BL&T No. 020: Unpacking Meeting Culture

Borrowed, Learned, & Thought (or BL&T) is a weekly newsletter sent on Mondays. In every edition, I share a borrowed idea (quote, excerpt), a lesson learned from the previous week, and a thought starter heading into the new week. Learn more and subscribe here.

Borrowed

"Let our advance worrying become advance thinking and planning."

Winston Churchill

Learned

One of the questions submitted for Barrel's Quarterly Town Hall last week was about the high number of meetings for "1/3 of the agency" and the potential for a weekly no meeting day. These days, this topic seems to be a focal point of many work-related conversations for anyone working from home.

Rather than coming to the team with a response, we decided to open it up for a team-wide conversation. First, the team concluded that a no meeting day would create unnecessary constraints and stress. Regarding meeting management, a few guidelines emerged:

  1. Your calendar is your responsibility. Don't attend a meeting without understanding why you are there.
  2. Always schedule meetings with a clear objective and agenda. When invited to a meeting where either is missing or feels unclear, reach out for clarification.
  3. Before scheduling or attending a meeting, ask: does this need to be a meeting? It can be surprising to find what can be tackled asynchronously over email.

While we were pleased with how productive the conversation was, I wondered: if employees understand effective meeting management, why are there so many meetings?

Since moving to a distributed workplace model last year, our instinct is often to associate this change with every new challenge. However, when we adopt First Principles thinking, we can cut through the noise, break down the issue into parts, and separate the facts from our assumptions. Along the way, we find that 1) the challenge is not new but only now, given a new environment, are we noticing it, and 2) our assumptions are incorrect. My feeling was that the high number of meetings was no different.

Back when we were working in the office, I distinctly remember days walking to the subway feeling like I had just run a marathon. If I wasn't in and out of meetings all day, I was jumping from one ad-hoc conversation to the next. On top of that, I still had unanswered emails and Slack messages waiting for me.

In my role, meetings are a big part of my day. Back then, however, I wouldn't have classified every in-person interaction as a meeting. I worked on better managing my calendar but removing outside distractions was always more challenging. Today, most of these interactions occur on Zoom, and therefore, we recognize these interactions as meetings.

Hyperbolic discounting describes our bias toward immediate-smaller rewards over future-larger rewards. When you look at the situation this way, employees are only acting in their nature, myself included. Much like a person focused on losing weight, we know that discipline in the short-term (skipping dessert, or in this case, adopting the guidelines above) will lead to greater long-term rewards. However, we opt for the instant satisfaction of setting up a Zoom meeting to address a topic later (or eating dessert) and discount the future rewards of a more balanced schedule (or healthier physique).

Through this lens, the number of meetings has nothing to do with working in an office or a distributed workplace and everything to do with behavior. The question is no longer: How do we reduce the number of meetings? Instead, we ask questions like: How can we better model meetings for the team? What types of interactions are most effective on Zoom, on Slack, over email? Is everyone aligned on what it means to have a productive meeting?

Looking to the road ahead, I'm encouraged by Matt Mullenweg's (WordPress, Automattic) model for "Distributed Work's Five Level of Autonomy."

Matt Mullenweg Distributed Work's Five Level of Autonomy

As shown in this model, if executed well, a distributed workplace model can reduce meeting count through asynchronous communication and thereby increase focus, productivity, and mental wellness. However, the aim is not solely reducing meeting count but making meetings more purposeful and engaging as a company moves into Levels 4 and 5.

Barrel is currently straddling Levels 2 and 3. In some ways, our focus has been on replicating the in-office experience at home, essentially recreating old challenges in a new format. By shifting our mindset to building an effective distributed workplace, we can focus on a future of new possibilities, not an improved version of the past.

Lesson? In construction, nails are one of many ways to bring materials together, but you wouldn't rely on nails alone to build a house. In a team, a meeting is one of many ways to bring people together and strengthen ideas. Like a nail, if we rely on meetings alone to get the work done, we may be able to get a structure in place, but it will eventually buckle under the weight.

Thought Starter

If I could only attend five meetings this week, which would I attend? How would I make progress on the topics of other meetings?