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Buying time: technology helps family life

By Oscar Trimboli - posted Tuesday, 11 October 2005

Information technology has brought us many benefits, increasing our efficiency, improving our productivity at work and streamlining entertainment in the digital home. However its related promise - to increase our leisure time - has so far eluded us. Despite a plethora of technological advances, our hours at work have increased, encroaching on our leisure time, our weekends and even our holidays. I firmly believe that it doesn’t have to be this way.

With growing labour shortages, we need to find a better match between the demands of working life and our family and personal responsibilities. Technology will provide part of the solution.

Tyranny of Distance, a study of the impact of business meetings on our work and personal lives, commissioned by Microsoft Australia surveyed 300 managers and employees across Australia and identified the following startling facts about Australian working lives:

  • half of our working year is spent in meetings;
  • an extra quarter of the year is taken up in travel to and from those meetings;
  • we average 12 meetings a week, 4 of them out of the office; and
  • we are away from our home base for 30 per cent of the working year.

These statistics suggest that it is meetings that are contributing to our increased workload. It seems logical that if we could reduce the need to travel to meetings, we could claw back some of the time lost to the “tyranny of distance”.

Clearly, meetings (especially face-to-face meetings) are essential to forging and maintaining business networks, building teams, making sales and communicating company plans and what needs to be done. However, these meetings are not always necessary or effective. How often do we hear people say they waste too much time in meetings and wish they could just get on with their job? How often have you spent hours in an airport waiting for flights, out of contact with your team due to technological and temporal barriers and most importantly, missing out on time at home with family and friends? We need to ask ourselves, “Is this really the best way to conduct business?”

Three-quarters of those surveyed in Tyranny of Distance said time spent travelling to and from meetings reduces time they would spend with their families and half of the respondents said that meeting-related travel has a negative impact on their personal life.

These are not trivial findings. Other research has demonstrated the significant economic costs of stress, marital problems, concerns about children - through increased absenteeism and accident rates - leave-taking, lower efficiency while at work and, above all, exit rates and job turnover. As these factors take their toll on both an individual and a business, I feel it is time to profile the Australian business landscape and work out what could be done to help.

In my own role, I often need to travel to business meetings. This year I’ve visited customers and partners in Perth, Melbourne, New Zealand and all over Sydney, and attended a meeting at our company headquarters in the US.


Microsoft has introduced a policy of replacing one in five face-to-face meetings with web conferences. The technology allows us to not only talk on the phone but also share presentations and documents, chat online using instant messaging, conduct online polls, scribble on “whiteboards” and record and play back meetings for those unable to make them via conferencing technology. In the 2004-2005 financial year, Microsoft replaced one in five business trips with web conferences and saved more than US$40 million. We expect that figure to be higher this year.

This “one in five” rule is, in a sense, reflected by the views of business people in the survey, who consider 19 per cent of their face-to-face meetings “avoidable”. If those meetings could be avoided completely, 34 working days a year could be gained. If we cut just the related travel to these meetings, individuals could claw back around 13 days a year. Just imagine what you could do with that time.

If, as this research indicates, new forms of communicating and conducting business meetings could overcome the tyranny of distance, they should be closely investigated, tried and perfected. The so-called “work-family balance” will become a significant factor in business competitiveness and the employer of choice will be the one who addresses the personal and family interests of their employees.

Above all, if we can reduce the tyranny of distance by using technology more effectively to conduct business meetings, we would save much more than travel costs. We would reduce workplace stress, improve the quality of personal and family life, improve parenting, perhaps even reduce marital breakdown and improve community life - all factors that affect the viability of every company and the economy as a whole.

The Tyranny of Distance report should help Australians understand the impact that the “culture of meetings” is having on Australian businesses and business people, and identify future trends in meetings and meeting technology. Hopefully it will be a tool to inform Australian organisations of the  “hidden” costs of business travel for meetings and encourage them to look at new ways of doing business. The human benefits alone are worth it.

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Article edited by Natalie Rose.
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About the Author

Oscar Trimboli is the Real Time Collaboration Manager for Microsoft Australia.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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