Remote Work - Do you need more meetings

You’re Working Remotely. Do You Need More Meetings?

March 17, 2020

Zarvana is a fully remote team, spanning three continents. Founder and CEO Matt Plummer has spent the last 3.5 years working remotely, first at strategy consultancy, The Bridgespan Group, and then Zarvana.

With the sudden move to remote work for many across the country and world, the natural question is do you need to increase meetings to compensate for the lack of unplanned or spontaneously planned meetups that typically happen in the office.

Before doing so, you should consider the massive amount of time you already spend in meetings. According to software provider, Atlassian, meetings already consume 3.1 hours per day. For managers and leaders, it’s even more, occupying around 60 percent of their time each day. Depending on the study, anywhere from one-sixth to half of this time takes place in unscheduled meetings.

To make matters worse, the Atlassian survey cited above found that people rate half of meetings as unproductive. So, while your instinct to add meetings to fill the gap left by office meetups makes sense, this temporary period of remote work could offer a unique opportunity to right-size your time spent in meetings.

Maybe you have recognized this opportunity as well, but you are concerned that without more meetings, you or your team members will drift into isolation and even mild depression. Your concerns are valid. A wide body of research shows that remote workers struggle with isolation to the point that some have opted to return to their offices despite enjoying increased productivity and satisfaction with their jobs while at home. We’ll discuss how to combat social isolation while working remotely in a forthcoming article. Until then, you can likely agree that arbitrarily adding meetings to your calendar is not the best way to tackle this complex challenge.

Remote Work Deciding Principles for When to Have Meetings

To right-size the time you spend in meetings, it’s helpful to start by asking yourself these three questions about a potential meeting:  

Would the meeting involve more than 10 people?

If “yes,” then you should consider another mode of communication or schedule an extended period of time for your meeting. As Google found in its research on what makes teams successful, you want everyone in a meeting to speak for roughly the same amount of time. Unless you have a very long meeting, this becomes close to impossible with more than 10 people.

Would the meeting involve more discussion or presentation?

There was a time – long ago – when the presentation of information needed to happen in person in real-time, but today, that is largely a waste of people’s time. In the same way that education has experimented with the reverse classroom where students watch lectures at home and then discuss them during class, meetings should be focused on discussion. That is the point of getting everyone together at the same time: to talk back and forth. If you don’t expect much discussion, consider an alternative mode of communication.

Would the content shared in the meeting be highly complex?

It is challenging to follow a long, convoluted email chain. Complexity can be difficult to make sense of in written communication, particularly if those written responses are short, stream of conscious phrases. Understanding complex topics almost always requires dialogue, which, per the previous point, is why complex topics are often best handled in meetings. However, increased capabilities around video/screen-sharing have made this less true.

To summarize, meetings that would be too large, contain too much presentation, or involve topics or discussions that are easy for everyone to understand can often be skipped in favor of alternative forms of communication.

Are Meetings Really that Counterproductive?

You may be thinking that this feels like an overly aggressive anti-meeting perspective. However, this is not our opinion alone. Most professionals feel that most meetings are unproductive and most managers are frustrated that they spend so much time in meetings that they don’t have any time to do their most important work.

Beyond these low ratings of meetings, meetings are costly by their very nature and even more costly because most professionals don’t prepare for and lead them effectively. Here are some of the costs caused by meetings:

  • Meetings take time to schedule.
  • Meetings force you to do work (i.e., the meeting) at a certain time rather than when you would like to do it.
  • Any meeting with more than two people is likely to contain periods that are irrelevant or less relevant to some of the attendees. A study by 3M found that 33% of meeting participants feel they have little to no influence over the outcome of the meeting.
  • Only 60% of meetings contain all relevant people, creating complicated follow-up work.
  • Most meetings take longer than they need to because either they get off subject (the most commonly reported complaint in this study) or they are scheduled for too long a duration and expand to fill the time.

This doesn’t mean that all meetings are a waste. It’s just that you’re time in them needs to be right-sized. In one survey, 45% of senior executives said that their employees would be more productive if meetings were banned at least one day a week. The principles above are purposefully designed to reduce the number of meetings you attend.

What Type of Meetings to Have & to Cancel

After considering the general principles listed above, you then want to determine the objective of the meeting in order to know if it is necessary. Once you do, you can more easily determine what type of meeting it will be. MeetingSift proposes that there are 6 main types of meetings that happen on a regular basis.

Here is some simple guidance around whether to have meetings of each type:

Status Update Meetings

The key determinant for these types of meetings is: Is there going to be a discussion? If the vast majority of the meeting (90% or more) is the presentation of updates without discussion, then it would be more efficient to have team members share their updates in a shared document, application, or even video by a certain time each week or day. If you’re worried that others won’t read or watch the updates if they aren’t forced to attend the live meeting, then you may want to delay this change until you’ve created a strong enough culture around the importance of viewing those updates.

Information Sharing Meetings

Skip unless there is a high degree of complexity in what is going to be shared such that you expect an ample question and answer period.

Decision-Making Meetings

If there is more than one decision-maker, you should have a meeting with all the decision-makers. If even one can’t attend, then it’s usually best to reschedule. If there is only one decision-maker, then you should be able to skip the meeting. However, if the decision-maker has a different opinion than you, you’ll want to make your case in real-time via video conference so you can read the person’s body language and adjust your conversation accordingly.

Problem-Solving Meetings

Meet. Try to define the problem as clearly as possible before the meeting so that you can invite only the relevant people to attend.

Innovation Meetings

Meet, but have people do some brainstorming work beforehand. Research shows that people generate more ideas and more creative individually than in groups. You want attendees to bring forth diverse perspectives, which may mean that you uninvite people who represent the same points of view in order to keep numbers down.

Team Building Meetings

Meet. And plan in advance. Connection and community don’t form just by getting people in the same space – whether that be a physical or virtual space.

If you’ve been pushed into remote work by the coronavirus, the next few weeks or months may represent a unique, time-limited opportunity to right-size the time you spend in meetings. Avoid the urge to schedule more meetings and instead, use these principles and meeting type guidance to get back some of the time you’ve been experiencing as unproductive in meetings.

If you’re still heading into the office or remote work is your norm, it’s never too late to apply these principles.