This article is part of a series of advice about companies that want to succeed in remote settings.
“Yet another team sync that turns into a round of chatting.” The thought bothered me until I stumbled upon a paradigm-changing conversation.
The year before COVID restrictions, I worked at a startup where the C-suite was very adamant and opinionated about physical proximity during work. So essential communication was designed to only reach the teammates if they worked on the same premises, at the same hours, and ideally in the same room.
The fast pace of product development further complicated things. Meetings were long drawn and dreaded, especially when a product build was due. Taking a day off would mean attending extra meetings to get up to speed. Even though the HR policy said you could take time off, the team felt guilty about opting for it, so burnout was only a question of time.
The pandemic forced everyone to digitally transform, and though the restrictions have eased, “Remote” is a reality all companies must live with in some capacity now. It has its pros and cons, but I learned them the hard way. During the pandemic, everyone was forced to work from home, and our meetings became even more dysfunctional. The stand-ups and weekly team syncs became planning meetings. The managers were being pulled from one meeting to the next just to keep everyone updated. Some colleagues didn’t have enough structure during the day to get things done, and others didn’t have enough time.
As zoom fatigue was becoming palpable beyond just a buzzword, I started researching the best ways to organize meetings, especially remote ones. The ideas I discovered were eye-opening for me. “Meetings are toxic if not dealt with properly.”
I came across Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson’s work and they talked me out of thinking too highly about meetings. They claimed that meetings were toxic and should be avoided as much as possible. Their argument was as follows: Meetings are too wordy, and the useful information shared per minute in them is abysmally small. They drift off the subject too often. You can’t do them by yourself, you have to sync up schedules. A one-hour meeting with 5 people costs 5 hours for the company. They require preparations that most people don’t have time for. The agendas are usually too vague for anyone to understand. When the participants get too many, there is always one person who decides to waste everyone’s time. The worst thing is meetings procreate meetings; some unsolved agenda always begets another meeting.
They add, citing Carl Newport, Quality creative and deep work is done when you have long stretches of uninterrupted time, and meetings encroach and prey on this precious and scarce commodity the most. A day punctured by meetings is a day wasted. When you are 45 mins out from a meeting, you don’t tend to dive into difficult problems that move the ball forward, rather you choose something administrative like checking email.”
They continue that remote only made it worse, since now the meetings were devoid of the social energy that in-person meetings had, and these meetings merely caused zoom fatigue. They made a strong case, but then some meetings are still inevitable so instead of calling all of them toxic I settled for the following heuristic: “Meetings aren’t the worst thing in the world they are the last thing, and they better have principles to make them right.” Although we weren’t able to adopt this culture or all the principles in my previous startup, I have been making a conscious effort to incorporate these ideas ever since.
Make the work culture asynchronous:
With certain hours of overlap, asynchronous allows responsible people to manage their work and life priorities as they see fit. This can only be pulled off if the company creates a culture of “Writing first.” Each problem that needs another person’s time to get resolved should be put in writing. This practice not only clears the thought process but also makes it easier for the other person to respond in his own time. Meetings should only be added to a schedule if things aren’t resolved in writing.
Use calls instead of meetings:
Calls are between two people, while meetings are between more than 3 people. Calls don’t take as much time to schedule and don’t have to be managed in 30 min intervals; they can end as soon as the conversation ends. Calls can be audio-only. That allows you to walk and talk simultaneously and spares you any video fatigue. If you need a soundboard or want someone’s quick opinion on the topic. Mutually agree to a call and have your brainstorming sessions.
Use the meetings to break the stalemates.
When emails/and messages aren’t doing the job, they are becoming frustrating or turning into single-line disagreements then it’s time to set up a meeting but make sure the following rules are followed to deliver the most bang for the buck they cost.
Invite as few people as possible:
In my experience, more than 5 becomes too crowded for a meeting, and 3 is the minimum number required to qualify for a meeting. Jeff Bezos suggests an interesting heuristic to solve this problem. He proposes 2 pizza teams. A team should be big enough to survive on 2 large-size pizzas. A 14” pie has between eight to ten slices and can feed three to ten people, so—just to be safe—we can set the maximum limit at 8 people.
Meet at the site of the problem:
Meeting rooms sometimes physically and hence mentally disconnect the participants from the problem. It’s hard to say what goes on in the head, but this lack of proximity sometimes reduces the gravity of the issue, the accurate assessment of the problem, the urgency in solving it, and assigning responsibility to the most appropriate person who needs to act. This also entails that the use of PowerPoint slides must be avoided. During Online meetings share the production site to illustrate how the problem is experienced.
Always have clear agendas and a specific problem:
When the inevitable meeting is eventually called, it must have a declared purpose. Everyone’s time is very precious. A way to show respect for this precious resource is that the one calling the meeting must announce the agenda. Write a note explaining the purpose of the meeting, the specific problem that needs to be addressed, and what the congregation aims to achieve from the gathering. The written note is read and circulated before the meeting begins.
20-minute mandatory silence:
Any meeting, apart from a recurring huddle, must have a 20 min silence period. After listening to/reading the meeting agenda, the participants have to think in silence about the problem at hand. They can prepare notes and organize thoughts within the duration.
Set a timer when it rings the meeting is over. Period:
Meetings have to have an upper cap, they sometimes stretch for hours. They turn into catch-up, complaints, jokes, and worry sessions. The list of things that needed addressing keeps piling up. Putting a hard cap on the duration forces people not to digress into things that can wait.
Make someone responsible:
Problems only get addressed when clear responsibility is declared, and the response is empowered and made accountable. So, a meeting that aims to solve a problem is only fruitful when it ends with a proposed solution and a person is made responsible for implementing the solution.
Fix non-meeting days and use Technology to eliminate white space:
We need a long stretch of uninterrupted intervals to do meaningful deep work. One way of ensuring that is to declare a day when no meeting can take place, I like Friday as the non-meeting day. Also, AI tools like Reclaim can be leveraged to reshuffle meeting schedules so that everyone has the maximum number of hours of uninterrupted period.
Although I wasn’t able to practice all these ideas in one place, we strive to incorporate these principles as much as possible. I hope a new generation of organizations rethinks their culture to sustainably progress.