number of people in the meeting. This is especially important for one on one and mentoring meetings. Ideally, in these meetings, I should be listening more than I talk. However, I am not sure if I do. On the other hand, do I speak too little in large meetings? Data on this would sharply boost self-awareness and drive improvement on how I turn up during these conversations.
How many times did I talk over someone else?
I am saving the best for the last. The most important data for self-awareness is without doubt data on how many times I cut another person off while they were still speaking. Ideally, I’d like this to be zero but I am conscious of the fact that it isn’t. Even more importantly, am I interrupting women more than men? Our new age video calling tools can detect when two voices come in at the same time and which one came first. Hence, while the data may have some noise (pun intended) built in, it’s still handy.
Of course, the assumption baked into all of this is that all meetings are scheduled on the calendar. Ad hoc meetings can only be tracked if done via video/voice call and that is another piece of data that’s infinitely valuable in structuring work and the day.
The question then is – why hasn’t it been done yet?
While there’s a needle movement from no data to some highly inaccessible data, there’s the debate on privacy, security and compliance. While I am a strong believer that meeting data is highly important, it is also extremely personal. I want to see my own data but heaven forbid my manager gets hold of it. Even worse if it is used to evaluate my performance. Organisations will obviously want access to this data for myriad reasons, and before we launch into development, one needs to ensure visibility control and how it is being used. We don’t want to violate GDPR, nor do we want to upset employees. Yes, aggregated data at an organisational level is valuable but as long as each individual has access to their own data and no one else does, we should be ok.
It is often easy to find reasons not to do something. It’s easier than having to build innumerable safeguards. But I also know what gets measured, gets better. And I am sure you agree: meetings, most definitely, need to get better.