Fixing the fundamental problems of today’s remote meetings
Last Updated: May 02, 2020
It’s no secret that remote meetings are terribly inefficient. You spend time resolving scheduling conflicts and wrangling invitations and meeting links. When the meeting eventually happens, it runs long, using the in-person model of “we had to commute here so let’s talk about everything.” The tools we use make it easy to schedule more and more meetings throughout the day, constantly interrupting our workflow. The precious time left between meetings is spent on email and chat, and when Friday afternoon rolls around and you look back on what you accomplished during the week, it’s a lot less than you expected. Consequently, the few things that are really important become harder and harder to track. As teams become more distributed, more people work from home, and more time zones enter the picture, without bold action the situation will only get worse.
The truth is simple: meetings weren’t designed with remote teams in mind.
What’s wrong with remote meetings
In general, meetings as we know them are the product of an environment that assumes workers are in the same physical location and have the same 9 to 5 schedule. Many of the meeting habits which developed over the years to overcome the limitations of a physical workspace are the source of the problems that plague remote meetings today:
1. Meetings consume the calendar
A lot of the technology tools that were built to help with meetings have the result of making the problem worse. With everyone’s schedule at a glance, it becomes far too easy to add ‘just one more’ meeting to the calendar, until workers feel like their job titles are “professional meeting attenders.” Recurring meetings make the problem worse. Recurring meetings are a workaround to prevent us from having to book new meetings to discuss every individual thing, but they consequently occupy an hour on the calendar every week (or even every day!), regardless of whether anyone attending has that much to say. As a result, people often feel like their calendars are “booked until forever” with a mix of recurring and one-off meetings.
2. Meetings distract from real work
Meetings are scattered all over the calendar and the work of the day must be managed between them. When everyone is in the same place on the same schedule, this can be addressed by meeting at the beginning or end of the day, or before or after lunch — the natural breaks of the day. In a distributed environment, however, teams are spread across locations and time zones, and calendars make the problem worse by finding available slots instead of convenient slots. For managers, the result can be more meetings than they can realistically attend (if they want to get anything else done, that is). For engineers and other makers, it means that meetings constantly interrupt the flow of work, making it impossible to solve complex problems in the small windows of time that are left in between. Many workers, especially those unaccustomed to working from home (and especially if they have children or other family members present), just can’t keep up, and have to spend 12 hours or more working just trying to maintain an adequate level of productivity.
3. Meetings are high maintenance
The whole process is still so manual: After looking at everyone’s shared calendars (assuming that’s even the case), the meeting organizer proposes a meeting time only to find that someone had a conflict and failed to update their calendar. This process of trial and error can repeat several times before a meeting is finally scheduled. Then you may need to reschedule due to new conflicts, or worse, leave the meeting disappointed when someone doesn’t show up. This problem is exponentially worse when the team is globally distributed and multiple time zones are involved.
4. Meetings are long by design
In an office environment, longer meetings make sense. It takes time for people to gather, so there’s validity to the argument that says “let’s talk about this while we’re all here in the same room”. Though this doesn’t apply to remote meetings, old habits are hard to break, and it’s all too easy to bring up “one more thing” while everyone is present. Meetings that are long and meandering are inefficient, and with average adult attention spans estimated at 10 to 20 minutes, employees tend to be distracted, pay less attention, and even multi-task, resulting in even less efficiency. Many remote workplaces find themselves in this vicious cycle.
5. Recordings are useless
Though remote meetings are easier to record than in-person meetings, it doesn’t help much. In many cases, there’s no record of the meeting at all, and workers are left to try to remember what was discussed and what they committed to in the 12th of the 17 meetings that took place this week (partially because they were checking email during the meeting). Even when meetings are recorded, nobody watches them — they’re just too long. To solve these problems and propagate the knowledge, more meetings are scheduled to get everyone on the same page, or a lot more people get invited just in case (or both). People are drowning in meetings!
6. Agendas are outdated for remote teams
If you google how to have good meetings, the one piece of advice that’s guaranteed to be in common among the thousand listicles is that “making an agenda” is essential for an effective meeting. However, it’s not a solution for efficient remote meetings, and it completely misses the mark. The very idea of an agenda assumes that there will be more than one topic at the meeting, and multi-topic meetings are an artifact of in-person meetings where it’s efficient to discuss everything at once. Even if you take the time to create an agenda, you’re lucky if half the attendees read it (though everyone will pretend they have, resulting in uninformed discussion and wasted time).
These factors lead to an unavoidable conclusion: Today’s remote meetings are broken.
An incomplete solution: make everything asynchronous
If meetings are so broken, then why don’t we ditch them completely and switch to writing? Here’s the problem: asynchronous communication is slow by design, and teams often need to move and make decisions quickly.
Yes, we can (and should) try to reduce the amount of meetings for routine things, but we shouldn’t take it to the extreme.
On the other hand, meetings are fast by design, but remote implementation is completely broken. What if we can fix it?
We need to reinvent the meeting
Technology has advanced tremendously in the last 10 years, but the process and execution of remote meetings is fundamentally unchanged. The calendar and conference tools have gotten better, but it hasn’t done us any good. It only makes it easier to schedule more meetings. None of the band-aid tools existing today can solve the fundamental problems with remote meetings. In fact, these tools serve only to put more of them on your calendar!
You would think that with all of the technology and tools available to us, it wouldn’t be this way in 2020.
What if it doesn’t have to be?
Imagine a world where:
- All of your meetings are extremely efficient.
- All your meetings take place in the same 1 or 2 hour windows, freeing up the rest of your work week.
- Consequently, you have a lot more time to do actual work.
- You never have to check someone’s availability.
- You actually enjoy your meetings.
Sound impossible? Only if we fail to reinvent the meeting. And yes, the remote meeting needs to be completely rethought. Outcomes like this don’t happen with incremental changes. The existing big players (you know who they are), have rigged the system: they compete with each other on who has more meetings and more chat messages — as if more is better! Worst of all, these tools fighting for our attention are exploiting your data so they can earn more advertising revenue. To fix this we need to fundamentally rethink the very nature of what it means to have a remote meeting. We need to quite literally reinvent the remote meeting if we want to bring it into the 21st century and make it not only the most productive part of the day, but the most enjoyable part of the day as well.
For more than a decade, our team struggled through our own remote meetings, trying different things and wasting a ton of time in the process. We got as far as building our own software, and failed several times. Throughout the process we learned three key principles that have an amazing effect on meeting experience regardless of the implementation. They also seem to have a cascading effect and amplify each other in a very positive way:
1: One meet = one topic (instead of one meeting = multiple topics)
We have to ditch the word meeting. It’s long, boring, and has a negative connotation. From now on, we’re not having “meetings,” we’re having “meets.” Every meet is on a single topic — always! Meets don’t need agendas, they answer one question, and result with an answer or a next step to get closer to an answer. The only people who get invited are the ones that need to be there.
2: Reserved all-meets time blocks (instead of a scattered calendar)
We need a better calendar too. Gone are the days when ‘no appointment’ means ‘available to meet at this time.’ Everyone agrees on a window of time during the day that’s dedicated to meetings called “all-meets.” Meets only happen during all-meets time! Reserving time is essential as it offers both predictability and limits the overall amount of meeting time, prioritizing the more important meets for now and the less important for later.
3: Autonomous and dynamic scheduling (instead of humans picking a time)
We trust a GPS to navigate the fastest way home, and we allow self-driving cars on our roads, but we still feel the need to have absolute control over our meeting schedule. We need to let software do the work of finding the optimal schedule for everyone so we have more time for creative work. If you set the attendees and the time limit, a tool should do the rest.
Implementing these three principles can take a typically full week of meetings and completely transform it:
Imagine how you’ll feel when your schedule looks like this! Imagine what you’ll be able to accomplish!
The problem is: how do we implement these principles?
Let’s be clear: reinventing the meeting is not about a single product. It’s about everyone involved agreeing to a shared set of principles like the ones above for the benefit of the entire organization (and all of our individual sanity). In a perfect world, all calendar software would have one or two hours of all-meets time, fill it up with short, focused meetings as necessary, and leave the rest to achieving individual and organizational goals. But we all know that’s not how it works, no matter what it says in the company mission statement.
We created Meetter as a forcing function to provide a team meeting experience that’s 10x more efficient than anything that can be accomplished with existing tools. Everyone should have access to condensed, productive, distraction free meets to escape the vicious cycle of inefficient and counterproductive meetings.
Our mission is to help the world innovate at a higher pace by increasing the bandwidth of synchronous communication.
When you’re armed with the right tool, you can achieve amazing results. This is what’s possible with Meetter:
1. Limit your meeting time and and make meetings fight with each other
One of the biggest problems with shared calendars is that any unscheduled time automatically has the potential to become meeting time. If an empty calendar means “meeting time” then when is “working time?”
Imagine the productivity boost you’ll get by having one designated block of time for meets during the day. The endless to-do list you keep? Get ready to make progress! Work sometimes feels like the Hydra — solving one problem creates three more. One of the biggest reasons for this dynamic is because of how little time we actually get to spend executing on priorities. Too often, days are filled with busywork, and meetings are one of the largest culprits. By confining your meets to a single block of time, you’re setting an overall meeting time limit for the week — that way meets compete with each other for your time, not with the rest of your workday.
Where traditional scheduling tools only serve to add more and more meetings to the calendar at all parts of the day, Meetter helps you find the right balance between meets and work.
2. All your meets at once — no more meetings scattered throughout the day
All your meets, no matter how many or few, take place in a single block of time. Before lunch? After? Beginning of the day? The end? The answer will never again be “all of the above.”
Confining meets to a consistent set of hours allows you to build powerful habits around them. The beauty of habits and routines is that once they become ingrained, they free your mind to focus on other things. Only starting is difficult. Soon enough, it becomes automatic. Free yourself from the constant anxiety of “when’s my next meeting?” Instead, make meetings as automatic as your lunch hour or the end of the day: you always know when it’s coming, and don’t have to think about it.
Where traditional remote meetings take you away from your work, Meetter puts meetings where they belong: as a tool to help you execute on your most important priorities.
3. Schedule meets automatically
It’s hard enough to decide the who and what of a meeting. Stop worrying about when, and take the guesswork out of availability. Set a topic and attendees, and automatically get the perfect time, every time. Meetter finds meeting times that work for everyone on your team and schedules all your meets in that block. Meets are prioritized based on urgency, and if a necessary attendee becomes unavailable after the meet is scheduled, it will reschedule automatically, so you never have to worry about a scheduling conflict again.
Scheduling is often a manual and cumbersome process for traditional remote meetings, but Meetter does the heavy lifting for you so you can focus on what matters.
4. Meets that are short and focused
Meetings are most efficient when they stick to a single topic. Meet with the right people for the right amount of time so you can focus on execution. And meets tend to start on time when everyone can see who has joined and who hasn’t (peer pressure, anyone?), plus automatic Slack reminders if someone’s late. Parkinson’s law says that work expands to fill the time allotted, and the same is true for meetings. When you reduce that “typical” 60 minute meeting down to 15 minutes, amazing things happen. Tardiness goes away (5 minutes late to an hour-long meeting means the meeting hasn’t really even started yet). The most important things get discussed first, and there’s no time for politics or posturing. The best thing you can do for meeting productivity is come up with the minimum amount of time you think you’ll need to discuss everything, and then cut that number in half. Productivity both in and out of your meetings will skyrocket!
Traditional remote meetings are too long, waste time getting started, and usually last between 30 minutes and an hour. Meeter’s default length is 10 minutes, and the average meet length is less than 15.
5. Have notes and recordings you’ll actually use
Still sending minutes documents and recording links? With Meetter, a real-time collaborative document is always connected to your meet and recording. No headphones handy? No problem — audio is automatically transcribed, turning spoken words into text. Meetter recordings are just better: they’re short, on a single topic, only involve the people that are required, and are automatically shared in the appropriate Slack channel.
Traditional remote meeting recordings are long, and minutes are hard to track. In contrast, 40% of Meetter users watch at least 1 recording a week — something that just doesn’t happen with traditional remote meeting recordings.
6. Meets have one topic and one topic only
One of the secrets to short meetings is keeping them to a single topic. Since it takes less than a second to join a meet (or significantly faster than walking to the conference room), there’s no reason in the world to have an agenda with more than one item on it. Having one topic means that there are no agenda documents that you have to wonder if people have read (hint: they haven’t), and everyone comes to the meet completely focused on the only topic the meet is about. Get ready to have a meaningful discussion for once.
Where traditional remote meetings copy the in-person model of talking about everything, Meetter keeps you focused on what matters.
7. Other key benefits
a) Everyone comes prepared
Problem: People have so many meetings that there’s no time to prepare. Coming unprepared to a meeting leaves a person with two choices: 1: admit it, or 2: fake it. Guess what most people choose? Admitting it would put the conversation back at square one, but faking it means wasting time pretending until you realize something’s wrong, and only then go back to square one. A lack of preparation is one of the leading causes of meeting inefficiency. In addition to taking more time to explain, the people who did take the time to prepare are only paying half attention or multitasking because they’re bored (and then they miss something important).
Solution: Does someone need to prepare? Just tell Meetter who needs to prepare, and the meet is only scheduled once everyone’s ready. Meetter will also send regular reminders to those who need to prepare.
b) Higher level of transparency
Problem: Some organizations have too many closed-door meetings, which leads to a lack of transparency, and reduces trust and organizational alignment. It feels like nobody has any idea what’s going on. Other organizations, whether out of courtesy or a fear of missing out, have meetings where it seems like everyone is invited. It feels like nobody can get anything done. The problem is that it’s a fine line, and it’s all too easy to be on one side or the other.
Solution: Meets are transparent by default, which means that you can invite only the people who really need to be there knowing the rest of the team can find the recording (it’ll be right in the Slack channel where it belongs). Get the best of transparency without wasting everyone’s time.
c) Better time discipline
Problem: That feeling when the key stakeholder (the one who called the meeting in the first place) doesn’t show up on time. There’s nothing anyone else can do except stare at one other and make small talk. While at least most people tend to agree that tardiness isn’t respectful, there’s no such grace for meeting ending times. The last meeting most of us attended that finished on time was in school when there was a literal bell giving permission to get up and leave. Having back to back meetings almost always means “late for the second one.”
Solution: A timer is front and center, plus a badge on your video feed lets everyone know if you have a hard stop at the meet’s scheduled end time, so everyone is clear about which meets can go over time and which can’t. Plus automatic Slack reminders for anyone who’s not there at the meet start time, and the option to add 5-minute buffers between meets.
d) Required attendees are really required, and optional attendees are really optional
Problem: With traditional meetings, required vs optional attendees is a distinction that very few people understand, and most ignore. Inviting someone as an optional attendee puts the “optional” text so small at the bottom of the invitation that they often don’t even see it. Of course, they will then come to the meeting and proceed to monopolize the conversation. Meanwhile, one of the attendees who was actually required clicked “no” on the invitation, but the meeting happened anyway because the other 17 optional attendees clicked “yes,” drowning the organizer in notifications.
Solution: Meets are scheduled only during all-meets when required participants have confirmed their availability. Optional attendees are clearly indicated, and only invited when they have no other meets to attend.
e) Interconnected with asynchronous discussion threads
Problem: Most of your team’s communication lives in Slack. The rest lives in email. Meetings live nowhere. Sure, you can access recordings. That is, if the organizer remembered to click record, if they bothered to send the link afterward, and if the meeting was short enough to enable you to find the relevant information: outlook not so good. Why isn’t there a connection between your team’s primary synchronous communication (meetings) and primary asynchronous communication (Slack)?
Solution: With Meetter, every meet has a corresponding Slack thread where notes & recordings are posted, and that same thread can be used to discuss things asynchronously before or after the meet.
When Slack was new, it was a paradigm shift. Until that point, 99% of inter-office written communication was done via email. What would happen to your email inbox if Slack and team chat were suddenly unavailable? It would place a tremendous burden on communication. This is exactly the burden you’re carrying right now on your meetings — you’ve just been carrying it for so long that you don’t realize it.
Meetter has been in early access for the last year with a small number of users, and now we’re ready to open it up to new users. Most users report that Meetter saves them more than 8 hours per month. Think of it like getting an extra two weeks off each year.
Conclusion: next steps
It’s easy to assume that meetings will generally stay the same because of the way they’ve always been. As every innovator knows, that’s the single worst reason to keep doing anything. The meeting has never been reimagined and overhauled to fit a modern distributed work culture, and if we don’t do something now, meetings might stay this way for another 50 years just as they’ve been for the last 50! All of the improvements to the modern remote meeting are tantamount to window dressing compared to the overhaul that’s desperately needed.
9 out of 10 of our early users say that they would be disappointed if they had to go back to traditional remote meetings.
If you’d like to learn more about how to bring Meetter to your team, get in touch for a demo today