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How we learned not to fear the meeting

As a distributed team working across multiple time zones and schedules, it can be hard for us to find the best time to check in with each other. The most obvious solution is to schedule a meeting, but if you’ve worked within even a mildly bureaucratic organization before, the very idea of meetings might provoke a visceral reaction.

I’m still amazed at the days of productivity I’ve wasted in badly planned meetings. They almost always run long, but even when they end on time, it’s all too easy to take a meeting off the rails. Sometimes a participant hijacks the discussion taking place, changing the topic to something which doesn’t need your input. Your presence is rendered useless.

More often, you’re invited to a meeting just for the sake of being there. Either you’re tangentially involved in the project and people think it’s a good idea for you to be present, or the topic of the meeting seems to relate to your job title. In both scenarios, you usually have nothing meaningful to contribute. In especially toxic work environments, people schedule and attend meetings solely to keep busy and justify their continued employment, instead of improving the quality of their work.

Origin story

I came to DOBT from an company that set a high bar for software quality under impossibly short deadlines. This necessitated an extremely agile, iterative process. When I wasn’t physically working next to the developers of a feature I designed, I would informally meet with them daily, offering regular feedback, visual QA, and course correction.

When I started working remotely, I wanted to continue this process, but I overlooked something. When you’re not in the same room, communicating through back-and-forth text conversations just generally feels more efficient, even if that might not really be the case. So when we started working on our new Screendoor forms, we tried communicating solely through a barrage of Github issues. No meetings.

Guess what happened next?

The problem was, we dramatically underestimated the scope of the project. Forms.fm started out as a simple visual redesign of a single page, and ended up as a complete overhaul of our public-facing UI. Everything a respondent might see on a Forms.fm site contains a new visual design and set of interactions. As we began to realize this, issues and points of confusion started to pile up. Instead of conducting a quick video chat to resolve these problems quickly, we’d have delays of multiple days as we figured out the most efficient way to reply via text.

In retrospect, it seems silly that we didn’t just reach out to each other and ask to meet regularly, but our culture at the time was such that this just didn’t occur to us. But we had a problem: discouraging all meetings is obviously harmful, but how could we ensure that we only hold effective ones?

Our solution

In his book Read This Before Our Next Meeting, Al Pittampali gives a lot of great advice on this topic. I’ll try to paraphrase it below:

Meetings should only exist as spaces for conflict and coordination. Only hold a meeting when two people or groups need to resolve a debate or conflict between themselves, or are collaborating on a project and need to coordinate.

For example, if someone holds a meeting, only those who can contribute something meaningful to the topic should be present. Likewise, if someone tries to hijack the discussion with a new topic, they should hold a separate meeting with only the people who need to be there. These restrictions quickly wipe out all the reasons you might want to hold a terrible meeting, and ensure you only hold effective ones.

After a while, we started adopting this rule, holding quick stand-up meetings each day to update each other on our progress. Only two of us were in them: the designer and the developer. And if we found ourselves moving off the rails to another topic, we’d either choose to discuss it over text when appropriate, or hold a separate meeting.

One exception

We’ve made one exception to the rule which we’ve found especially valuable as a remote team: social check-ins. Every week, we have a set time to check in with each other, for anywhere from 30 to 60 minutes. We also have informal group stand-ups over Google Hangouts twice a week.

Sometimes, we’re catching each other up on what we’re working on, and making sure we’re strategically aligned. But even when we’re in the middle of a large project and have nothing to report, it’s still beneficial from a social perspective. When you don’t work in an office, allotting a few hours per week for conversation is a decent substitute for the camaraderie developed over shared lunches and drinks in an office environment.

Have you developed rules for holding better meetings in your organization? Let us know in the comments!

Josh Rubenoff is a product designer at The Department of Better Technology.

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