Chase Warrington is the head of business development at Doist, a remote-first team with 85 employees in 30-plus countries. He is also a regular contributor to many of the leading remote work courses, conferences, and publications, as well as the host of his new podcast, About Abroad. Having worked remotely since 2009 and managed teams spanning all time zones, he is passionate about making remote work work. Chase is from the United States but currently lives in Spain.
I’m part of a team that is perhaps on the extreme side when it comes to embracing asynchronous communication. Doist has been a remote-first organization since its inception more than 10 years ago, building asynchronous communication tools for distributed teams and promoting practices that many traditional organizations still consider a bit weird.
For example, we very rarely meet face-to-face, virtually, or in real life. In fact, we have one employee whom nobody has ever met—nor spoken to on the phone or even seen a real picture of! We occasionally rely on meetings as part of our communication stack, but they’re certainly not the cornerstone. This approach is quite contrary to the one many teams take, and we’re okay with that.
We took the stance against synchronous communication years ago, and it’s worked well for us. Armed with that confidence in rethinking the importance of face-to-face interactions, I’ve started to give some thought to how we can continue to optimize the way we “do meetings,” especially given the circumstances we all began living in in 2020.
Zoom Fatigue Is Real
When COVID-19 hit and much of the world was suddenly forced to work remotely, my inbox started filling up with requests for Zoom meetings. This was strange to me, as I’ve been working remotely for more than 10 years, am a longtime Zoom user, and otherwise, even during the most intense quarantine measures, didn’t feel like my workday changed much.
But suddenly everyone was armed with a Zoom account and ready to “hop on a call.” Although I tried to protect my calendar from the assault, as the number of inquiries increased and my percentage of “yes” responses remained the same, I soon found myself in more meetings than ever.
As for many of us, Zoom fatigue quickly set in and I realized—to put it bluntly—how bad many of us are at this virtual-meeting thing. If this is to be the new normal, we’d better get a lot better at this, or we’re going to suffer through countless hours of wasted time and “I think your mic is muted” types of interactions.
What are some factors that lead to improved virtual meetings? I’ll share some old guiding principles, alongside a few recent thoughts that have emerged as a result of the new normal.
Don’t Try to Re-create the Office
As a general rule when you’re shifting to a remote structure from a more traditional one, this is a good mindset to adopt. Don’t try to take everything you’ve been doing in the office and move it to a virtual world. That won’t work.
As a starting point, reassess your current collaboration approach and see if you can identify opportunities for improvement now that you’re in more of a remote structure. Can anything be moved from synchronous communication to more of an asynchronous format? My guess is that there is plenty to do on this front; you just have to be intentional about making improvements and embrace the change.
Do you have a daily stand-up meeting that can be transferred to written communication? Can it become weekly, instead of daily? Or monthly, instead of weekly?
Without blindly saying “no way,” give this some serious thought—or, better yet, give it a try and see what happens. You may be surprised to find out how much more productive your team can be with fewer virtual meetings on their calendars.
Schedule Fewer Ad Hoc Meetings
In general, try to ditch the impromptu meetings that can pile up.
If the equivalent of the “Hey, you got a minute?” meeting becomes the norm in your remote culture, you’ll find that it forces remote workers to be online and ready to get on the phone or Zoom or Slack at any moment. It makes people think they need to be attached to their chat tool or email, which means they’re not focusing on their deep work—you know, the work that actually produces for your organization.
Instead of virtually tapping your teammates on the shoulder for a “quick chat,” set up regularly scheduled recurring meetings where topics that need to be discussed face-to-face can be tackled together, in a set time period.
I have a monthly one-on-one meeting with all my direct reports (yes, only one meeting per month!), and a corresponding Todoist project where we add these ad hoc topics to be discussed. In reality, by the time the meeting rolls around, we’ve often already resolved these situations asynchronously and moved on to bigger and better things. Nonetheless, this approach gives us a dumping ground for all those topics, and if a face-to-face meeting is the best way to tackle the problem, we’ll do so in our regularly scheduled time slot.
Cut Back on Group Meetings
It’s no secret that office workers often become too reliant on group meetings. Fifteen people in a conference room, in which thirteen of them are totally disengaged at any given moment, is a recipe for productivity disaster.
In the virtual world, this effect is amplified, as it’s much easier to zone out while attending a meeting from your WFH setup. Attendees are also notoriously likely to encounter technical issues, delays, or background distractions.
Furthermore, many people are uncomfortable on camera or worry that they have trouble being heard in a virtual team meeting. The old adage that the loudest voice in the room is the one that gets heard could not be more true under these circumstances. This circumstance leads to fewer in-depth conversations, poorer-quality outcomes, and decreased buy-in from the team.
So why go through the hassle when you can just as easily share all of this same information in a transparent place, in writing? Move group meetings to public discussion forums and allow everyone to have a voice on their own terms. You’ll experience better-quality responses from a wider variety of people, without the technical challenges and scheduling conflicts.
Don’t Force People to Attend
At Doist, we have 85 employees in 30-plus countries, spanning all time zones. For us to schedule a team meeting that everyone can attend at a decent hour is literally impossible. Rather than try to fight this head-on, we simply adopted the mindset that opting out of a meeting is totally acceptable.
We want our teammates to work when and where they are most productive, and even when you share a time zone with some colleagues, that doesn’t mean your schedules always match up—and that’s fine! Rather than force someone to stay up until midnight or wake up at 4 a.m, let that person opt out, record the meeting, and share the notes later. Life will go on, I promise.
One tool I’ve recently been introduced to that’s working especially well toward resolving this issue is TLDV. By adding its bot to your virtual meeting, you can easily create recordings with bookmarks for your absent attendees.
Embrace the New Normal
Cultural norms and expected behaviors are abundant when it comes to conducting meetings, and we tend to blindly follow these unspoken rules. But these are different times, and they call for challenging the status quo. Let’s embrace that.
Be Understanding of Behind-the-Scenes Distractions
During COVID, people have been working from home while their kids are homeschooling in the next room, in settings not necessarily designed for this arrangement. Everyone needs to be forgiving when your toddler runs in the room during a video call or your dog starts barking during a sales pitch.
In fact, we need to be not just understanding but downright welcoming. This is a time to get to know your colleagues, partners, and customers on a deeper level. You have a window into their home, so introduce them to Fido and your child. We should savor this opportunity.
Think “Outside” the Box
This might strike you as odd, but why not go a bit radical during radical times? How can you flip the meeting “thing” upside down in your organization? For example, I recently started breaking up the monotony of my days by embracing the idea of walking meetings.
Simply put, I take my phone to the park, go for a walk, and conduct my meeting while strolling through nature. Not only is this new routine relaxing, but, as far as I can tell, it’s had no negative effects on the productivity of my meetings. Who says I can’t participate in a call while also enjoying some sunshine? Is it a bad thing if I knock out my daily dog walk while also brainstorming with a teammate? I just got an hour back in my day—great! After so many months of lockdown, I can’t tell you what a game-changer this has been for me!
Tips for the Walking Meeting
- Headphones are a must!
- Make sure it’s not a windy day.
- Don’t go for a walk where there’s a lot of traffic.
- Make sure you’ll have solid cell service away from Wi-Fi (test before your meeting).
- At first, try this approach for only one-on-one meetings, to get the hang of it.
- Choose wisely. Do this for smaller meetings and brainstorming sessions, not meetings where you’ll likely need to take copious notes or present to a group.
Forced Change Breeds Innovation
There’s always room for people to innovate—pandemic or no pandemic—and applying this perspective to the way in which we conduct meetings seems more relevant than ever—especially in a world where our attention is constantly being sold to the highest bidder. To stay productive as individuals and teams in a remote environment, we have to embrace a necessary pivot away from the status quo and go boldly into the future that’s revealing itself to us. If we don’t try, we’ll never know how much we can gain.