Conversations, Conferencing and Collaboration: An International Investigation of Factors Influencing the Effectiveness of Distributed Meetings


Modern communication technology makes it possible to easily and cost-effectively run meetings across internationally dispersed teams all the time, anywhere. These distributed meetings can reduce travel costs and time. However, it is matter of some debate whether and in what circumstances such meetings can be as effective as meetings held face-to-face.

The Engineering Design Centre (EDC) at the University of Cambridge, in partnership with BT and Dolby, produced a report investigating this important question among organisations from the UK, US, Australia and China. Notably, this work was aimed at identifying the key factors impacting on the effectiveness of conferencing meetings and distilling good practice recommendations.

Download the UK report

Download the US report

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Method

This research was conducted in four countries - UK, US, Australia and China - and used both qualitative and quantitative data collection methods. As part of the research, five multidisciplinary experts (from areas such as co-operative work, human hearing, human-computer interaction and management) and ten representatives of multi-sector organisations with extensive experience of teleconferencing were interviewed. An online survey with 100 professionals was also conducted to generalise the findings.

Details

The key findings from the UK revealed that, according to 78% of respondents, audio solutions are still the most frequently used conferencing technology. Furthermore, the two most significant factors of effective conferencing are reliable technology (81% of responses) and good sound quality (77% of responses). Focused participants were reported to be the third most prevalent factor with 72% of responses. Poor audio quality, in particular, was said to make it hard to understand who is speaking, what is being said and in what emotional tone. This, in turn, was reported to lead to increased fatigue levels for participants and decreased productivity.

Dr Anna Mieczakowski, who led this research, said: “Poor sound quality puts pressure on participants’ hearing and thinking capabilities, which can result in tiredness and impair people’s concentration and contributions to the meeting, as well as having a negative effect on secondary tasks such as note-taking. By improving the sound quality of a call, participants will be less stressed and less tired, and thus in a better position to clearly communicate their views and understand those of other attendees”.

Among other major challenges to successful conferencing reported in the study were: (1) difficulties in speaker identification; (2) difficulties in making oneself heard; and (3) the challenge of creating a good social experience. Cost, the effort required in integrating and learning a new system and security issues were also perceived to be the key barriers to adoption of new conferencing technologies.

The good-practice principles, relating to both the Technology and the People aspects of conferencing, that this research proposes are:

  • Technology: Use high quality communication technology
    The technology used in a distributed meeting has a large impact on its effectiveness. Poor technology can make meetings ineffective and waste the valuable time of the participants and company money. Technology should provide high quality sound, be reliable and be easy-to-use.
  • Management: Employ effective management approaches
    The way in which a project and an individual meeting are managed has a big impact on meeting effectiveness. Good management can help teams to work well together, cover the important points and make efficient decisions.
  • Team behaviour: Encourage good team behaviour
    The behaviour of people participating in a distributed meeting can improve, or detract, from that meeting. This has implications for team work and individual behaviour, both within a particular meeting and across a project more generally.

This study also provides specific recommendations based around these principles for all stakeholders of conferencing meetings – Organisations, Chairpeople and Participants.

Ultimately, a combination of Technology and People factors – using high quality communication technology, employing effective management approaches and encouraging good team behaviour – can achieve greater productivity in distributed meetings for all participants.

The results from the US study will be launched in New York on the 22nd October and in San Franciso on the 25th October 2013 respectively. The launches of the studies from Australia and China will take place in early 2014.

Acknowledgements

This research would not have been possible without the help, support, and guidance of a number of people. We would first and foremost like to thank our collaborators in BT – Kim Fitzsimmons, Andrew Brentnall, Ninder Takhar, James Bates, Benjamin Matthews and David Stark – for sponsoring this project and providing active help throughout the research and generation of this report.

Numerous thanks also go to Lexis and TheWriter for their support during the latter stages of this research. Kent House Consulting Ltd. also deserves rich thanks for their assistance with recruitment of participants for our studies and designing the cover and inner pages of the reports.

Finally, we thank all the participants of our studies for sharing their insights and giving of their much appreciated time and effort.