On Meetings

Since everyone works from home now, I hear a lot of the same complaint about the proliferation of online meetings. A lot of people I know seem to have their calendars overwhelmed by one kind of meeting or another. This situation is invariably described as preventing them from getting work done. Let’s be clear about one thing:

Meetings count as “work.”

If the workdays of you and your colleagues are dominated by meetings, it is because your organization’s leadership and, ultimately, your organization’s culture have decided this is acceptable. Meetings, of course, aren’t the only kind of work we do. That other work can suffer or slip if schedules have too many meetings or if meetings are scheduled in a way to prevent contiguous blocks of time for deep work. So what can be done about this? That depends on who you are.

Leadership: It starts here. Make sure the meetings you schedule are 1) absolutely necessary, 2) as short as can be, 3) scheduled in a way that leaves work time available for everyone else. Also, follow the basic rules of meetings. Set an agenda and send it out ahead of time. If there are items that participants need to be familiar with, make them available with sufficient advanced notice that they can be consumed and understood. If participants are expected to have certain information, be explicit about what that is. For recurring meetings, make sure you optimize the recurrence schedule. Do your 1:1 meetings really need to be weekly? Can you combine some meetings? Leadership sets the tone for everyone else, so it’s important that leadership doesn’t add to the “meeting problem” but instead offers a way forward to solving it.

Directors/Managers/Team Leads: You want to pay attention to similar things as leadership. Make sure your meetings are necessary, as short as possible, as infrequent as can be. Do your standups really need to be daily, or can every other day suffice? (I know this question is tantamount to heresy.) Again, do as much pre-preparation and pre-communication as you can.

Individual contributor: You play a huge role in solving this problem. In my experience, most people will provide project time estimates based on the assumption of a full day of work. That can result in something like “I can have that done next Thursday.” With your days full of meetings, next Thursday comes and goes and it looks like the schedule is slipping. In reality, leadership is prioritizing meetings over execution. If you know the average amount of time you spend in meetings and factor that in, then your response may be “I’ll have that three weeks from next Thursday.” If that response is perceived as unacceptable, then there’s a discussion to be had about the organization’s true priorities.

That can appear as if I am placing most of the responsibility on the individual contributor, but the vast majority of the responsibility belongs to leadership. As a leader, you can accept longer timelines or you can provide more time for execution by reducing meetings. It is never acceptable to load your team up with meetings and expect them to put in “hero hours” to hit the timelines that you have rendered unrealistic.

The tendency toward excessive virtual meetings is the remote-work equivalent of “walking the bullpen” and an indication that, though we are now all dispersed, working from home, and producing, many in leadership have not shifted to a trust mindset. We’re still not all the way through this transition and there remains a serious shakeout in leadership and management to occur in order to complete it.