The case for eliminating (most) meetings & how

There are four months left in the year and, as incredulous as it feels, it is time to think of what work would look like in 2022. As organizations continue planning to ‘return to work’ for what’s likely the 13th month running, the evidence on burnout is overwhelming. A study by the University of Chicago shows employees worked 30% more than normal during the shutdown and Microsoft’s New Future of Work report has an entire section dedicated on how meeting load during the pandemic increased not only in volume but also spread over longer hours. Usage of Employee Assistance Programs (EAP) went up; so did resignations, citing work-life balance and burnout. Stanford established video calls were making us tired; and we already know that meetings hinder uninterrupted blocks of time and achieving a state of flow – a critical requirement to save ourselves from languishing. As much as I’ve advocated for the preservation of meetings in my previous post, it is time we took inspiration from TheSoul Publishing and figure how to deal with meetings in the ‘now normal’.

If burnout isn’t reason enough to rethink meetings, know that with an increasing desire to work from anywhere in the world, teams will now be more distributed than ever. Distributed time zones create scheduling challenges given low overlap in working hours. Even within the same time zone, individual working hour preferences have already begun adding strain to calendars. No matter how we worked before, today we have a more compelling reason than ever to rethink how communication flows within an organization.

Let’s start with meetings. There are essentially three kinds of meetings that exist:

Meetings that MUST be eliminated: For the longest time, organizations have been attempting to transition tribal knowledge from inside the head of employees into something that lasts long after the employee has left the organization or forgotten it. In parallel, there are endless ongoing attempts to share information and adopt radical transparency in ways that do not add meeting tax. Unfortunately, I am yet to discover practices that have worked. Many organizations put in place temporary solutions, often relying heavily on knowledge sharing meetings followed by easily lost documents and portals that exist in isolation. When one mandates the elimination of information sharing, alignment and reporting meetings, the natural fear is that something will break. However, with the right mechanisms in place, it is possible to eliminate these meetings by pushing these to asynchronous conversations, thereby embracing increased productivity, radical transparency and organized storage of information. What is important is that one can and should live without these meetings.  

Meetings that CAN be eliminated: Some alignment meetings need real-time conversation and persuasion via emotions. Others need facts and can be easily closed (again) asynchronously. One does not need to bring in ten people into a room nor schedule waterfall meetings to reach a decision. By pushing decision making down the hierarchy and enabling them to take place via email, chats, etc., one can largely reduce the meeting tax on those involved. The same goes with Townhall meetings. Went the world went virtual, Townhalls transformed into pre-recorded videos with transcripts that were viewed in smaller groups at a time convenient to the viewer vs the presenter. These are two examples of meetings that can be eliminated. When one looks across the board, I can guarantee you will find more that do not need to exist.

Meetings that must remain: There are some meetings that absolutely must remain. It is impossible to build teams and bonds via machines. One must play silly games online, share a few laughs, stories and jokes. One must check in with how team members are doing. Teams must innovate together via chance conversations and intentional brainstorming. If you are looking for a tiny guide on which meetings must exist, head to the previous post.

What do we replace meetings with?

I briefly referred to asynchronous conversations while describing the classification of meetings. Asynchronous communication is when you send a message without expecting an immediate response. There’s no requirement to be engaged in the conversation at exactly the same time. These are our current state emails and chat messages. Yet, successful execution of asynchronous conversation involves more than just a strong tech stack. It requires a culture that supports the use of asynchronous communication, thus helping it to achieve intended benefits. Asynchronous communication is not sending an email followed by a chat message within five minutes, followed by a phone call within the next five. It is understanding and respecting work schedules, being able to identify and eliminate artificial urgency. As I re-read this paragraph, I understand that I’ve riddled it with jargons so let’s parse through the benefits of asynchronous conversations, followed by the pre-requisites of this being successful and close with a look at why we aren’t there yet.

The case for asynchronous meetings

Asynchronous conversations:

  • Eliminates the pressure of immediate response, the pressure to attend meetings at hours inconvenient to the intended participants. As teams grow increasingly global and distributed, this not only helps one maintain working hours that suit individuals best but also reduces the number of meetings.
  • Increases uninterrupted blocks of time available, thereby increasing productivity.  
  • Helps tackle burnout as a result of point 1 & 2.
  • Improves documentation, which in turn leads to increased transparency, as one is not dependent on others to access required information.
  • Also improves the quality of decision making, as one has time to process multiple sources of information and is not pressurized to reactive immediately or impulsively.

Pre-conditions to move to an asynchronous first world:

Thankfully, the pre-conditions to move to an asynchronous first world aren’t many. They pivot around two core pillars–a robust tech stack and the culture to support the shift.

The right tech stack not only helps enable asynchronous conversations but also (a) helps file conversations in a way that is easy to search, store and retrieve, (b) pulls together conversations from the many platforms into one e.g. emails, chats (WhatsApp, internal communicators), online document storage etc. and (c) allows for appropriate access control balancing transparency and privacy., for example, helps bundle all conversations into one place, thereby reducing switching tax and the friction to move to asynchronous. When organizations dive deep into how technology can support seamless communication, one doesn’t need to jump straight into Facebook’s metaverse. Smaller, less expensive alternates exist. The only thing required is exploring the right tech stack and not leaving the decision in the hands of the Chief Technology Officer (CTO) alone.

One could, however, have the best tech stack in the world and watch it shrivel away into oblivion due to zero adoption. Culture does eat strategy for breakfast. It will take years of effort to transition into the ideal synchronous-asynchronous balance. The trick is to start small and create waves both from top-down and bottom-up. Start by moving conversations off the calendar and on to team chat windows. Add fun hashtags to help easy search, switch from emails to chat and ensure reports are reviewed offline to enable shorter meetings. Create tenets, guidelines and long complicated SOPs on how to set meetings. Driving cultural change is much harder than finding a supporting tech stack, but definitely the one with disproportionate results. If you focus on building the right culture, people will find the tech stack to move to.

So why haven’t we?

Between not having thought intentionally about moving to asynchronous and having the pre-requisites in place, there are other reasons meetings and quick calls dominate preference. This is how we’ve always gotten work done in the past. Just as the world of virtual work is new and fraught with discoveries, so is moving to conversations without immediate responses. Asynchronous conversations have their downsides. They often feel impersonal, are easy to misinterpret (both tone and meaning) and don’t always communicate complete context, often indexing on brevity. A 500 word chat message or a 3-page email is bound to get shoved into the corner. Asynchronous messages also include voice messages, albeit being far less common. However, even these fail when one really needs to be convinced of an issue. The key is to differentiate and guide the organization towards the right balance.

The concept of asynchronous communication isn’t new, nor are the benefits unknown. Yes, live conversations are always better and more effective for herding the cats to drive change, arrive at difficult decisions and creating bonds, yet not everything can be and should be a live conversation. When you begin trimming the fat, you realize how much valuable time re-appears. All we need now is a catchy alternate name to asynchronous and a TikTok crusade to set the trend on fire. Agree?  


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