Why I’m killing meetings at Polar

I’ve made it my mission to kill the time we spend during meetings.

At the start of 2016, I did an audit of where I spend my time (view the full audit here) and was surprised to learn that 33% of it was spent in internal meetings.

After further thought and reflection, a deeper theme surfaced: making versus meeting.

The reason I started a company and why people join our small team is to have an opportunity to make. And meetings can get in the way of that. I decided to drastically reduce how much time I spend in meetings, which means reducing how much time everyone spends in meetings.

Since we deemed Tuesdays and Thursdays as internal meeting free days at Polar, and introduced other guidelines, the amount of time I spend in internal meetings is now 20% (which I’m satisfied with…for now).

Here is a memo I sent to my team at the start of the year.

Memo: Making time to make

January 4, 2016

To: Polar team

At the end of last year, I did a time audit using my calendar and the results were surprising. 33% of my productive time was spent in internal meetings. All the while, I thought I had internal meetings under control (and I know 33% is likely less than my peers). Given that I was not meeting with myself, it also meant that I was taking up your time as well! As much as I like all of you, I plan to spend a whole lot less time in meetings and am encouraging you to do the same.

To be clear, I am not suggesting that we stop talking to one another. What I am suggesting is that we become more aware and be fearless to re-think how a big chunk of our time is used (at least for me). Collaboration and communication are critical to our success, especially a small team like ours that is geographically distributed.

First, watch this video (it’s 100 seconds)…

Makers versus Managers

We are a small team (40 people) with each person counted on with tremendous responsibility (hundreds of customers globally and growing). All of us are makers. Maybe at big corporations or in the government there exist full-time managers that are not making as part of their role, however that is not the case here. Everyone here is expected to be making.

Making is so important to how we create value for our customers. From prospecting clients, to running a sales process, to developing a press program, to managing our books and bills, to writing product requirements, to software developement and testing, to releasing and managing technology infrastructure, all of us are making. That is a big reason each of us (myself included) have chosen to work at a smaller organization. Making is fun!

Stealing someone’s chair

When you have an internal meeting, it’s the equivalent to stealing someone’s chair. What happens when you steal someone’s chair? They are not able to work. An internal meeting has the same effect. Especially one that is not valuable. David Grady has a hilarious TED video that is under 7 minutes, that I enjoyed on this topic.

The myth of multitasking

“But I am a really good at multitasking”. Yeah right. I’ve written about why we need to stop multitasking, because we are actually switch tasking which is costly.

Multitasking: when we are doing multiple tasks aligned to the same outcome. Driving a car involves checking the rearview mirror, watching the odometer, looking at the side mirrors, checking blind spots, oh and looking ahead of you through the windshield. Cooking a meal in similar, in that the stove may be on, while you are chopping something, and wiping the counter.

Switch tasking: when we bring our attention to different tasks that are not directly related to the same outcome. Going from writing code, to reading something on Slack, to eavesdropping on the conversation next to you, to checking Facebook, to answering an email and back to writing code is switch tasking.

The brain knows how to multitask. It does not know how to switch task.

Research shows that it takes 25 minutes to return to a task that we get distracted from. And yes, there are many distractions in our work day, including email, Slack, notifications, social media, people physically walking up to you, nearby chatter, bio breaks, food and snacks, and of course, internal meetings.

Simple guidelines for meetings @ Polar

Now internal meetings are an important part of how we work together. Here are some super simple guidelines on how to keep them valuable for everyone:

  • Limit size to 8 people. This is already 20% of the company! Any larger and it’s clear that the information should be shared on Slack or a smaller group is what’s actually required. Exception: Polar Summits, Polar Spotlights and Polar Talks.
  • Limit time to 60 minutes. This is already 10–15% of someone’s productive hours! Research shows our attention spans fade after 60 minutes and are pretty much gone completely after 90 minutes. If you cannot get something done in 60 minutes, there is probably something else wrong. (I’d really love to suggest 30 minutes but let’s start here…)
  • Eliminate technology distractions. This one we are pretty good at but not 100%. Myself included. It starts with us being fearless to call one another out when we are distracted during a meeting. Put away your laptops and turn off your cell phone notifications. Out of sight, out of mind. (And yes, we are going to make sure all of our Toronto meeting rooms have working old school clocks!)
  • For our international team members, I know it can be distracting given the whole meeting is conducted on your laptop (using join.me), my advice is to “maximize” (the little green button) in the join.me window so that you are less distracted from notifications and other programs. (I know sometimes I might get boring, and it may be tempting to ignore me and quickly check your email…but don’t do that, it’s not nice or productive for either of us)
  • Video matters. Research shows that video conferencing improves teamwork, productivity and decision making over audio conferencing. Given we have Polar team members located now in New York, London, Glasgow and Sydney, it is really important to make the effort to conduct all internal meetings with remote team members using video. Join.me is not perfect but it works, so keep using it.
  • And for those of you in Toronto but not physically in the office, you should still be video conferencing for internal meetings.

And ask yourself at the end of the meeting, was that meeting necessary? Would the same outcome have been achieved if the information was communicated over Slack?

Introducing meeting free T-days

Tuesdays and Thursdays will be free of internal meetings at Polar.

Globally. Effective immediately. For this to work, we all have to commit to it. This is an experiment, I ask that you all commit to this with me.

This is the start of our plan to help make more time to make at Polar. I want to acknowledge the importance of communication and collaboration at Polar, and I know that we are not as bad as many other companies are with meeting overload. However I think we can be better here and this what showing leadership is all about.

Kunal

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Closing thought

I took a survey of the team a few weeks after these changes, and 100% of the team liked the meeting free T-days and 72% felt they were more productive. We still have more to do, to create an environment (physically and virtually) that enables us to be more focused, which is how we can do our best work.

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Kunal Gupta is the Founder & CEO of Polar. He leads a talented team transforming the media publishing industry with technology. He is passionate about leadership and finding focus in a modern era. Connect with him onLinkedIn, Medium or Twitter.

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