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How to Collaborate Effectively with Fewer Meetings (and Less Burnout)

Getting rid of all meetings is not the answer to better collaboration.

By Gustavo Razzetti

February 9, 2023

There’s a common misconception that collaboration needs to happen in real time. That’s why most companies default to in-person or Zoom video calls to address issues. They turned meetings into the default solution.

Getting rid of all meetings – as Shopify did – is not the answer either. Eliminating all meetings is a band-aid. We are creatures of habit: soon meetings will start filling people’s calendars before managers notice it.

Meetings are not the problem. Even the utmost advocates of remote or async-first have great respect for meetings. They just use them wisely.

Let go of the idea that your team needs to meet – to collaborate in real-time – to be effective. Encourage your team to explore the benefits of async collaboration. The aim isn't to get rid of synchronous interactions but to integrate both modes, as I explain in a previous post.

Turn Synchronous Collaboration into Asynchronous

Real-time collaboration should be reserved for complex, high-priority issues.

Avoid Zoom fatigue

Reduce the amount of synchronous collaboration by making communication more intentional. Limit video calls to team building, workshops, and brainstorming. Predetermine what needs to be discussed in real-time and what doesn’t need an immediate response.

Default to asynchronous communication without limiting yourself to email, text, or Slack. Explore other tools such as Loom videos, Almanac docs, Notion, or Pitch presentations.

Default to asynchronous tools

Prioritize asynchronous communication for teams that are spread across different time zones. Not only is this more inclusive, but it also helps document everything, making information available to everyone simultaneously.

Parabol CEO Jordan Husney told me his thoughts on asynchronous tools: “Just a short while ago, it was unfathomable for a team to consider giving up using email for internal communications and switching to a platform like Slack or Microsoft Teams. Companies should stop having meetings to broadcast information and gather feedback and instead use asynchronous tools to do the same.”  

Document everything

Create a single source of information that everyone can access and contribute to. You can start with a single company web page or repository in Notion, Google Docs, or software like Jira, GitLab, or GitHub. Everyone on the team should put time and effort into systematically documenting decisions, research, changes to processes, etc.

Documentation provides clarity and consistency, protecting people’s focused time. Rather than interrupting your colleagues for information, you can go directly to the single source of truth. Similarly, if there’s a conflict then people can direct colleagues to an already-documented agreement instead of relying on personal opinions.

Start small. It’s better to build the habit – one step at-a-time – than trying to document everything at once and get your team frustrated.  

Make Meetings a Last Resort

Meetings should be the exception in a hybrid workplace, not the norm.

Does it have to be a meeting?

Think twice whetn you’re planning a face-to-face event, a Zoom call, or synchronous brainstorming on Slack. Does it need to be a meeting? Explore all possibilities before hitting send on that calendar invite.

Reserve real-time interactions for meaningful work, not to share information. Replace information-sharing meetings with asynchronous collaboration, saving your team countless hours per week. Even all-hands and town halls can be substituted by threads or asynchronous Q&As.

Make participation optional

Who wants to attend a party where you’re forced to show up? Ax all mandatory meetings and instead allow people to decide for themselves if they will attend.

Make it okay for people to invoke the “law of two clicks.” If employees feel they aren't contributing or learning during a meeting, they can leave the Zoom call (the first click), and confirm their decision (the second click) so that they can put their time and effort into something more productive.

Giving people autonomy to choose whether to join a meeting or be somewhere else helps them regain control of their time. Rather than working on autopilot, they intentionally allocate effort and energy.

Be flexible

Having a regular meeting on the calendar doesn’t mean you always have to have it.

Spotify teams hold daily synchronous meetings, but members decide each day whether or not it will happen. The meeting agenda is flexible and built on the fly (versus predetermined) with input from each participant. If there’s nothing worth discussing, the team decides not to meet.

Block your calendar

Nir Eyal, author of Hooked, wrote, “If you don’t plan your day – according to your values and your schedule – someone else will plan it for you.”

Timeboxing is a powerful tool for asynchronous-first cultures. It’s about blocking different periods of time to work on other things, from focus work to casual collaboration

Time is our most precious asset: be intentional about how you use it.

Torben Friehe, CEO of Winback, agrees: “I schedule all my meetings in the afternoon so I can keep the beginning of my day free for focused work. In the past, I would take calls and thought it wasn’t a big deal, but after some time, I realized that it was a big deal – it hurt my performance. Now, I avoid calls in the morning at all costs.”

Optimize Synchronous Meetings

Eliminating all your meetings is not a solution. Get rid of unnecessary ones but optimize those that matter.

Keep meetings small

Successful collaboration requires increased participation. However, productivity has a tipping point beyond which the outcome suffers.

Bob Sutton, organizational psychologist and professor of Management Science and Engineering at Stanford University, says big teams suck. Smaller groups, on the other hand, build a sense of intimacy and safety that facilitates participation. Sutton believes seven (plus or minus two) is the ideal team size.

Amazon follows the two-pizza rule to limit the number of attendees: don’t invite more people than you can feed with two pizzas. Keeping meetings small improves collaboration and results.

Keep meetings short

Hour-long meetings are a thing of the past (or should be, anyway). Most meetings should last 15 or 25 minutes, depending on the topic. The five-minute fraction allows breathing time between meetings.

Involve people to co-create the agenda. Start a thread to share everyone’s ideas or questions about the issue that will be covered in the meeting. The more you prepare ahead, the more productive the real-time interaction will be.

Being more focused and assigning prework will help shorten existing meetings and save time and distractions. Anything that requires more than 50 minutes should be treated as a workshop, not a meeting.

Design your meetings for participation

Begin with the end in mind. Start with a clear vision of what a successful outcome looks like. Go beyond the agenda to clarify the desired destination and direction.

Have people prepare for the meeting. Prework is a critical step in maximizing live interactions. Define clear roles and let participants know what’s expected of them.

Consider the mindset: do you want to focus or flare? You don’t want a judgmental mindset during a brainstorming session, nor do you want people coming up with creative, new ideas just when the team has to make a decision.

Effective facilitation is vital to ensure equal participation, keep the team on track, and design effective conversations.

Integrate Synchronous and Asynchronous Collaboration

Becoming async-first is not about eliminating all real-time interactions but to integrate the benefits of both synchronous and async collaboration.

Level the playing field

For synchronous meetings, create a space where those who can’t attend in person can send their ideas or comments, either recorded via video or in text format, so everyone can participate.

Dr. Tasha Eurich recommends providing options for interaction as introverted people may feel safer asking questions via chat than speaking on video calls.

Create a content sequence

In the in-office world, companies have relied heavily on one-time presentations to share new plans or strategies. Now, in a remote environment, they need to create sequences of smaller doses of content in different formats that people can consume in their own time.

Moreover, they must become obsessive about communication to prevent misunderstandings. This includes providing context that helps people understand new information and repeating it so that it isn’t forgotten.

At Wingback, leaders share live video quarterly updates for all employees which are also recorded for those who can’t attend. They have a follow-up sequence that includes a visual version on Jira, a shorter video, and a written version. Every piece of content provides a different angle and allows employees to choose the format that best suits their preferences.

Establish an in-person connection cadence

Slack has a digital-first approach. Slack (the app) is the new headquarters. It’s the primary source of communication and information, leveling the playing field for all employees.

However, digital-first doesn’t mean “never in person.” Most teams at Slack still have large gatherings once a quarter to bring everyone together. The purpose is to spend a couple of days planning in person and to go out for a meal – nothing replaces the value of eating together.

Some smaller teams at Slack have monthly or weekly in-person meetings, depending on each team’s agreement. The sales team meets more frequently than others so junior salespeople can be coached by and learn from senior salespeople.

Create a continuous experience

Synchronous and asynchronous modes aren’t opposites; they’re more like two sides of the same coin. They need to be integrated and considered as parts of a whole.

At Microsoft Europe, the team does prework before getting together, including crafting the agenda and meeting flow. They then meet synchronously to discuss the topics and make decisions. After the meeting, each team member takes care of their part and informs each other using MS Teams chat. Unless necessary, they don’t regroup until it’s time to complete the project.

Make synchronous content asynchronous

Make sure people are not excluded from live company events. Record meetings so everyone can watch them later if they cannot attend synchronously. Instead of having a meeting, use Loom and record a quick video to share your ideas with your team. Team members can provide feedback after watching it.

Slack records all-hands meetings for people to watch when it’s convenient, given their time zone and when they have time to digest the presentation properly. Employees can then (asynchronously) ask questions using the Ask Me Anything channel.

Watch out for exclusion

Most executives who want to return fully or almost fully to the office are senior leaders, male, white, and without children at home. In contrast, minority groups and working parents want to work mostly from home. This disconnect comes with a cost: hurting diversity.

Flexibility has played a crucial role in helping Spotify, Allstate, Airbnb, and many others become more diverse. A work-from-anywhere policy made hiring and promoting female, Black, and Hispanic workers easier.

Remote work also offers disabled people the chance to work from home, which provides greater accessibility, privacy, and cost benefits. It has also helped rural workers access executive positions without having to relocate.

Continuing to offer flexibility is key but proximity bias could create a divide, especially if minorities spend more time working remotely than in person.

Consider using technology that allows everyone to participate equally. Have a facilitator – ideally, someone not in the room – invite those joining remotely to speak first.

Level the playing field by having everyone join from their computer, including those at the office. Institute a practice of hand-raising (virtually or physically) to request their turn to speak. Monitor inclusion by having regular conversations and identifying issues before they become a problem.

Rethink Collaboration in a Hybrid Workplace

Collaboration does not need to happen in real time – there are many other ways for people to exchange information, make decisions, and solve problems.

A successful hybrid workplace requires rethinking how teams collaborate and communicate. Default to async should be the goal, but that doesn’t mean getting rid of all synchronous forms of communication.

Meeting time should be used for meaningful team interactions. Optimize real-time collaboration by reducing the duration and size of your meetings. Documentation is vital to bridge asynchronous and synchronous communication.

Article by Gustavo Razzetti, CEO of Fearless Culture

Gustavo facilitates courageous conversations that drive culture transformation. He is a sought-after speaker, culture consultant, and best-selling author of the book Remote, Not Distant.

Razzetti is also the creator of the Culture Design Canvas – a visual and practical method for intentionally designing workplace culture. His insights were featured in Psychology Today, The New York Times, Forbes, and BBC.

What do you think?



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