Meetings and Coronavirus-induced WFH

Before COVID-19, many executives easily dismissed the benefits of a remote work culture, because “in person just works better.” Now that we’re over half a year into this forced experiment, it’s time to recognize an anti-pattern: do not attempt to directly replace in-person interactions with video calls. Instead: embrace the cultural changes needed to make the most of the many benefits of working from home.

The anti-pattern goes something like this:

  • Pre-Coronavirus, in-person meetings were a favored form of collaboration for a team.
  • The team switches to remote work, but misses the high-bandwidth nature of in-person meetings.
  • In-person meetings are replaced one for one with video calls. Ad-hoc hallway conversations start to appear on the calendar as regular one-on-ones.
  • As most individuals aren’t experienced enough with remote work to know how to run an effective video meeting, the goals of the meeting aren’t accomplished during the time slot, which begets another meeting.

Suddenly, you’re stuck with a checkerboard of a calendar filled with 30-60 minute meetings and not enough hours in the day to execute. Over time, the meetings themselves begin to be confused as the work, which pathologically lowers overall delivery.

If you find yourself in this predicament, here’s what I’d suggest:

  • Block off chunks of time to get real work done. I try to find at least three 2-3 hour blocks per week, and stick to them. We’re used to higher throughput interactions, and now the quality of the interactions are lower in throughput, requiring us to spend more time in meetings. That leaves less time to execute and drive the team forward. Remember: Meetings aren’t the work!
  • If you’re running a meeting, set expectations early and reinforce them throughout the meeting. Whats the objective? What’s our agenda? Are we straying from it? Cut the conversation off! Park off-topic discussion for another time. Team just can’t focus? End the meeting! Send an email requesting pre-work/pre-read materials, and reset the meeting to a time when it will be complete.
  • If you’re not running the meeting, politely encourage the group to stay on topic. If the team is spinning in circles, don’t be afraid to rein it in by sharing your screen as you proactively take notes and highlight action items. Actively moderating meetings will help to focus people on the outcome.
  • Keep attendee counts to a minimum. The larger the meeting, the higher the cost of coordination, the greater the opportunity cost of the meeting, the more disruptive that scheduling will be on overall flow, the later the meeting is likely to start, and the less impactful the discussion is likely to be. Two pizza teams are a useful rule of thumb.
  • Remind those around you that meetings are more expensive than they might appreciate. That expense isn’t just in the monetary cost of the meeting time, it’s in the opportunity cost that time could be spent on execution, the impact that interruptions have on productivity and flow, and the negative impact on team morale. In other settings, wasting someone’s time can be seen as disrespectful, but somehow in the context of internal meetings it has become acceptable. Talking about these costs explicitly and in personal terms can make them less abstract and easier to internalize.
  • Get into the habit of writing more. Clear writing forces clear thinking, which in turn creates for better execution. Writing is also naturally asynchronous, which is well suited for distributed teams.

Remember: always keep the end goal in mind. Is the purpose to meet, or to drive us forward? If it’s the former: meeting canceled. If it’s the latter: how do we make the most of this precious time?

The best way to motivate change is by leading by example.
Do the work. Make your meetings effective.