The relentlessness of remote meetings in the Covid-19 era must stop

The relentlessness of remote meetings in the Covid-19 era must stop
Image: Hugo
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There has been no shortage of advice on how best to work from home in these unprecedented times. The silver lining is the acceleration of the future of work. Millions of businesses that may have otherwise been years away from transforming to remote work are now learning new ways of working in leaps and bounds.

As a co-founder of Hugo, a maker of connected meeting notes software, my team and I keep a finger on the pulse of what our customers are experiencing in this shift. A few weeks in, the data shows that while teams are quickly adapting to working from home, the adjustment to meeting from home hasn’t been quite as seamless.

The surprising numbers

There are some unexpected trends amongst the many thousands of calendar events we have analyzed over the last few weeks that show the widespread challenges workers encounter when swapping the conference room for the living room. For starters, there’s still no hesitation to meet.

When Covid-19 hit, and those who could work from home quickly began doing so, we expected to see a rapid drop-off in the number of meetings. As business slows down, as sales pipelines dry up, and as in-person meetings are canceled, it’s only logical that people would be having fewer meetings for the foreseeable future.

It was surprising, then, to see there’s been no change in the average number of meetings per week. Workers have meetings at least as often as they did a few months ago—it’s business as usual according to the data.

This doesn’t add up. How could meeting volume not decrease while we’re consumed with a world-altering situation, and in-person meetings are all but banned?

The answer is surprisingly simple. As external meetings (with customers, partners, vendors, etc.) diminish, workers have been quick to fill that time with an increase in internal meetings with teammates. We have ultimately replaced canceled external meetings with as many new internal team meetings.

Teams are trying to achieve alignment through more meetings

It’s already a challenge to stay productive while balancing home, work, and the fear and anxiety of the changing environment. So why do workers need more internal meetings competing for their time?

We think it’s because of the positive impact meetings have on team alignment. It’s natural that businesses use meetings as a tool to offset the disconnect associated with a rapid shift to remote work. This explains the growth of internal meetings in times when business is otherwise slowing down.

Looking at the meeting titles of all meetings in the past 14 days, the data shows a high volume of keywords that confirm this thinking:

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Image: Hugo

Reviews, syncs, updates, and discussions now consume the bulk of our calendars.

Best practices to MFH

A subset of working from home (WFH), meeting from home (MFH) is a skill we need to develop as professional remote workers—because teams that simply transplant an office-meeting culture onto their new remote reality will see meetings become a greater burden than ever before.

At Hugo, we’ve looked at the approaches taken by well-oiled remote teams that have mastered meeting from home.

The 4-hour meeting week

We’ve all seen the memes about meetings that should have been emails, and there’s certainly truth behind the anti-meeting rhetoric. Even though Hugo is a meeting-technology company, we have an internal rule for our team: No more than 10% of our workweek can be spent in meetings with the team.

The rationale is simple. Meetings are most valuable when they are a forum for debate, discussion, and decision making. When used solely for updates, information sharing, and staying in touch, they are inefficient at best and boring at worst. In 2020, we have a great suite of technologies to help us stay up-to-date outside of the meeting room.

This is particularly important while working remotely. We’re much more likely to be in different time zones, balancing work commitments from home while grappling with dogs that need walking, babies that need changing, and simply trying not to go stir crazy. This collectively means the cost of each internal meeting has never been higher.

Working from home should not be cause for more meetings. Applying a simple “when to meet” framework can slash the number of hours competing with productive time, and lead to meetings being reserved for a specific way of working that truly needs everyone’s attention. Count the number of internal meetings you and your team are attending this week and ask yourself what is left when you remove the updates, reviews, syncs, and discussions?

Asynchronous collaboration

Working together doesn’t always have to mean meeting together.

When we look at how successful teams stay in sync without piling on meetings, there’s one common trend: asynchronous collaboration.

According to our data, more than 25% of all meeting agendas are set the day prior, and agenda creation tends to involve an average of 3.4 people. Those 3.4 people are each contributing their updates and perspectives to the agenda in order for other attendees to be on the same page walking into the meeting.

This is significant because it demonstrates how effective teams update each other and stay in sync without always needing everyone available at the same moment. Rather than waiting for the meeting to provide updates and share information, summaries and key points are laid out in advance, making the meeting time more far more efficient. In some cases, we hear of meetings being canceled because collaborative agenda setting achieves the meeting’s objective before the meeting has even started!

Asynchronous collaboration embodies ways of working where we don’t need each other’s focus at the exact same time. Shifting away from allowing others to dictate your day provides an opportunity for remote workers to maximize productivity, output, and competing life demands.

The idea that collaboration requires everyone involved to simultaneously be available is antiquated. With an asynchronous lens on how we can better work together, we have found many other ways to stay in sync without scheduling yet another meeting. Sending short video messages that convey your thoughts, ideas, or feedback is one way to achieve the same bandwidth of communication as a meeting, without the real-time cost.

Strategies like these have the potential to maximize the degree of alignment while recognizing that scheduling more meetings is not the most effective way to maintain alignment while adapting to the new normal—i.e. working from home.

Darren Chait is a co-founder of Hugo, a maker of connected meeting notes software, and co-authored the book “10X Culture.”