Meeting practices: Continuous work enabling coming together in meetings
Work meetings are often used as a tool for organising joint work efforts. During meetings we can for instance make decisions together, generate ideas or inform people about something. However, the meeting is not a neutral organisational form that statically provides the frames for being able to make the decisions or generate ideas but is something that requires continuous work.
We can observe both in our studies and in our own meetings how meetings as a collaborative organizational form for work engages many of us – we spend a large part of our working hours at meetings. How do we actually do meetings? How do we accomplish the meeting, what does the meeting practice consist of? In one of our studies, we studied digital and hybrid meetings to try to understand more about which practices account for the actual meeting practice when we meet in and with digital technologies. We have followed groups in the private sector that meet either completely digitally or in hybrid format to gain an insight into the work that is being done to continuously enact the meeting. In the long term, we want to contribute with knowledge about how the fundamental aspect coming together is enabled when we meet through digital technology.
One of the practices we can observe relates to the work that is continuously done to create the meeting room when we meet digitally (spacing). Spacing is work that is done recurringly during the meeting, for example by activating the chat (which opens up a specific form for a more or less shared meeting room), through cameras that are turned on and off (which changes the common room) or through voices and sounds in the background of any participant (which highlights that there are many rooms in the digital meeting room). The spacing practice manifests itself, for example, as talk or sharing screens.
Another practice is timing which is work that is done to be able to interact at the 'right' time (what is right depends on the situation). Timing in the digital meeting is work where social and technical aspects merge since timing is about understanding the context specific social timing while at the same time acknowledging that human-technology integration not always enables interaction in what we socially understand as the ‘right’ time. In the meetings we studied, we saw many instances where microphones were turned off, where participants 'freeze' when they are about to talk or where participants expressed the feeling of being (too) late in a discussion when they themselves are participating remotely and there are participants present in a physical room. Being able to understand timing in a specific meeting situation and being able to act on it demands a lot of work.
A third example of practice concerns the human body and how it is created in the digital meeting. A meeting requires human bodies – a voice, a finger to press the start-meeting button, a face in a square. During our digital meetings, our bodies are fragmented in a way that can be interpreted as if we were several participants at the same meeting. As a participant, I am created in text in the chat, as a 2D body in a square, as solely a voice, or with my physical body in a meeting room if it’s a hybrid meeting. Sometimes we take several forms at the same time, sometimes we are more composed. Nevertheless, creating ourselves and others as participants in the meeting is continuous recurring work during our meetings.
What we observe with support in the practices is that during digital and hybrid meetings, continuous work is made to create meeting place(s) and participants, and with timing in interactions. We may need to keep this in mind when organising and conducting our meetings because this takes time and effort that we do not always include during our planning. The fixed frames we think we have when we go into a meeting – for example, a place in the format of a Zoom room and participants in the same 'place' – must be continuously re-created during the meeting, which we don’t have to do in the same way during physical meetings. Furthermore, we may need to develop our understanding that human intention and functioning technology is not enough for us to come together in digital meetings. An 'in-between' exists that partly involves the volatility of what ’a meeting’ is. Accomplishing a meeting requires continuous work where technologies and humans continuously are re-created, and create, in various configurations and that is where the volatility of the digital meeting lies, and where we need to deepen our understanding.