Level Up Your Meeting Culture

The journey to asynchronous communication starts with improving your meeting culture.

Patrick Schönfeld
Nov 2, 2020 · 10 min read

„Its madness“, Peter thinks as he is rushing up the stairs.

He is a bit late, but that’s not what is occupying his mind. His mind is circling around his daily schedule. The upcoming meeting is only one in a bunch. Like breadcrumbs, they are scattered throughout the day. Leaving no doubt: getting things done is not his destiny. „Damn“, he thinks, as his coffee spills over. Before sitting down, he quickly heads into the kitchen to get a towel.

„Let’s give them a couple of minutes“, he hears the runner of the meeting say. Peter chuckles, wondering if he will ever experience a meeting that starts on time. Peter takes a look at the sleepy faces attending the meeting. It’s a large round, far from following the two-pizza-rule. He looks at each of the faces on his screen, pondering what their average hourly wage might be – summing up the numbers in his head. At least the host of the meeting seems to enjoy himself while waiting.

„Expensive pleasure”, Peter thinks.

„Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results“, says a famous quote. It is often attributed to Einstein. The quote depicts so accurately where we are with meetings. We know about the problems of meetings, and yet we don’t fix them.

Development of time spent in meetings since 2000 according to HighFive.

We have taken it way too far.

Meetings have developed a life of its own, as it seems. It acts a bit like a monster that will eat all the time you give to it. And ask for more.

Most of us are unhappy with our meeting culture. You can hear people moan all over the hallways of our companies. It’s too much. Even worse: too many meetings are a waste of time. People say it steals them all the time for what they call the real work. But it seems we like the pain. We don’t seem to bother enough to make a change. We act a bit like the rabbit before the snake. Freezing instead of doing something.

But we do not have to accept this as our fate. Now is the time to make a change.

In these times, you will probably expect me to talk about asynchronous communication. I will. But I will look at it from a different angle. I will tell you, how to spice up your existing meetings. Along the way, you will learn the basics for a move towards asynchronous communication.

So, get yourself a coffee and lean back — this will be a long read.

Why do we meet?

Good beginnings start with a question: why am I doing this?

For meetings, the overarching question is: what do we meet for? What is the problem we want to solve?

In one word: communication.

I want to remind you that we are doing meetings for a reason. We want to inform people and stay informed. Exchange and discuss ideas. Showcase our products and get feedback on it. Take decisions. We want to establish relationships and strengthen them. We have many good reasons to stay in touch and communicate. But a meeting is often not the least intrusive nor the most effective way to do it.

Sometimes we meet because it’s so easy. Writing down what you have to say seems hard. Harder than verbalizing your thoughts in a meeting or getting on a stage and tell a story. But here comes the problem. There is an asymmetry between you and the receivers of the information. The time you communicate rarely matches the time people need it. It rarely matches the time when people are ready for it.

No wonder that meetings often fall short in achieving the desired outcome.

Think about your audience

What comes to your mind when you think about the audience of your meetings? Do you think of their clothes, the color of skin, or their gender?

There is more than meets the eye.

Take Peter from the introduction as an example. He is widely considered to be a smart guy. He is solving problems for the company. Many of them. Some people say he has a quick perception. In meetings, he often feels slow. He needs time to process and think about new information before he can contribute. If he does, he can often provide valuable input. There are people in your audience that have a hard time focusing on your words for an hour. Others might have a problem to speak up in front of a group. You may not realize it, but those people are there.

In sociology, there is a term called neurodiversity. It coins individual differences in human brains. Like how we learn and process new information. Like how we manage our attention and other mental functions. You don’t have to craft your meetings for people with neurological specialties. But if you think about them, you will end up with strategies that help other people in your company, too.

Ask yourself: How would you communicate with those people and involve them?

It will help you to make more impact.

What can we do?

The ideas below help you improve your meetings. If you apply some in practice, you also build up some habits. Habits that will be fundamental for embracing asynchronous communication.

Respect the time of your fellows

In the introduction, I showed you a situation that you may be familiar with.

Many meetings don’t start or end in time.

Waiting for people who are late seems like a polite thing to do. But is it? Try to put yourself into the position of those who were on time. They also have piles of work on their desk. They might have gone through a stretch to attend your meeting. Respect the time of the people attending your meeting.

If you are the one who’s late: no worries. It happens. Try to reduce the impact of your late arrival. Enter the room in silence. If it’s a video call, make sure to mute yourself.

Be on time if you are running the meeting.

Reduce the impact on the work schedule of your colleagues

I know this is a tricky one.

It’s hard to find a meeting slot, which doesn’t conflict with the working schedule of your colleagues. But it’s crucial to try. For many people in your company, meetings make it outright hard to get anything done. That is not only because there are so many meetings. It’s because the meetings fragment their day. Many jobs need dedicated time to focus. And each meeting is an interruption that is more costly than just the meeting time.

Free blocks of time are golden as they allow to focus.

A tool that could help, although I haven’t personally tested it, is Clockwise. Its job is to optimize your calendar for focus time.

Other than that, here are some simpler tricks:

  • Aim for shorter meeting slots.
    In Google Calendar, there is the option to configure “Speedy meetings”. That shortens the typical meeting slots offered to you by around 5 to 10 minutes. So, 30 minutes become 25 minutes, for example. An hour becomes 50 minutes.
  • Ensure breaks between meetings.
    Some people need to breathe, grab a coffee, or go for a walk between meetings. It will help them get ready for the next meeting. As an extra benefit, it's more likely they are on time.
  • Divide the day in a half and reserve one half for deep work
    Free blocks of continuous time to work are worth gold for many at your company. Run a survey to find out what suits your people best.
  • Establish meeting-free days.
    Aim for one to two days a week, but be pragmatic on it. GitLab, for example, established Focus Fridays. That makes sense because Fridays are a terrible day for meetings, especially for the important ones.

Share a good deal of information upfront

I assume you already prepare your meeting. Like having an agenda and alike? No? Start with it today. A meeting without an agenda is like life without fun. Possible but pointless.

You do it for two reasons:

  1. It allows people to decide if the meeting is interesting for them and if they can contribute.
  2. In return, your attendees are more likely interested in participating.

Now, if you want to level up your meeting game, you share as much information as possible upfront. Not all the attendees will prepare themselves for the meeting, but some do. Remember Peter? He likes to be prepared and will appreciate that you allow him to.

I know there are situations where you can’t share too much upfront. Think about it, at least. Storytelling is important — but don’t let it get in the way of effective communication.

Be serious about making attendance optional

Making attendance optional is an excellent idea. But do it half-hearted, and my heart bleeds.

There is often a real risk of missing out. That’s because written communication is often treated step-motherly. Usually, in a way that is barely useful for people who didn’t attend the meeting. Often the best you get is a video recording and a copy of the slides. Reasons for decisions: buried in time.

Here are some guidelines to consider:

  • Make sure every meeting of relevance gets recorded.
  • Provide written information about meeting content. Make sure it’s informative for persons who did not attend the meeting.
  • Deliver it timely. Like, right after the meeting. The easiest way to achieve that is to write a live protocol. You can do that collaboratively.
  • Do not make decisions in a meeting without sharing information upfront. Even worse: without telling on the agenda that you will ask for a decision.
  • Think about taking decisions outside of meetings.
  • Give people the chance to share questions up front if you plan to discuss those questions in the meeting. This is obviously way more effective, if you share a good deal of information up front.
  • Make all information available at a single point of truth.
  • Update existing published documents if they are no longer current after the meeting.

Keep in mind that during a meeting, much information is shared verbally. People lack this context if all you provide is slides. It’s your job to offer that context. A recording is better but still not perfect. Provide information in written form if you want to level up. Don’t tell me it’s hard to get writing right. I know. Think about the cost of having meetings with a large audience, if you need an incentive for the amount of work.

Written information is fundamental to asynchronous communication. It’s the concrete for asynchronous communication.

Learn from each other … and others

Take a look at your company. How do people communicate when they don't meet?

Take your development teams as an example, if you have. Of course, they have meetings. But they also use tickets in Jira, comments on Confluence pages, and announce important changes in Teams or Slack channels. They create Merge Requests for code changes and discuss right next to the code. Yes, writing your thoughts down takes time. You also have to think a bit to make those communication channels useful.

An example from the practice: We used to have individual announcement channels per team. That didn’t work. People couldn’t keep track of that many channels. We now have a global announcement channel for technical announcements. It makes staying informed way more manageable.

Leaving aside the challenges: it allows people to work on their schedule. It gives them time to think.

For further examples, you can take a look at how Open Source projects communicate. Your company most likely makes use of some.

Evaluate your meetings for value

Now is time to evaluate your meetings for value.

You don’t have to let go of them just yet. Just evaluate those meetings for the value they bring and if that’s worth the disadvantages.

Ask yourself, for example, if status meetings are really worth your time. Remember that the time you communicate is rarely the time someone needs the information. Don’t forget to ask the attendees of your meetings.

If you have to prioritize one meeting over the other, favor those where synchronous communication really shines.

This usually applies to these three cases:

  1. Time dependencies: You need a decision or information to unblock yourself on a task on which you are working on.
  2. Building and strengthening relationships: Team building, socializing, or dealing with an interpersonal conflict
  3. Group creativity is desired, like in a collaborative brainstorming during a retrospective

The next logical step is to consider getting rid of some of the meetings.

Consider the following approach whenever you prepare a meeting. Ask yourself: is there an alternative to holding off a meeting? Could you send an announcement via mail and Teams? Could you get rid of a meeting with a bit more preparation? Can you at least shorten the meetings? Remember the tools you already have and make use of them. Be creative. A colleague recently used short videos to inform other teams about an initiative. No recording, just some funny sketches, a bit of text, and background music. It wasn’t his only way to communicate. Effective communication is multi-modal.

Think about your people, level up your written communication, and reduce the time spent in meetings. Before you look up, you might find yourself in the asynchronous communication game.

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Patrick Schönfeld

Written by

Trying to improve the chaos called work - one article at a time. Blogging on Medium and on my blog chaosverbesserer.de.

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