Covid-unfriendly Outlook and GSuite Meetings

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If you have been feeling stressed about jumping from meeting to meeting whilst working from home, there are two aspects in which both Outlook and GSuite add to our stress, rather than making things easier: reminders, and videoconference links.

Let’s get started with reminders. Last year, I was consulting for Bank of Ireland. The bank had several buildings sprinkled across Dublin. Meetings rooms? If you could get one in the same building, it was a miracle. Even, in the same building, you would need to go three or four floors up or down, and then walk to the opposite wing. This is the scenario, where a 15-minute reminder was the minimum notice that you required to be able to get in time to a physical meeting room.

Now, enter Covid. Meetings are virtual. When you get a notification 15 minutes before the meeting’s start, it is not a matter of “Oh great! I don’t need to go anywhere”.

First, it is likely that you are already in a meeting, and the least thing that you need is to lose focus by getting a pop-up reminder. Worst, you might be sharing your screen, and the reminder pop-up may contain inappropriate content. For example, you are in a meeting with Coca-Cola and the pop up says “Account plan for PepsiCo”

Second, and most importantly, the notification is only useful at the time when the actual meeting takes place, not 15 minute before. By the time the actual meeting starts, the notification does not pop up again. Worst, if you wanted to be 15 minutes earlier, many video conferencing systems greet you with a lovely “the owner hasn’t started the conference yet” kind of message. Therefore, the moment the pop up notification comes up, stress starts running through one’s veins: how the hell do you remember to check the clock by the time the meeting actually starts? I thought technology was supposed to decrease our cognitive load.

My hack, but not ideal, is to update the reminder notification time for all meetings, especially recurrent ones, to 0 minutes (i.e. when they actually start). Most people are 2 or 3 minutes late anyway, so even a 5 minute notification is too distracting and unproductive to me. I stick to zero.

Let us now turn our attention to the issue of links. Where the hell does the URL to the meeting go? Oh yes, the location field, but this was never meant for URLs, so a combination of your operating system, device, and app may result in the location field not being clickable, and in some cases, being unresponsive to copy/paste. Specially, if you are on a mobile device, there’s always the risk that the URL won’t be either clickable or copy-pastable.

Next to the location field, there is of course the details box, where you can enter arbitrary text. You are supposed to scroll down and find some Join button. If the button is an image, and the client is not configured to download images automatically (hello security people), then you may never find it. But this is not the only issue; again, a combination of operating system, device and app, may result in the details box not being easily accessible. For example, on the web-based client for Outlook, you require a second click to expand the invite and find it—the problem is shown in the screenshot above.

But as though this wasn’t bad enough, the assumption here is that an URL is all you need to access the meeting. Some people send URLs and passwords separately. This results in a terrible, idiotic experience in a mobile device, where once you click on the URL, it is a pain to find the password in the details box and copy it. But the worst of the worst in terms of stupidity is those meetings that require to dial in using a regular phone where, surprise, your country is not in the body of the mail, and because of context switching (switch to conference app, switch back to Outlook invite, switch now to dial pad) you end up writing phone numbers and access PINs on a Post-it note.

Here I don’t have a hack. If I do create a meeting, I paste the URL everywhere (location field, body, etc.) to minimise the amount of pain that my delegates will face.

With millions of dollars behind Outlook and GSuite, it is unbelievable that more than after three months of Covid-19 lockdown (and semi-lockdown) we still face a 90s experience when it comes to virtual meetings’ invites. Maybe we also need a Slack-like disruptor to get us out of the stagnation in innovation that is characteristic to Outlook and GSuite.