One common complaint that I hear from people about interruptions to their daily working routine is the frequency and length of the meetings which they’re asked to attend. While there’s definite value to real-time collaboration and a pooling of ideas, “meeting culture” can become a slippery slope, especially when remote working has made meetings a more impactful, draining experience.
If you’ve been struggling, as James T Kirk famously didn’t say, with meetings feeling like hours wasted, then here’s some advice on how to avoid ending up finding yourself busy doing nothing.
When should we actively avoid meetings?
With more companies pushing flexible working as an employee perk, often among teams which are distributed across multiple timezones, there’s real benefit to be gained from favouring asynchronous communication. There’s nothing more unnecessarily stressful than finding yourself missing lunch, skipping holiday, staying late or getting out of your sick-bed for a meeting which turns out to just be a one-way information dump, which you could have consumed in your own time.
The sheer volume of meetings can overwhelm our calendars, especially if you’re in one (or more!) agile teams which has a fair number of recurring ceremonies on a daily/weekly basis. (Although it’s worth bearing in mind that scrum meetings are specifically designed to increase the opportunities for review and collaboration, and reduce the need for other ad-hoc meetings.)
If you’re somebody who finds themselves having to schedule a meeting with even 6-7 people, especially if they work across different teams or projects, this liberal scattering of calendar invites throughout our working days can actively prevent work from getting done. In a recent role, I had just such a meeting with my test team (scheduled weekly as an opportunity to check-in and say hello): when one person had a clashing appointment, we couldn’t identify any other slots within the 40-hour work week where everybody would have been free to attend.
As the number of meeting participants grows, so does the cost associated with running it. I’ve worked with several teams who’ve specifically opened a window on their digital whiteboard displaying an app such as Meeting Cost Live, which (based on attendees and a ballpark average salary) ticks up in real-time like a taxi meter, to remind everybody of the meeting’s cost to the company.
Nowhere is this more evident than in the so-called “all-hands meeting”, where the entire organisation downs tools in order to attend some sort of company update. Sometimes these can be interactive, or contain information which by its nature needs to be conveyed in a time-sensitive fashion (such as stock updates or major staffing changes). But more often than not, they’re merely a form of “status update”: information which, while important, doesn’t need to block an arbitrary hour of everybody’s working day.
Learn to spot the signs of a wasted meeting
There are various smells which you (and your colleagues) should watch for, which might indicate an inappropriate meeting. If there isn’t even a rough agenda circulated in advance, or people are asked to join the meeting without knowing what it’s going to be about, this is a major red flag. (Doubly for the ultimate bane of the remote worker: the unannounced “Your boss is dialing you in to a group call” notification.)
This works both ways, though. If you’ve agreed to attend a meeting, and the organiser has circulated a document or similar to be reviewed in advance, make sure you’ve taken the time to do it - otherwise, the group loses precious minutes in ensuring everybody is up-to-speed before getting into the meat of the meeting.
During a meeting, if you notice yourself (or others) seem to be “checked out” - either distracted, replying to messages on Slack, or not following what’s going on - consider asking the meeting host whether it’s a good idea to wrap-up or reiterate the key discussion point.
And a valuable meeting should always have an outcome: perhaps it’s written consensus on the direction to take with a piece of work, or some agreed follow-up action items (with assignees) to make sure that things continue to move forward. If you regularly find yourself ending meetings without knowing what impact the meeting will have made, that’s another sign that perhaps a meeting wasn’t the best way to handle the situation.
Meetings do have value - when used appropriately.
There’s little doubt that collaboration and brainstorming can be more effective when you bring people together, although there are plenty of tools now (Miro et al) which are helping to close the gap. It’s also worth bearing in mind that meetings and other forms of real-time collaboration tend to favour the loudest voices in the room - which often means men - and that people who identify as introverted may do their best deep work when they are given time to focus in private.
The act of gathering people (in person or remotely) can also serve to increase bonding: it’s difficult to increase team rapport without the instant back-and-forth of having everybody together. But beware of sapping peoples’ energies with yet another meeting on their stack - your “fun” session may actually serve to exacerbate their sense of fatigue, especially if you’re coming into it fresh whilst they’ve just had another two hours of back-to-back meetings. Consider trialing platforms which are more dynamic than the traditional gallery view of peoples’ webcams: for instance, Gather drops participants into an 8-bit world with personalisable avatars and a “field of vision” approach to communication (if you want a breakout chat with somebody, your avatars can just “wander off” to another part of the environment).
Some companies find success by declaring a “meeting-free day” for one day a week, guaranteeing everybody a dedicated period of focus time, although in my experience this can just result in a week’s worth of meetings being squeezed into the remaining four days, leaving them even more meeting-heavy than they might otherwise have been.
Keep your participant lists as streamlined as possible. Rather than, for example, inviting all of the team’s 6 developers to a meeting, consider whether 1-2 developers could better contribute and disseminate the information offline, or capture it in team artifacts (e.g. a relevant JIRA ticket, Confluence page, or Slack post).
Finally, a favourite of mine is to get out of the habit of running 30 or 60 minute meetings, and schedule them for 25 or 50 minutes instead. By doing this, you’re effectively creating a free break period for anybody who has another meeting scheduled to follow it, giving them a chance to stretch their legs or take a break from their screens, providing a boost in energy and effectiveness for the following meeting.
The trouble with meetings is that it’s difficult to take control of the situation ourselves as individuals (although I’ve seen people have successes by reserving chunks of “focus time” in their calendar, by booking meetings with themselves). But if you’re experiencing challenges, it’s unlikely that you’re the only one who feels that way: talk to your team about it. Raise issues internally, and upwardly where necessary, via channels such as your sprint retrospective. Don’t be afraid to exercise the “self-organising” part of “self-organising teams”: if everybody wants to run a short-term experiment with an alternative to meetings, you’ll likely gain useful insights which could reap great rewards for the whole squad.
Key takeaways 📝
- Asynchronous communication is more supportive of flexible or worldwide working.
- Be aware of the spiralling cost of meetings as you increase the number of participants.
- Talk to your team - if there’s a problem, work together to find an acceptable solution.