If management is about meetings – and certainly managers spend most of their life in meetings – then better management involves improving those meetings. In our new remote world, there’s plenty we can do to tweak them.
It probably starts with considering the heretical thought that just because meetings are second nature to managers they shouldn’t necessarily be for everyone else. Maybe meetings should be rare, or, at least, less common. A distinction has been made between managers and makers, folks like programmers, writers, accountant, and designers who need long stretches of isolated time to produce their wares, and can’t be effective with a schedule of interruptions. “A single meeting can blow a whole afternoon, by breaking it into two pieces each too small to do anything hard in,” notes essayist Paul Graham. Working remote has been helpful to many of your employees, giving them the isolation – at least when not cramped by family – to potentially get more things done, and you should re-examine your zest to bring them together for connection through meetings. Connection may be the last thing they need.
The remote workplace has highlighted the difference between asynchronous and synchronous work. Meetings are synchronous, bringing all of us virtually together at the same time. Luke Szyrmer, a new product consultant in Warsaw, Poland who has been a remote team member or leading remote teams for 11 years, argues meetings should only bring us together in that fashion for matters that are urgent and important.
Other highly important tasks that are not urgent can be handled through asynchronous communication, with people likely framing their arguments more effectively while pondering an issue at their computer rather than in the hurly-burly of a meeting. I worry about that leading to clashes of certitude in emails, Slack messages and online bulletin board statements that a meeting can soften, but perhaps including the requirement that people indicate on a scale of one to five how committed they are to what they are propounding can help. Matters of low importance to the group can be handled outside of meetings individually or eliminated. Status reports – which can be the lead item or even sole agenda for some organization’s meetings – are left under that schema to asynchronous reports shared with the group.
Online meetings can feel distanced or artificial and in his book Align Remotely Mr. Szyrmer explains the reason is when we Zoomed to a remote world last March the participant’s personal context changed to their home and the company context became much smaller by default. Before people were in the office, with colleagues around them, and they strolled to the meeting room, seeing the familiar art on the hallway walls and settling in at “the meeting table.” They were prepping for the meeting – taking on a meeting mindset. With those cues gone, you need to pull people into the topic at hand. “The more people you have in an online meeting, the more contexts you need to bring together, in order to host a useful discussion,” he writes.
Amazon has been doing that for years – remote or in person – by having everyone begin the meeting by reading a six-page memo framing the discussion. Alternatively, Mr. Szyrmer suggests preparing an online whiteboard workspace with relevant data and input for the meeting participants, so that everyone can look at it beforehand and work together on it during the session. Reading lists and pre-recorded presentations can also set the stage.
Some meetings are called for a specific purpose, where that approach works well. Indeed, he argues one of the fastest ways to determine whether you need a meeting is to clarify its purpose – the intended outcome for the specific session or meeting series. He prefers a metric people are hoping to improve as well as its target value. “After assembling everyone, open each meeting with a clear statement of purpose,” he advises. It’s part of establishing the workplace context.
A good meeting, he argues, is a structured collaboration. That can start with letting people create a real-time agenda of topics that they want to discuss within the meeting purpose, sharing those suggestions on a note-taking app like the free ideaboardz.com. That works particularly well for retrospectives. As you give up centralized control, people might become more engaged.
Design the meeting for interaction, as much as possible. Ask the silent person their opinion. Start a debate. Argue against your own points, to show that you are eager for the best possible decision and others may have a better angle to contribute. If the meeting involves a one-way presentation, limit it to 10 minutes at most.
The visual component of most meetings is usually the Hollywood Squares of participants or a large image of the speaker. He urges you to arrange a visual component that engages everyone, such as a whiteboard, a Word or Google document, or a Kanban board. People can see the decisions that have been made or ideas that are being proposed or collectively edit the statement being prepared, rather than preoccupying themselves with trying to figure out what that colourful new object of art is in their colleague’s living room.
We lost something when we went to remote meetings. Now is a good time to figure out how to replace it.
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