Background: Rory Sutherland is the Vice Chairman of Ogilvy in London. He runs a team of 15 behavioral scientists who look at business problems and decision-making and policymaking challenges through the lens of behavioral science.

 

 

Challenge: One of the topics we often like to focus on is the unnecessary, unnoticed psychological obstacles that prevent people from adopting new behaviours. Strangely, even two years before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, we were heavily fixated on the relatively low level of adoption of video conferencing. There wasn't a single argument you could make against its wider adoption, but we were looking at businesses entirely failing not only to use it extensively, but to even experiment with it at all.

One of the things I noticed was the fact that working remotely (not necessarily from home, but simply working from another place other than the office) was automatically perceived by people as a concession. I noticed with my own staff that, even if I said they were completely free to work flexibly from home, nobody took me up on it.

It was then that I realized it was because they had framed it as a concession, so they felt they were burning brownie points every time they took advantage of it. 

Long before COVID-19, I discovered that it wasn’t enough to say, “You're free to work from home and that I don't mind if you do.” I had to say that I actively wanted them to work remotely for one or two days of the week. It was only when I framed remote work almost as a requirement that people took me up on the option. Little differences in phrasing can have a huge effect on how people behave, and that's one of the areas which we'd extensively study as a behavioural science practice, both for our clients and ourselves.

Use Case: The benefits of video conferencing only become apparent when a lot of people do it frequently. If you were the lone video conferencing enthusiast in your group, and the default was always to hold an in-person meeting, unless by some freak chance about six other people who are supposed to be joining that meeting were also vociferous enthusiasts for remote and virtual meetings, the default was always to hold an in-person meeting. 

Asking for a video conference instead of an in-person meeting before COVID-19 wasn't seen as a normal thing to do. It's something you can now reasonably request with an expectation of a yes, without feeling weird about it, but a year ago, it simply wasn't like that. You felt that you were part of the awkward squad by saying, "I can't attend the meeting in person, but I'd like to attend remotely." There was a degree to which being the lone remote attendee made you a little bit awkward, and that was that that brought us to the Meeting Owl.

What we noticed is that the natural anthropology of a meeting, which is a group of people sitting in a circle talking to one another, tended to be heavily disrupted when you introduced a remote video element. Instead of people sitting around a table normally engaging with a few people attending remotely, remote meetings force in-person attendees to sit as though they were on a bus or facing a screen.

When I discovered the Meeting Owl, it overjoyed me. Here was something that left the physical meeting untouched, but allowed the remote participant an extraordinary level of engagement and participation, because they were virtually sitting in the middle of the table, making eye contact with whoever happened to be talking in the room at the time. When I saw the 360° camera, the array of omni-directional microphones, and the big, loud speaker, I knew immediately it was a complete game-changer for meetings.

Solution: When you think about business communication, there's a huge gap between face-to-face communication, which involves travel and a lot of wasted time and energy, and sending an email. Being able to quickly and easily join a high-fidelity video conference that closely mirrors the face-to-face experience makes our conversations and work together more productive.

The Meeting Owl is a complete upgrade to the telephone conference call. Not only is it a cheaper alternative to meeting people in person, but it’s also a great alternative to too much email. 

Ogilvy is a massive international agency, and the need to travel placed an enormous tax on the value we could derive from our unified company culture. The tax of transportation, particularly if you wanted to have a meeting with multiple people across different countries, was enormous. The Meeting Owl struck me as the perfect way for us to hold hybrid meetings without excluding anyone due to their location.

Other applications for the Meeting Owl keep popping up. Podcasts are a particularly great use case if you want to include a video element of your host and your guests speaking face-to-face. But even if you don't, here you have this very, very good piece of video recording equipment, which is plugged into a laptop as though it were a simple webcam.

It’s essentially an AI cameraman who dynamically shifts to focus on whoever happens to be talking at the time, which makes video material much more watchable for the viewer. Our colleagues in market research have found it to be a brilliant way of unobtrusively recording research groups gathered around a table or in a circle to discuss different companies and products. 

There's no weird software required, and there are no strange remote controls that go missing. Everything is achieved with only a Meeting Owl, a power cord, a USB connection to your computer, and that's it. The genius of the Meeting Owl resides entirely within the device, which makes it easy and pleasant to use.

Benefits: I like the Meeting Owl because it helped vindicate my enthusiasm for behavioural science. When I first saw it, I immediately knew that there was something about sitting in a circle that created a magical property in human interaction, and this was the first meeting technology I'd seen that didn't disrupt this.

The Meeting Owl makes our meetings more democratic so people feel freer to speak. There's less hierarchy involved, because you don't have the usual head of the table leading the meeting. There’s less time involved in planning the meeting because we don’t need to worry about conference room size or a shortage of seating. There’s also more flexibility to schedule multiple meetings without worrying about meeting space or travel costs so you can have a proper brainstorm before scheduling a kickoff meeting, for example, instead of trying to cram everything into a single meeting and preventing people from thinking creatively.

After speaking to Jason Calacanis, the host of the This Week in Startups podcast, about the Meeting Owl, I experienced for the first time something that I’ve experienced many times since then: 

Once you meet somebody else who's a Meeting Owl enthusiast, you immediately share an affinity for it that’s almost cult-like. There are certain books and musicians people bond over, but there aren’t that many types of tech people bond over and love. Apple is an obvious outlier on this, and the Meeting Owl is arguably one of those pieces of tech.

Hybrid meetings are going to become the new normal for the future of work — partly because they’re necessary, and partly because of the enormous benefits they present. First of all, you can get people from a wider range of business disciplines in attendance. Meetings are much, much less restricted by geography, function, and seniority. You don't need to freeze the junior people out of important meetings because there isn’t room for them in the meeting room, and even though more senior people may be in Amsterdam, they can still join the meetings where it counts without sacrificing an entire day of their time. 

When we acknowledged that meetings with the Meeting Owl were not only just as good, but that they're arguably vastly better in terms of the range of people who could attend and contribute, our ability to work well across our team and our organization was completely transformed.

To learn more about how companies and schools use the Meeting Owl to stay connected across geographies, keep reading more of our case studies.

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