Meetings, whether in-person or remote, seem like an enormous waste of time and energy. Not every meeting is bad and some are genuinely needed, but it almost always feels like less gets done and more energy gets used than by having the same discussion via asynchronous means.
Here’s a few of my top reasons that you should consider leveraging other tools than meetings.
Can you hear me?!
Everyone has been a part of a group Zoom meeting or conference call where a presenter or a key participant is having issues being heard. Sometimes it’s a connection issue or internet interference, sometimes it’s a noisy background or a bad headset, but it’s such a common problem that I find it to be a rarity when I don’t have trouble hearing at least one participant. If it’s a meeting for group discussions you’re almost guaranteed off the bat to have an unproductive meeting.
But communication technology is not the only issue with synchronous meetings. If you’ve worked in tech, it’s likely that you’ve experienced a live demonstration fail terribly or a presentation that’s gone off the rails because of a misplaced slide-deck, a remote that isn’t working correctly, or any of a number of other technical failures. This is often followed up by the wry comment of, “Good thing we work at a tech company…”
The problem with this being a fairly universal experience, however, is that it’s not a sign of incompetent tech folks – it’s a sign of an over-reliance on increasingly more fragile layers of technology. If any one thing goes down in your communication stack, it’s so easy for a meeting to become a waste of time.
It would be one thing if this were just an hour wasted here and there but for each meeting that becomes a waste of time, you’re wasting the time used to prep for the meeting, to put together the slides, any IT time used in setting up the meeting, the time of each participant of the meeting, and the time it takes to repeat a meeting that’s gone bad. If this is a meeting with 4 participants, that might mean wasting 6-8 hours or a whole day of working time. If this is an all-company meeting (depending on the size of the company), you might be wasting 120 hours or more of people’s time (and how ever much the company is paying those people by the hour)!
Meetings are hard for a lot of people. For introverts, they take a ton of energy to be present and engage. For people with short-term memory loss and audio processing disorders, they’re pretty much torture as you’re spending all of your time fighting the urge to be distracted and trying to retain information that was said out loud before the presenter goes on to the next point. Worse still are meetings that you’re expected to engage in so not only are you frantically trying to retain information, you’re being asked to think critically about the information presented and respond in a limited amount of time on things that might greatly impact your quality of life. I’ve got all of this going on, so meetings are pretty much my own personal hell.
But even for people without these specific difficulties, meetings are hard. Because you’re being asked to engage at a specific point in time instead of whenever you can devote your full attention to the discussion, it is common for people to be working on their own projects, having side conversations, or going through their emails. For a remote meeting, these problems explode exponentially because you’re asking people to be at a computer for the meeting irregardless of the headspace they’re in. This is a recipe for disaster.
Remote isn’t the issue though – the meetings are. Every company that I’ve been at has had this issue. Certain companies that I worked for had to treat their employees like children and ban laptops and phones during meetings because the problem was so bad. Of course, this didn’t fix the problem – it removed tools for taking notes and referencing data for having educated discussions while also decreasing morale among employees.
Truly global companies are accessible globally
A lot of companies like to position themselves as “global” companies while still having all of their most important meetings centered around whatever timezone the headquarters is in, no matter how many employees live elsewhere. Some are really good about recording meetings and making sure that all employees can keep up to date and some even time-shift their meetings rotationally to make sure to distribute the timezone bias at least somewhat equitably.
Given the issues that I’ve already discussed, you should be able to guess just how much more difficult it is to make sure that you have the right infrastructure in place to do this well. Global logistics raises the cost of all meetings because you have to think through the experience of watching the recording, having a place to make them available, and all of the work that goes into time-shifting meetings. Trust me, it’s a lot of work to do right and fairly expensive to boot.
On top of that, however, are two issues of accessibility that I want to discuss. The first is language. At many global companies (at least ones with headquarters in the United States), the default language is English. But as companies expand globally, they generally start to gain a higher percentage of employees that don’t speak English as a first language.
The content of meetings and presentations is usually centered around verbal communication. Sometimes there are slides or demos to go along with spoken words but they are to supplement the audio content. Verbal communication is generally less formal than written communication and it often lends itself to idioms and particular turns of phrase that make sense in a regional context but lose meaning when applied to a global audience. Additionally, unless you have captions which is another expense to consider, it’s not going to be easy for someone to take a piece of content from a meeting to put it in an online translator to gain additional context.
The other issue of accessibility that I want to touch on is about participation from other timezones. If you’re only recording your meetings and making them available to people in other timezones, you’re only inviting your global team to be halfway involved. You are explicitly saying to them, “hey, I want you to hear what I have to say, but I don’t particularly care how or if you participate.” It means that if they want to have their voice heard, they either have to use a different channel than everyone else or they have to work at ungodly hours to participate live. Time-shifting meetings is kinda better because you’re not favoring one timezone over another, but you’re also guaranteeing that the experience is always going to suck for someone.
There must be a better way!
The good news is that there is definitely a better way to do things. However, it’s not about having one specific tool or another but it’s about shifting your mindset to a more asynchronous mode so that you create a level playing field for everyone to participate equally in. Here are a few things that you can do to replace certain types of meetings with something that should helpfully be a better experience for everyone involved.
Presentations are the most egregious offenders when it comes to wasting time and energy in my opinion. For the amount of time that goes into creating sub-par presentations, you could easily take all of that time to write a deeply informative blog post with images and links to supplemental information.
Do you still want to have a video component? Go for it! Take the blog post that you have already written and use it for the outline of your presentation then record the presentation and distribute the recording asynchronously. Doing things this way will decrease the amount of time that it takes you to put together the presentation and having it written beforehand will allow you to present more competently. In addition, creating a recording instead of doing things live allows you to edit your video, prep your recording space so that you’re well lit, have greater control over your audio, and doesn’t limit your resolution based on your internet speeds.
Do you fear not getting feedback from the audience? While you might not get feedback live with this method, you open yourself up to more thoughtful, higher quality feedback. If you allow comments on your blog post, people can ask questions in long-form, supplying you with images and links to clarify their parts. If you want to get feedback before the presentation, there’s nothing stopping you from sending out an open-ended survey ahead of time. (Bonus tip: if you do send out a survey, don’t penalize people for asking questions. That creates a culture of fear and you’re gonna lose all your best people.)
I know it seems like a lot of work but let’s be honest, you’re already doing that work for a much worse product. Do everyone a favor and try this method out for your next presentation.
A lot of people like to have synchronous discussion or brainstorming meetings because there’s this impression that it’s easier to have these meetings synchronously. It’s been said that trying to have discussions asynchronously lowers creativity. Honestly though, I think this is a misperception.
I think synchronous discussion and brainstorming meetings are easier for the unprepared. It allows facilitators to roll into a meeting without prepping an agenda and utilize their facilitation skills to sort of bump through a discussion and have it go somewhere.
For truly inspired and productive meetings, however, you want to give as much context and information as possible before the meeting with enough time for people to fully digest what the meeting is about and time to prepare any materials that they might need for the meeting. This means that everyone will be prepped and ready so any discussion that is had should be quick and fruitful.
Even with solid prep time and a great agenda, discussion meetings are notoriously prone to the pitfalls of synchronous meetings. It only takes one or two participants that can’t hear or be heard to grind a meeting to a halt. Without live note-taking, it can be hard to keep track of the discussion flow and reference earlier points. If anyone is distracted, they might as well not even be participating.
That being said, if you’re already spending time and effort in creating a thorough agenda and sending out pre-work for the meeting, why not go one step further and just have the discussion asynchronously? Certain tools, like Automattic’s P2 are exceptionally good at asynchronous discussion because that’s what it has been built for but you can accomplish the same sort of asynchronous discussion in other tools like Confluence, Google Drive, Dropbox Paper, and even (gasp) e-mail.
By changing these discussion and brainstorming meetings into asynchronous meetings not only do you lose all of the cons of meeting synchronously, you also gain the ability to include your global team on equal footing. As long as you’re explicit about the time allotted for people to have discussions and make it a week or more, you should be able to have a high quality discussion full of back and forth content from no matter where you are on the globe.
“But isn’t this slow?” I hear a lot of you asking. Yes, it does slow things down quite a bit. If you need urgency, you should move to synchronous communication. However, rarely are these meetings urgent. If you take the time to slow down, you will make better, more thoughtful decisions and you might just avoid a lot of the problems associated with making decisions in haste.
I have often heard from executives that strategic meetings cannot be done remotely and absolutely cannot be done asynchronously as there’s just something important about being in person together for those types of meetings. However, rarely are those assertions followed up with any sort of reasoning or evidence. I have yet to hear a convincing argument for why we must have strategy meetings in person.
In fact, from everything that I’ve experienced, it seems like strategic decisions are better handled asynchronously. After all, when you take the time to write things out, you can include all of the data supporting your argument or decisions right within the written document. You can add links to different graphs and reports on how the business is doing and when a decision is finally made, you can show your work with how you get there.
Any company that claims to hold transparency as a key value should really consider doing this sort of strategic planning asynchronously with very explicit expectations set about what information should be gathered and when reports should be complete by. The first time that you do this will take a decent amount of thought and investment. The great news is that after you do it once, you’ll have a set of templates that you can use for each strategic planning session after, making your work all that much easier and faster next time.
Not all meetings (but most)
I know that asynchronous communication and collaboration can’t replace all meetings. One-on-one meetings and social meetings do benefit from synchronous communication because those meetings are about building relationships. You can absolutely build relationships asynchronously – many of us did it for years on online forums and other similar mediums – but hearing someone’s voice and seeing their face can go a long way towards creating trust.
Those synchronous meetings should be the exception rather than the rule though. Anything that we can do to make most of our work asynchronous will greatly improve efficiency of collaboration and increase the participation among global teams.
You can’t do this without intention though. This is a whole new way of working. For people who weren’t raised in internet chats and forums, a lot of this environment can seem strange and alien because they don’t have the tools that they are used to when it comes to building relationships. Instead of trying so hard to recreate the real-life experience of the office through things like Meta/Facebook, however, maybe we should learn the skills to relate to each other in a way that is less fragile, less expensive, more thoughtful, and aligns with the inherent strengths of the distributed internet.