In recent months most of us have rushed from one online video meeting to another. Some of these meetings we have found frustrating, others not.
Online meetings will remain with us after Covid both because the conferencing technology has reached a high standard and their potential for greater efficiency and savings has become obvious. There will soon be more physical meetings again, but rather as an exception.
It is therefore appropriate to think carefully about new forms of communication that will be a part of our everyday professional lives for the foreseeable future. After all, we strive to work in a way that fosters progress and success. And we are slowly realising that we can achieve much more with video meetings. Thus, we should aim for these meetings to be as effective as possible.
In line with our habits we have transferred both good and bad working practices from the pre-Covid era to the post-Covid era. This also applies to meetings, wherein Covid has exacerbated existing difficulties. We should strive to seize the opportunity to adjust our working practices to the new possibilities and constraints.
The proposals presented in this paper are pragmatic. They are based on the acceptance of practical necessities and are derived from observations. In addition, empirical findings by specialists are helpful in this context. In the end it is empiricism that counts, not personal preference.
This article is focused on professional events, e.g. board and business meetings, shareholder meetings, scientific conferences and sales pitches.
Why we need meetings
The professional meeting is the appropriate place to gather people who together have the ability to perform specific tasks. It is about presenting proposals for good decisions, improving them, deciding on them and bringing them to fruition. The meeting also has the purpose of assessing the implementation of previously made decisions and to modify them if necessary. It can also be used to exchange information and experiences that are not available outside the meeting.
After a constructive meeting, the participants are satisfied because they have enjoyed the movement towards a goal and know what they have to do by when as well as why it is necessary. Good meetings are incentives for good work.
We owe a debt of gratitude to the programmers who have developed the now high standard of conference technology. They have been working for years with sophisticated messaging systems, acoustic and visual networks, through which they distribute tasks, track progress, exchange assessments, and complement each other in a flexible way, regardless of the place of work. They work as if they were taking part in meetings all day long. In their work environment, brevity and accuracy are virtues. Their technical tasks do not make them models for the business world, but pioneers.
In what respect is the DNA of video meetings different from physical ones?
The choice of the appropriate technology and its correct use can be debated,
Participants are free to choose where they wish to meet. The place can be their own flat, the office, a hotel room or a business centre. It is only important that fast internet is available and that focus and discretion are guaranteed. This new and previously underappreciated flexibility creates room for manoeuvre in terms of time and place. It increases efficiency.
The visual contact with participants and shared documents is much worse than in the old world, because it is confined to a fixed frame of usually only 15 inches. This permanent limitation goes strongly against human nature, and reading texts and numbers and even facial expressions takes effort and patience. Smaller print on the screen is barely legible. Fatigue sets in earlier than in physical meetings. Fatigue lowers the probability of making good decisions.
Acoustics are transmitted via small loudspeakers or a headset. This is also of lower quality than in a physical meeting.
Commonalities that are helpful for finding consensus among people, such as drinking coffee or eating snacks together, are not possible.
The following comparison is therefore apt: Less water can be passed through a thinner pipe than through a thicker one.
The above inevitable constraints suggest that there is no reason to think that everything has got better now. They can be mitigated with even better technology, but not eliminated. They imply that it has become more difficult to convince participants with pertinent arguments and to reach them on the emotional level.
The firm interim conclusion is that it is necessary to compensate for the technical constraints.
In the past, thorough preparation has always been a good foundation for meetings leading to good results. However, in the case of video meetings, additional preparation can help address the constraints mentioned, helping to take full advantage of the new medium. The necessary change includes the overdue reduction of weaknesses from the old world of physical meetings.
In effect, this means that the leader of the video meeting has much more responsibility than in physical meetings. The role is comparable with the conductor of a symphony orchestra. The conductor knows the requirements of the audience and the critics, (s)he selects the musicians for the instruments, (s)he knows their strengths and the patterns of their interaction, and (s)he plans exactly how to ensure success through proper interplay. The conductor makes the decisive contributions to the success of the concert before and after the performance.
Goal setting is always primarily about activity. So, items that trigger the activity of participants and are of practical use to the outside world (clients, company, organisation) must dominate the meeting. Unclear goals lead nowhere and impair the motivation of the participants. Tasks resulting from the preparatory dialogue between the chairperson and a specialist must be clear enough for the specialist to be able to work out an easily understandable and consensus-oriented proposal: workflow, time, resources, expenditure.
Submissions for set goals:
The participant responsible for an item should send her or his substantiated submission to the participants a few days before the meeting. These can then concentrate on their preparation and clarify some or most of the questions bilaterally.
Form of submissions:
Strictly logical thinking is always suspected of distancing itself from reality, which cannot always be logical. The objection is fair. On the other hand, the serious effort to bring a maximum of logical order into a text is always helpful. The participants understand quickly and can put forward their arguments. In the new context this is more important than before.
Powerpoint has the advantage that this medium meets the natural human need for colours and images. In physical meetings Powerpoint is often used massively. However, it is an illusion that viewers can still understand the logic of the argumentation after a few slides. Even the highest intelligence will then only take up individual aspects.
These institutions usually require concise memos of not more than 6 pages instead. Yes, such a tight framework can make even the best specialist sweat. But this argument also applies to the authors of Japanese haikus consisting of only three or four lines. However, their impact can be overwhelming.
The use of Excel spreadsheets only in a video conference is even more doubtful. It is hardly possible to correctly grasp numbers in the small space available and to react to them intelligently. In any case, participants need to have such documents on their screens a few days before the meeting.
Form of exchanges:
Since video meeting technologies allow only one speaker at a time, it is difficult to maintain a fluent dialogue, and silent characters become even more silent. Nevertheless, their knowledge is important for the quality of the results. Therefore, the leader of the meeting has to make sure, more than in a physical meeting, that each participant is consulted.
The agenda, distributed at an early stage, therefore consists of items on which decisions are to be taken, each accompanied by an annex containing a proposal, and references to reports, the contents of which are briefly summarised. Every item on the agenda needs to be conducive to action. Only short messages or concise reports should be an exception.
There is a lot of research on how long participants in an event can maintain their attention under normal conditions (not via the screen):
At the Congresses of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, delegates listened to monotonous and agonising speeches for many hours, always staying wide awake and showing enthusiasm. No one complained about difficulties with comprehension.
There are credible people who are firmly convinced that they followed and enjoyed every minute of Richard Wagner's "Ring of the Nibelungs", which lasts over 15 hours (with breaks).
These unusual groups of people have not yet been the object of scientific research. And I have never met anyone from either example in a physical or video meeting. It would therefore not be appropriate to infer requirements for participants in video meetings from their unusual skills.
The ideal duration of a video meeting can therefore only be described in such a way that a brevity of perhaps one hour is a desirable goal. Within this framework, the engagement of most participants should be able to remain constant. One of the pillars of this proposal is “C. Northcote Parkinson's law”,
which states that the given time frame effectively incites people to accomplish their assignments within it. Conversely, the work for a task expands to fill the time allotted to it.
If it is not possible to deal with a complex issue in one meeting, a second meeting should be held quickly.
The end of cosiness
We must recognise that participants in video meetings can only live up to their responsibilities if a large part of the work is done before or after the meeting either individually, in couples or in small groups. Of course this is regrettable, but there is no other way to achieve efficiency. Efficiency is an obligation, not an option.
The horse-drawn carriage was closer to human nature than the car. And yet it became a rarity, simply because it is slower. The quote “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses” is attributed to Henry Ford. Its authenticity is controversial, and yet it fits the situation we face today.
The stumbling block
The issue of immigration is stirring up emotions all over Europe, but in order to consider the appropriate rational response, we need to first distinguish between the different forms of migrations. In fact, only one of the four categories of immigration distinguished below is to be classified as a challenge:
Migration of High-Net-Worth Individuals (HNWI)
Let's start with the probably smallest group of migrants, which is also the least debated: very wealthy people who are able to move from one country to another with ease. Members of this group seldom encounter rejection and in some cases are actively sought after by countries.
HNWI can weigh up their motives and choose their targets according to their criteria. These include, for example,
security for personal life and wealth
quality of life
quality of the healthcare system
landscape or climatic preferences
quality of schools and universities.
Protection of wealth is frequently a major motivation for migration among the super wealthy and countries with low or no income tax are popular in this regard. On the other hand, while certain countries encourage HNWI to migrate to them, the benefits are not always as great as they might expect, especially when the migrant’s assets do not always accompany them to the country they are settling in. Furthermore, with laws that say an individual faces taxation if they spend more than 182 days in a country, those wishing to avoid this, simply rotate through different countries each year thus avoiding paying any income tax at all.
The number of migrants from this group is increasing, and the countries concerned are well known.
This group of migrants does not pose major challenges to European states.
2. Migration within the European Union: everyone with an EU passport
Article 45 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union and Regulation (EU) No 492/2011 on freedom of movement for workers within the Union guarantee the freedom of every EU citizen to take up a job in any other state of the Union and to settle there with their family. This freedom of choice is a cornerstone of the European Union. It has led to significant migratory movements, which, due to the enlargement of the Union into Central Europe, have been accelerating gradually since the 1990s. In most cases, families put down roots in their new place of residence and do not move back to their countries of origin, although they maintain ties there.
The disadvantage of this migration is that citizens whose education took place at the expense of their home states now move to member states with higher wage levels and better career prospects, in effect creating what is known as an internal ‘brain drain’ scenario, where talented workers move out of the country of origin, depleting the national workforce. The receiving states thus strengthen their national economies at almost zero cost to them and at the expense of domestic countries responsible for their education and socialization.
These implications were clear from the outset, but the net benefits from a large economic area with free movement of people, capital and goods outweigh the drawbacks. Free movement has had a predominantly positive impact on the prosperity of citizens. Changing this structure and enacting new restrictions on internal migration would have a negative impact on the powerful new industrial structures that have emerged over the years.
Traditionalists should be very careful when they argue against free migration within the Union as there is a long-standing practice of it within the continent. The last two centuries have seen massive migrations within the area that now makes up the European Union: the countries of origin were mainly Italy, Poland and Greece. These movements are themselves a valuable component of European identity and increased wealth.
3. Migration from outside the European Union: skilled labour
While the world population is still increasing, a simultaneous decline in birth rates has been evident worldwide for many years. The trend is more pronounced in Europe, where population numbers are increasingly moving towards shrinkage.
Clearly it is not possible to fill the gaps in the labour market out of the continent's existing population. This would not change even if Europeans could be persuaded to sharply increase the current birth rate. In that unlikely case it would take at least two decades for a generation to become visible in the labour market.
Many industrial processes and services can be designed through additional automation in such a way that even fewer human resources are needed than now. This may mitigate the bottleneck somewhat, but would not eliminate it.
If there is no quick turnaround, Europe’s economies will inevitably enter a shrinking process.
The only possible countermeasure is to enter the global competition and attract talent for the known gaps in the labour market. This has been crystal clear for a long time, but fear of traditionalist and conservative voters’ sensitivities has led to most governments to only address the issue in the abstract and try to cook the necessary debates on a low flame. Slogans like "We are not a country of immigration" earn significantly more public applause in Europe than "We urgently need lots of immigrants". Yet everyone knows from their own experience that when a tooth hurts, it is better to go straight to the dentist. Postponing the treatment makes the pain worse.
The fight for human talents is not much different from the struggle for other scarce resources such as raw materials or technical components. The difference is that the competition for material things is rarely a source of cultural friction. Imported goods and commodities don’t arouse sensitivities among traditionalist voters. When it comes to human migration however, public decision makers tend to tread more cautiously and thus do not give the issue the visibility which corresponds to its actual relevance.
The Europeans are now operating a "Blue Card" system, which allows people from outside the Union to take jobs offered to them and apply for nationality after five years. This is a relatively arduous path for applicants. The “Blue Card” approach is less attractive than the more successful American "Green Card" system in which holders are granted permanent residency from the outset, and after five years they can apply for US citizenship.
Under the present circumstances the winners in the competition for talent are likely to be those countries that have a tradition of continuous immigration, have a long history of selective immigration and have the lowest bureaucratic barriers for immigrants who fit into their labour markets. These would be, for example, Canada, the USA and Australia.
4. Migration from outside the European Union: refugees, skilled or unskilled
The right to be granted asylum is not only enshrined in national constitutions and laws, it is also based on:
The right to asylum protects people irrespective of their origin who are exposed to political, racial or religious persecution in their home country. These rules, born out of painful historical experiences that includes the societies of Europe itself, are more than set in stone. All European national states are firmly bound by them. Debates about their abolition are as pointless as those about the abolition of gravity. Yet they are common.
The legal criteria do not extend to refugees who seek to migrate to another country for economic or climatic reasons and who are therefore unlikely to be regarded as refugees from a legal perspective. In order not to be classified unfavourably, refugees may exaggerate or embellish stories of persecution in their country of origin. It is difficult for the authorities of the receiving countries to properly verify the truth of such statements.
The examination procedures are complicated and take a long time. Even if an application is rejected, expulsion to the country of origin tends to be the exception. Suffice it to say that the length of procedures creates new social realities as applicants more or less take root, children are born and are shaped by the national school system.
Growing influx of refugees
The number of refugees is considerable and on average it has been increasing strongly over the years. According to Eurostat's findings, the number of asylum seekers in the Union in 2022 was 881,220 persons, up by 64% compared with 2021. Once individuals have been recognised as eligible for asylum, a second wave of immigration begins when family members are allowed to join them.
Some member states of the Union pursue a restrictive policy by enforcing the legal requirements very strictly or selectively, or even by infringing them. This leads to greater refugee flows to those countries that comply more closely with the rules.
As the authorities of the countries with the highest numbers of refugees become increasingly overloaded with examination procedures, processing times are getting longer. The accommodation of asylum seekers in camps is pushing municipal administrations to the limits of their capacity.
Xenophobic currents in the public debate are gaining support. Surprisingly, part of the growing opposition consists of former refugees and their descendants born or raised in the country who have obtained citizenship and successfully achieved social status in their new homeland.
When frightened or even traumatised people from a different cultural background enter a European country for the first time, their first impressions have a powerful influence on how they think and feel. In the case of many refugees, their first experiences are often crowded refugee camps, questioning, long waiting times, further questioning, etc. Bureaucracy weighs them down, and there is no end in sight.
While they are in limbo for a long time, the idea that dealing with bureaucracy is the way to a better life is imprinted in the immigrants' minds. This puts people on the wrong mental tracks and impairs their chances to settle in an industrial society. While they may become adept at filling out forms, they are missing essential cultural impulses and opportunities to learn and improve on valuable skillsets for an industrial economy.
The material interests of the immigration countries
If the member states want to maintain their prosperity, a proper discussion on immigration would mean that all four categories need to be considered.
The first two categories (HNWIs and citizens of other EU countries) do not pose major problems.
The third category ("Blue Card programme") is presently far too small. So a more thorough approach is needed.
This thorough approach could involve giving priority to pre-skilled immigrants from outside the European Union. Labour offices and companies know exactly which human resources are needed. This can be done with low bureaucratic barriers, high-quality language courses to introduce immigrants to the national mentality, help in finding accommodation and schools for children, advice on access to banks and tax advisors, and perhaps even tax holidays for a few years. The threshold before obtaining citizenship should be low for people who prove to be valuable contributors. Employers can be involved in the process of accelerating integration as they themselves have a legitimate interest of their own and will be supportive.
The approach to dealing with the fourth category (asylum seekers) can be to abandon the illusory goal of carefully assessing at the outset whether an asylum seeker has a legal right to stay. Any person whose identity has been verified, who has not already applied for asylum in another member state of the Union and against whom there are no security concerns, should immediately be offered a language course and a first job determined by the labour authorities. This is inconvenient for the applicants, but it provides them with a primary orientation and momentum. It is also more beneficial to their human dignity than the endless dependency on bureaucratic processes. If they prove themselves within a year, for example, they should be given a residence permit and the right to choose a job. This would also give a chance to people who would not be entitled to asylum but who fit into the labour market.
Formal procedures for asylum applications would be resumed only for applicants who cannot be integrated into the country's labour market. Applicants who do not meet the criteria for asylum should be included. Delinquent applicants should be excluded.
For the labour market, the reason for entering the country is not relevant. What counts is a committed and reliable workforce. So the primary responsibility here should lie with labour ministries and administration, while the overburdened immigration authorities are given some air to breathe.
War-disabled, traumatised and seriously ill people should continue to be given special protection and attention. Unfortunately, their number is not small.
Canada, a country with not quite 39 million inhabitants, is an example of a country that derives and updates its demographic needs very accurately from the labour market. There are numerous national and regional programmes that make it easy for needed immigrants to quickly gain a foothold in the country. And the country additionally uses the pool of asylum seekers to enrich the labour market.
“ . . . the Government of Canada is maintaining its target of 485,000 permanent residents for 2024 and completing the final step to reach 500,000 in 2025. Starting in 2026, the government will stabilize permanent resident levels at 500,000, allowing time for successful integration, while continuing to augment Canada’s labour market.”
The demographic gap in European countries is a well-documented fact. The EU's population is ageing and shrinking, and there are not enough people to replace the working population.
This demographic contraction will lead to a decline in economic performance and prosperity. The only way to avoid this is through well-managed immigration.
Traditionalists and xenophobes are against immigration, but they have no realistic solutions to the demographic gap. If we give in to them, we will condemn our economies to decline.
To develop a successful immigration programme, we should look to countries with a long history of immigration . These countries have shown that it is possible to manage immigration in a way that benefits both the host country and the immigrants.