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How to meet less and do more
Attitudes towards meetings have evolved beyond a standard trendline in the last few years. From starting out as a useful moment for knowledge transfer, the meeting has quickly descended into one of the most unproductive – yet most common – moments in the work day.
Introduce a pandemic, more folk working from home and greater financial pressure, and finally we have the recipe for a meeting revolution. And after a year+ of remote work, our team (and I personally) are now crystal-clear on how meetings can very quickly become a terrible use of time.
Before we jump in, a disclaimer: this isn’t another rant bashing the meeting. I’m all too aware that meetings exist because we enable them and, more importantly, poor meetings only occur because we allow them to. What’s more, I believe it’s entirely possible for the working world to co-exist in harmony with team gatherings meetings in some way, shape, or form – provided we understand how to make them productive, as opposed to perfunctory.
What I’m sounding here is a stark alarm for a change in mindset. A shared mindset is the difference between a meeting-mad team and a productive growth machine. It’s also precisely how our team unlocked new levels of productivity, growth and team member satisfaction.
For context: I lead a small team of seven full-time, one part-time and four freelance team members. Prior to this review, we would host or attend an average of ~40hrs meetings per week between us.
The real cost of meetings (spoiler alert: it’s more than time)
Most working folk observe a 40hr week, which boils down to approximately 20-30hrs of productive work at 75% utilisation.
In reality, many of us will trade personal time and work beyond the 40hours thinking it will get us further ahead or up to speed.
And a huge portion of that time we’ve invested?
It’s unproductive. Wasted. Completely gone down the drain. Somehow, even after pouring in all of those hours, we’re constantly playing catch up – day in and day out.
Believe me: I’ve been there. Before the pandemic, I tried to optimise work productivity in n~ different ways, from restructuring my day/week, theming work, committing to time blocks and planning further in advance. But the struggle to fill my commitments was still real – leaving me to ponder if it was:
a) our resourcing
b) our system, or
c) our business model.
Ultimately, this took a toll on my mental health, my family and the team. I realised if I was unable to get this right, it wasn’t just the business that suffered. It was me, and everyone around me.
When the pandemic hit and we all started working from home, the problem became abundantly clear.
It was the time spent in meetings.
The problem with meetings
Here are just a few problems our team encountered with meetings (and this list is by no means exhaustive):
They’re a sub-optimal use of time.
They are incredibly draining, both mentally and physically.
They foster sloppy habits around communication (mostly of the written variety).
There’s ambiguity with direction and responsibility.
They unfairly favour certain personality types.
They induce gift giving and scope creep.
They create a false sense of accountability.
They initiate false deadlines, which results in rushing – often for no reason .
But aren’t meetings status quo?
Like anything that’s been ingrained into our habits, a certain mindset shift needs to occur before we can make a change.
That mindset shift boils down to a simple concept: that not all meetings are meaningful. In fact, very few are.
When I realised this, that’s where the real change happened.
Let me preface this by saying: I used to mistake meetings for being the status quo as well. I’m as guilty as anyone of “locking in some time in the diary” – but as a manager of a team, I knew something had to give.
See, I’d attempted to be honest with team or client meetings in the past. I’d reviewed, cancelled and rejigged my diary on a few occasions and I still had issues with time. The problem was that myself and my team members still had a number of planned and unplanned meetings that would persist. As much as I thought these meetings were essential, it took a complete mindset shift (and physical shift) to see they weren’t.
So, what is a meaningful meeting?
Let’s be clear: Verbal communication is still essential amongst team members and external stakeholders. But what we have to get better at is making the conversation meaningful, rather than manufactured.
What makes a meaningful meeting?
In my eyes, a meaningful meeting should be verbal communication that directly supports written communication – whether it be a request for proposal, brief, project plan or status update. The meeting should only occur once the document has been created, and all stakeholders have reviewed the document.
This is what our team calls a ‘clarifying conversation’, and it should unlock an attendee’s perspectives and understanding beyond what could’ve been achieved by written communication alone.
This mindset shift looks to enforce that documentation is always prepared prior to a meeting. It also reinforces the need to move beyond standardised meeting etiquette and towards a well-defined, robust meeting standard.
For example, if a team member requests a meeting, they become the owner of the meeting and is responsible for preparing questions, taking notes and sharing action points post-meeting. Seniority does NOT alter this rule.
This means that every meeting should be connected to a document, detailed note or agenda that’s related to a body of work, either that’s in planning or already underway. Alongside documentation, a clear objective should be set for every meeting.
No doc, no meeting.
No agenda, no meeting.
No objective, no meeting.
No owner, no meeting.
It sounds like we’re making it hard to call meetings.
You’re right. Meaningful meetings require meaningful consideration – not just flicking an invite over.
What did we do with our existing meetings?
As I mentioned earlier, my team and I were in ~40hrs of meetings per week. I’ll be honest: whittling it down wasn’t easy. But in hindsight, it was by far the best decision we made for our productivity and our team.
Here’s the process we went through to trim the fat.
First, we thought about which meetings could and should be upheld with written communication. Interestingly, after this audit, I realised I too had fallen into the meeting wasteland of thinking they were necessary only to realise they really weren’t. Good riddance.
Removing our Weekly Ops Huddle returned 7hrs per week of team time.
Deleting project WIPs returned a massive 20hrs per week of team time.
That’s not to say we didn’t keep some of the meetings on this list. But each meeting that was kept was deliberate – and most importantly, the mindset had shifted.
The meetings we did keep:
Social team dinner every month. Face to face time is important. Team and relationship-building is still relevant, even if face-to-face meetings are not.
All Hands meeting, held monthly to deliver team-wide announcements, recognition and updates.
Brainstorm session each month. We still like to whiteboard or strategise once per month. It must still be prefaced by a brief or agenda.
Team member/Manager 1:1s check-ins each fortnight, but these must always be prefaced by a written summary of where you’re at and what you need help with. Not all feelings need to be stated, though most team members agreed that by taking the time to write it out, it helped them rationalise and communicate their aspirations and challenges.
One more thing: Informal open chats still have a place, whether it be in person or through virtual hangs. We also encourage meetings to start with hellos and how are yous before ripping into the purpose, goal or problem to solve.
How to avoid the trap of calling a meeting
It’s easy to implement a company-wide meeting revolution, only to slowly but surely fall back into old habits.
The best way to counteract this?
Build new habits.
Here’s how we helped our team establish the right habits and ensure they were committing to the process before calling a meeting:
Read (take in),
If you complete the first three, you can call a meeting at step 4 below – followed by one more step afterwards:
Read (take in),
Write (reverse brief),
You can also see from the above that no body of work or project commences with a meeting. Repeat: none.
We’ve also embraced video. If you feel the need to verbalise your thoughts, try jumping on a (short) video to get it out. Sometimes I found I wouldn’t even send the video, but it helped to form my thoughts to respond in writing more effectively.
This isn’t just for internal meetings – it includes your customer or client. If one of our customers wants to engage our team, they have to submit a brief or detailed written communication. We don’t scribe for anyone who isn’t prepared to scribe for themselves.
Our golden rules for meetings:
With a document in hand and pre-prepared questions to guide your conversation, it should be more meaningful, succinct and impactful for all attendees.
When in doubt, sit it out. If you can’t contribute directly to the meeting agenda, opt out and catch the recap – or submit points to the agenda prior.
Always say hello, exchange greetings and be human. Thank people for their time.
Be respectful, clarify and set expectations. This can be helped by starting each meeting with saying clearly ‘the purpose of this meeting is…’ or ‘the problem we’re trying to solve is…’.
Remember if you called the meeting: you’re preparing the questions, taking notes and sharing the recap/action points.
Being punctual and respectful of time. Starting and ending on time is critical to healthy conversations.
Be mindful of length. When someone reserves an hour, it makes me instantly wonder “why?” Meeting lengths should be from 10 to 30mins TOPS. If you’re using Google Calendar update your default meeting to 15mins and enable speedy meetings.
Be prepared to take certain discussions or topics back online (in writing). To clarify: taking things ‘offline’ is the meeting, as I am ‘off’ my focus.
While you’re in a call, don’t succumb to the temptation to stray on to other topics at the end (ie ‘oh, while I have you’) 😡 It adds more time, and is completely unfair as you’re often blindsiding the other person.
Beyond the meeting mindset shift
Full disclosure: we did attempt a similar evolution some time back. The difference between this time and last time is that we realised there’s a baseline criteria to make this work. This includes:
1. A system
You have defined, and work within, a repeatable set of processes or behaviours. By doing so, you should naturally alleviate the need for meetings. A system will also foster stronger aligned habits across a team.
2. A communication standard including repeatable documents
The team should align and rally around an agreed standard and method of communication. The system should have a repeatable set of documents to uphold flow and alignment.
3. Team members capable of written communication
This requires commitment across the team – otherwise a life of unproductive meetings will be hard to escape. Check out these folk who are great sources of inspiration and helped foster my own habits towards writing.
If you’ve ticked these off, it’s time to rip the band aid.
Cancel ALL meetings.
Just the sheer thought of this may cause the anxiety to creep up, but do it! Start afresh, wipe the slate, and start with the why and objective of any meeting. Most of all, ask whether the information exchanged within could be achieved via written communication.
Once you agree as a team and have the process ironed out, develop a communication plan to any internal and external stakeholders.
If you feel anxious, it’s completely natural – but don’t forget the real reason behind your commitment. Remember: the end goal is to liberate yourself and your team of non-essential meetings.
And if it doesn’t work? Well, you can always call a meeting when required. It’s not like you can’t return to old habits (though I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised).
In addition, by cutting out the unnecessary meetings, we introduced another pattern to our work: true freedom in how we structure our work day.
See, ‘flexible work hours’ don’t really work when you have to be online when everyone else is also online. By ditching meetings, we finally broke the shackles on being able to actually do flexible hours in a meaningful way and not some pseudo, token ‘we’re flexible’ way.
Our typical day, post-meeting revolution
I personally do a 5:30-7am period as it’s when my brain is at its best. This is all about writing.
Notify folks when you’re going to be online. It allows other team members to align with you. Typically, most team members pick up from 8am through to 9:30am.
The first 30mins is admin/setup. You could sneak in a clarifying conversation here if needed, BUT we encourage team members to avoid it as it can really screw with your morning zen.
The next 90mins for our team is deep work.
Break, air, coffee, reset is super important.
The second 90mins is deep work again.
Side note: We call all of this above period “Maker Mornings”, and we guard it like it’s sacred.
It’s time for LUNCH – and that means eating well, replenishing the energy, getting fresh air, and stretching the legs. I started to take photos of my lunch as a way to stay accountable and, as much as I hate this, it made me lead by example. I found on meeting-heavy days, I would eat poorly and worse, I would eat at my desk.
Before our hiatus from meetings, we called post lunch “Meeting Midday”. This still remains relevant for clarifying, and sets an agreed zone for synchronous conversations.
Once that’s clear, it’s back into more “Maker” time in another 90min deep work period.
Come ~3pm, most folks are starting to think about their energy/concentration levels. I’ve started replacing a second coffee with ashwagandha which has made a huge difference with clarity and wrapping the day with some mental peace and closure.
I’m then ready to tackle some “Afternoon Admin” to update my team members before wrapping up.
If I feel my written comms could do with extended detail or supporting handoff, I will record a quick asynchronous video (via Loom). I’ll try to keep to less than 3-4mins and also include TB;WL (“too busy; watch later”) bullet points, so the recipient can get the highlights and come back to read or watch the handoff video in full when it suits.
Before we made the switch to no meetings, I previously worked until 5pm most nights before trying HARD to switch off my work brain and switch into family mode.
Where to from here?
Remember: it’s okay to say no. Offer your team mates guidance, even if they’re more senior than you. Everyone should be empowered and enabled to protect their time. No one's time is more valuable – that’s just their ego speaking.
Once I realised my day, night and life deserved better the decision to cast aside meetings wasn’t a difficult decision.
A few helpful resources:
Writing is thinking – so write it out, distill and give yourself the time to fully consider not just what you’re trying to communicate, as well as what you’re asking of someone else.
Observe the say:do ratio. Saying no is critical here.
The one thing prioritisation is huge in the scheme of life, and to be able to identify moments that require a meeting.
David Cancel, CEO of Drift, shares his view on meetings.
Blake Emal offers his two cents on meetings with some great tips.
All in all, the eradication of meetings enables teammates to get back some time to focus on meaningful work, instead of just talking about doing it.
Do it, and let me know how it goes via email[at]andytwomey.com. If you’re already down this path, I am always keen to hear about your learnings. Same email address ☝️