Do You Need a Chatbot for Work Meetings?

More powerful AI tools can summarize key points from work-related meetings. But some meetings demand a leader’s presence.

Nobody ever needed more meetings in their lives. But the Zoom/COVID era has made the stress of meetings even more acute. According to Microsoft study released earlier this year, more than two-thirds of workers say they “don’t have enough uninterrupted focus time during the workday.” And the chief culprit of disrupted productivity is “inefficient meetings.”

Microsoft, as it happens, is rolling out a potential solution for this. Last week, it released a product called Copilot that uses AI tools to summarize the Teams meetings that you’re not able to attend (or, um, that you decide you’re not able to attend). Copilot can distill discussions made in email threads around the meeting, schedule follow-ups, create PowerPoints, and respond to some rudimentary questions about the tone of the discussion like, “What were the strongest opinions?”

As with everything AI touches these days, there’s something at once liberating and mildly terrifying about this. To be sure, Copilot only exists because there’s a real problem in the workplace around meetings. “I don’t think the majority of people have meetings to get things done and be productive,” Clemson University Professor Christopher Flathmann told The Daily Beast in a story about the technology.

But there are reasons people do have meetings: To ensure that a variety of viewpoints are heard around an issue, to find consensus and make decisions around complicated problems, and—most important for leaders—to conduct a temperature check around a current challenge. All of those things still demand a human presence, though Flathmann notes that AI tools are getting better at playing a role there.

Strategic discussions are for people—they’re where passion and mission connect with the available data.

For now, though, the very existence of Copilot—and similar tools released by Google, Zoom and others—can help clarify for leaders what kinds of meetings they need to be a part of, and what meetings are for. Matters of information delivery—like departmental report-outs in advance of a board meeting—more easily lend themselves to the kinds of summarizing that AI is good at. But strategic discussions are for people—they’re where passion and mission connect with available data, and however good AI gets at interpreting language, the business of inventing new ideas and new approaches still works best when human beings are in the same space hashing things out.

Indeed, there are currently guardrails in the technology that prevent users from asking the kind of emotion-driven questions that can unsettle a team, and which AI is still inexpert at: A Microsoft staffer told The Daily Beast that Copilot prevents “people from asking about the ‘mood’ of a certain meeting or whether someone was particularly unhelpful during a call.”

It’s good to know that the technology won’t (yet?) become a HAL 9000 and actively disrupt teams. But perhaps it’s also good to know that a piece of technology won’t bind them together, either. That remains the job of people, and particularly leaders. In the face of AI meetings chatbots, it’s a good opportunity for those leaders to speak out on what gatherings demand your presence, and which ones even need to be a meeting at all.


Mark Athitakis

By Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis, a contributing editor for Associations Now, has written on nonprofits, the arts, and leadership for a variety of publications. He is a coauthor of The Dumbest Moments in Business History and hopes you never qualify for the sequel. MORE

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