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When Should You NOT Conduct a Meeting? A Sense Check

Charles Kergaravat
December 16, 2021

It’s 2 p.m. on a Tuesday. You’re head down into an important project, when suddenly—ping.

You know that sound all too well; it’s a meeting request. You’ve been pulled into a catch-up meeting for 3 p.m. today.

An hour later, you’re wondering to yourself: “Does this actually need to be a meeting?”

Chances are, probably not.

In fact, up to 34% of professionals say they waste as many as five hours a week (an eighth of their work week) in pointless meetings.

Meeting overload is a real organizational threat, with 56% of us feeling that our “swamped calendars” are causing job performance (and mental clarity) issues.

These issues can be avoided if leaders and colleagues start asking more often: Does this really need to be a meeting? Could this be done async instead?

In this article, we’ll elaborate on the questions to ask before sending that meeting request.

Question 1: Are you looking to collect or share information?

We’ve been conditioned to meet whenever we need to share information. For most people, it’s just what they’re used to. 

Consider, for example, the common “status update” meeting.

A project team assembles for their weekly get-together. The team leader rattles off a few figures, asks team members for updates on their assignments, and assigns tasks for the week.

Does any of this require a meeting?

If the purpose is simply to share progress on each task, then probably not. It’s easy to provide a status report in your project management tool or digital workspace. You can also request that each team member post an update asynchronously in a Yac Discussion.

But let’s say that the information being distributed requires clarification and discussion to make sense of it. 

For example, the project leader needs to communicate how a roadblock last week has changed the course of the project.

A situation like this can still be handled asynchronously.

With async tools like Yac, team members can record a message while sharing their screens. Send colleagues presentations, walk them through your ideas on a digital whiteboard or explain your brainstorm in Notion before sending it. You can share your complicated thoughts and avoid misunderstandings without having to coordinate schedules.

Colleagues can then digest the information and respond with a comprehensive answer or well-thought-out questions instead of being put on the spot.

If the purpose of the meeting is to share updates, communicate changes, or request information, you can do this without siphoning hours from your people’s diaries. Give your team back the time to do their best work, and start sharing and collecting information asynchronously.

Question 2: Is your meeting ad-hoc or last minute? 

Last-minute, impromptu meetings are particularly problematic.

They are incredibly disruptive, pulling employees out of their workdays and disturbing their focus. Without a clear agenda, they can also be unproductive. 

In a study, researchers found that when someone gets distracted or interrupted from whatever they’re working on, it takes an average of 23 minutes to get back on track.

Are you distracted at work? It can take over 23 minutes to get back on task after a notification

Factoring in both the meeting time, the preparation time, the time it takes to coordinate schedules, and the time it takes to refocus, that’s a lot of time wasted for every unnecessary ad-hoc or last-minute meeting.

There are times, however, where an ad-hoc meeting may be necessary, such as project derailment, PR mishaps, or server downtime.

The factor that helps you decide whether a last-minute meeting is necessary is its urgency. Last-minute is not the same as urgent.

An example of a non-urgent but last-minute meeting is when you want to meet with your colleague to discuss a brilliant idea you just had for next quarter’s marketing plan.

You send them a message to ask if they’re free, and then jump on a video call, and there goes your hour (and theirs).

This is last-minute, but it’s not urgent. It could have been communicated via a quick async voice message so that your colleague could review the news at a time that works best for them.

We used to pop by a colleague’s desk with a thought, but with the influx of remote working, we’ve replaced this with “Hey, do you want to hop on a quick call?” 

Both cases disrupt focus, decrease productivity, and lead to mistakes, even if the interruption is brief. Both types of ad-hoc meetings can, and should, be handled asynchronously.

Should this be a meeting?

Spontaneous meetings like this are a major contributor to the 1230% increase in one-to-one meetings the business world has experienced since transitioning to remote work.

In the early days of work-from-home initiatives, leaders scrambled to keep teams productive. Unfortunately, they often did this by scheduling meetings. We know now that surge in meetings drained productive working hours and led to crisis levels of professional burnout.

Knowing all of this, we acknowledge that some last-minute meetings are urgent and need to be dealt with immediately.

For example, let’s say you’ve been pinged that your servers are down. Server issues are time-sensitive cases where meetings should be held to assemble solutions needed to rectify the problem and contain the damage.

Or, perhaps you’re a marketing leader and your company is trending for the wrong reasons on social platforms. PR mishaps also require quick organization to set things right. 

Another case where an urgent meeting might be required is if a customer has had a particularly poor experience. Customers today rate “immediate responses” from brands as important or very important when they have questions or issues.

Consumers are impatient

Because this situation requires fast action, it’s probably best handled in real time.

In these examples, it would be appropriate to assemble your team for an urgent, last-minute meeting, and create an action plan for dealing with the issue.

Question 3: Will this meeting interrupt “deep work” that moves your company forward? 

Deep work is a concept that refers to work that is deeply engaging and requires a high degree of concentration.

Cal Newport, the author of the book Deep Work, describes the concept as:

“Activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limits.”

As you might have guessed, meetings often interrupt deep work, especially those that are ad-hoc or last-minute.

To avoid scheduling meetings during times when employees are engaged in deep work, it’s helpful to understand when your team is most productive.

A recent employee productivity study found that workers tend to be most productive between the hours of 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. in their local timezone. 

As a general rule, it’s best to avoid scheduling meetings during these times.

However, peak productivity times differ from individual to individual, so it’s best to understand how your team performs and when they’re at their best.

The best way to gather this information is to ask employees directly—but, of course, not in a meeting.

Use surveys, like the ones you can find at TINYpulse or Typeform, to gather feedback asynchronously and discover the best times to meet (when they’re absolutely necessary). 

You can also use these services to poll your team after meetings and find out where you can trim them down even further. Send out a one- to two-question survey at the end of a meeting and ask if employees felt like it was worthwhile. 

With surveys, you can get the temperature of your meeting culture. You can learn valuable insights, like which team members don’t need to be included or whether teams prefer cameras off.

As a leader, you (should) understand your team better than anyone. So, before throwing that meeting into the schedule, because that’s what you’re used to, ask yourself if this will get in the way of completing important tasks and moving projects forward.

Question 4: Does your meeting have a strict and well-defined purpose?  

We’ve all been in meetings that feel like they don’t really have a purpose and don’t seem to conclude with any kind of clear outcome.

Most of the time, this occurs because the organizer of the meeting failed to define the purpose of the meeting from the outset and didn’t lay out clear expectations of what the meeting aimed to achieve.

A common culprit is the weekly team meeting, of which 89% of us attend.

State of Meetings

If you ask any individual on the team what the purpose of this week’s regular meeting is, you might be surprised to find an array of different answers, if any.

When assessing whether an existing recurring meeting still needs to take place, ask yourself: is there a well-defined purpose for this meeting?

If the meeting doesn’t have a clear mission, then it’s not a necessary synchronous meeting. As we’ve mentioned before, these types of information-sharing meetings can easily be held asynchronously. 

You should also ask yourself if the meeting has a strict and clearly-defined structure.

Meetings that lack structure regularly go off track, take longer than scheduled, and often don’t reach the intended outcome. 

We’ve all been a part of a meeting for which the outcome was to book another meeting to continue the discussion. Let’s try and avoid that.

Question 5: Are you kicking off a project or communicating big and complex changes?  

Decision-making that involves big changes is a valid reason for holding a traditional meeting.

Project kickoffs often require a lot of discussion, team planning, clarification, and communication of expectations, all of which translate best in a live team meeting.

This is particularly important for gaining buy-in from a project team, and for ensuring an even distribution of effort, commitment, and accountability.

Similarly, end-of-project debriefs are especially important for enhancing future team and individual performance, with studies showing an impact in performance of up to 25% following this kind of meeting.

However, we believe most of these meetings should be completed asynchronously. Post-mortems at the end of a longer project (the kind that takes months) should most likely be held live, but retrospectives at the end of regular projects with familiar workflows can easily be done asynchronously.

For example, you can use a simple document or Notion page to outline questions and request replies in your Yac Discussion. When team members have sent their replies, team leaders can summarize the feedback in the document.

Example Meeting Doc

Communicating answers via voice maintains that human experience that you get in a meeting. This helps leaders gauge the feelings behind answers that they can’t glean from a text-based document alone.

Project kick-off meetings can also be anticipated by an asynchronous discussion or a shared presentation that should be read before the meeting. This way the time in the meeting is reserved to address any issues identified during the initial async contributions and keeps the agenda on track, cutting down on time wastage.

It comes down to relationships and caring for employees. Big changes can be challenging or even anxiety-inducing for some people, so it’s respectful to address this kind of thing face-to-face.

Additionally, this communication often involves a lot of questions, discourse, voicing of concerns, and clarification on details, all of which can be dealt with more tactfully in a live meeting.

If you’re kicking off or ending a big project, or communicating large, complex changes, then a meeting is likely a good fit.

Question 6: Can I do this asynchronously instead? 

So, you’ve answered the questions above, and you’re still pretty sure you need to hold a meeting.

Before you hit send on that calendar invite, ask yourself one more question:

Can I do this asynchronously instead?

Not sure what asynchronous meetings are all about? Let’s summarize. 

Async meetings are:

  • Discussions about a specific topic that aren’t held in real-time
  • Held in digital tools such as documents, digital workspaces, project management platforms, email, and collaboration and communication tools like Yac
  • Far less disruptive and allow employees to spend more time focusing on deep work (teams using Yac save an average of 35 minutes per day)
  • More flexible for distributed teams working in multiple time zones
  • Better for encouraging critical thinking and well-thought-out responses

Asynchronous communication can also help reduce “Zoom fatigue,” something that 38% of remote workers have experienced since the pandemic began. 

Since using Yac for remote team communication, 45% of users say they’ve been able to replace Zoom and reduce fatigue.

Asynchronous meetings can also improve productivity, with studies demonstrating that “bursty” communication (long periods of solo work broken up by rapid bursts of communication) can inspire greater work output.

Lisette Sutherland, facilitator, author, and speaker on remote work topics, regularly questions whether a meeting really needs to take place or can be performed asynchronously.

“We’ve started to question: do we really need the meeting to begin with? Can any part of the meeting be done asynchronously? If it’s a product demo, that can be recorded and shared beforehand.
For example, I have coaching sessions every week with my business coach, but my team doesn’t need to be there. They need to know what’s happening, though, so we just record the session for the team to watch. They understand the strategy, ask questions, and share their opinions if necessary. It gives them insight, they don’t have to watch in real time, and they can skip through the stuff that’s not interesting.” 

So, how do you determine whether a meeting should be executed synchronously?

Ask yourself these questions:

  1. Is the subject sensitive in nature?
  2. Is it urgent?

If your answer to either of the above is “yes,” then a traditional meeting may be necessary. But if not, async is the way to go.

So, you absolutely need to conduct that meeting? Here’s how to do it effectively 

With the estimated cost of ineffective meetings totaling nearly $400 billion a year (in the U.S. alone), there’s quite an incentive to make sure that if you do need to conduct a meeting, that it’s efficient.

Here are a few ways you can make your traditional meetings more effective. 

Avoid meandering by defining a crystal-clear purpose

Each meeting you hold should have a very clear purpose, with an intended outcome.

For example, if you’re meeting a new client you’ve just onboarded, the purpose might be defined as “to introduce the client to the team and put faces to names.”

Not only should your meeting have a clear purpose, but this should be communicated asynchronously to all attendees in advance.

Sharing objectives ahead of time allows attendees to come prepared. It can also help reduce the amount of time each person spends preparing for the meeting. (The average employee spends close to 5 hours a week preparing for meetings—not an inconsequential amount of time!)

Establish some ground rules ahead of time

Before the meeting occurs, one thing you can do to keep things running efficiently is create and distribute a meeting agenda.

Agendas are critical to meeting success, according to 67% of survey respondents.

Key elements of successful meetings

Your meeting agenda should outline the topics to be covered during the meeting, the time allocated to each topic, and the expected outcomes for the meeting.

By distributing the agenda ahead of time, each attendee understands the constraints of the meeting and is aware of out-of-scope topics, reducing the likelihood of your meeting running overtime. 

Make sure to invite attendees who absolutely must be there

As a general rule, the fewer people who attend your meeting, the better. This is because more heads make for more discussion, more deliberation, and more time spent in the meeting.

Of course, this needs to be balanced with the requirement for a diversity of opinions.

So, when you’re sending out the meeting invite, ask of each potential attendee: “Does this person really need to attend?”

Many team members might benefit from answering questions about the topic ahead of the meeting and asynchronously. That way, leadership can gauge the feelings of the organization and use them as they try to achieve a consensus.

Enforce strict time constraints

Nothing is more disruptive to a workday than a meeting that takes longer than expected.

As the meeting organizer, it’s your responsibility to ensure that the meeting runs according to schedule.

It’s entirely possible to underestimate the amount of time required to cover certain topics, and sometimes an important conversation or disagreement can derail your agenda.

When this happens, it’s important to acknowledge during the meeting that you’re running behind and that you may need to reschedule some topics to be discussed asynchronously.

Every meeting should end with an action item, either delivered or received. You can easily track this in your meeting minutes document.

Because some meetings do go over time, a helpful strategy for sticking to the agreed time frame is to start with the most important or urgent topics on your agenda.

This means that if you do find yourself running out of time, you’ve already covered the more pressing issues and are less likely to require the meeting to run longer than expected.

Limit the number of meetings per day

Keeping the number of meetings down reduces burnout and improves employee productivity. Although we sincerely hope this isn’t the case, if you still find there’s a day with several meetings booked, try to schedule breaks in between.

A study from Microsoft identified that breaks of more than 10 minutes in between meetings reduced fatigue from context switching and improved engagement during meetings.

Your brain works differently when you take breaks
Source: Microsoft 

Leave some time at the end to summarize and clarify outcomes and next steps

The final five minutes or so of your meeting should always be set aside to summarize what was discussed, recap on decisions made, and reiterate or delegate next steps. Remember, leave your employees with action items.

Give everyone a sense of closure with a final wrap-up summary, ensuring all attendees are clear on any expectations going forward.

When the meeting is over, document the takeaways and share the highlights with relevant team members, including those who weren’t present.

Key takeaways 

It’s well established that many teams are simply having too many meetings, particularly since the move to remote work. This constant need to be on, context switching, and meeting preparation is translating into employee burnout.

79% of leaders have noticed a decrease in team productivity because of burnout, not to mention the effects on team morale, retention, and employee wellbeing.

As the team leader, the responsibility rests with you to reduce the amount of time your team is spending in meetings each week.

You can achieve this by choosing to hold certain meetings asynchronously, using remote communication tools like Yac. Since switching to our asynchronous communications platform, 91% of teams say they’ve reduced the number of meetings they’re having.

Care to join them? Learn how Yac can be used for async meetings here.