Clark Valberg is staring into his computer’s webcam. As the CEO of InVision, a 750-person software company where every employee works remotely, video conferences are the norm for him. But there’s one peculiarity about the meeting Valberg is currently in with his chief operating officer. They’re sitting in the same room.
To hear Valberg tell it, the future of all business meetings is video.
“Getting together in-person doesn’t scale,” he says. “We get together to fortify our personal relationships, build rapport, and create intimacy… but real work happens online.”
Valberg’s opinion may seem extreme. There’s certainly a collective brain that can only be accessed when employees are rubbing shoulders around a shared whiteboard, right?
Or perhaps we’ve just been conditioned to think that checking-in IRL is the best way to get to the bottom of an issue. With the majority of work in many offices already happening online, maybe meetings should be no different.
A 2017 report from Gallup found that 43% of employed Americans already spend at least some time working remotely. But most offices are still set up in a way that treats remote workers like second-class citizens. Cameras for video meetings are mounted above conference room TVs, giving the remote worker the perspective of a literal fly on the wall. Side conversations either distract from the task at hand or obfuscate important information. The technology inherits—and even amplifies—some of the biases we see with in-person meetings, like rewarding the person who talks the loudest.
In short, video calls can still be very painful. But when it’s the default, even for people who are connecting from the office, it at least levels the playing field for everyone.
The tools knowledge workers use to get work done are already online. Tasks are managed in Trello and Asana. Conversations take place in Slack and Microsoft Teams. Documents are shared with Box and Dropbox. Slide decks are stitched together on Google Slides or Keynote.
The beauty of these tools isn’t just that they’re digital. It’s that they create collaborative venues, where anyone with access can track a project’s progress, contribute to the discussion, or leave some feedback.
Unless you’re holding a meeting to discuss a project in an abstract sense, you’ll probably want to do as a group the same things we do when we work on our own, like reference old documents, do research on the fly, or share links with colleagues. All of those things are made easier when everyone in the meeting is online at the same time, taking collaborative action alongside, or even instead, of a verbal discussion.
As the CEO of the remote-conferencing service Zoom, Eric Yuan is practically required to predict video, as he told us, “will become the standard mode for meetings in the future.” But his reasoning goes beyond standard platitudes about affordability and ease of use.
He stakes his prediction on new technologies that he says are “quickly making video meetings superior to in-person meetings,” and not just an acceptable substitute for them. For example, Zoom, and many of its rivals, already allow participants to share their screens and download meeting transcripts.
In the future, video quality is only going to improve, while new features will augment meetings with contextual information to make them more productive.
Yuan says his company is already exploring ways to combine augmented reality and haptic feedback to make virtual meetings approximate the feeling of meeting someone in real life. He predicts that within the next decade, you’ll be able to shake someone’s hand virtually and physically feel as if they’re shaking yours back.
Video chat technology is still not perfect, of course. And even an evangelizer like Valberg says he remains a big believer in getting together IRL to build culture. Remote companies like InVision, GitLab, Zapier, and Automattic all have annual summits that bring their employees together.
But if the goal of a meeting is simply to get work done, video conferences perhaps should be the default—even if your coworkers are within arm’s reach.