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How do you run more successful remote meetings?

When you pose this question to our CEO and Co-founder, Job van der Voort, the answer is always the same:

"The best way to manage meetings is not to have them!"

Meetings are a notorious productivity drain across almost every industry. Unfortunately, if you and your team are wasting time with unnecessary meetings, you are also wasting money. If you have a globally distributed team, inadequate meetings can be so frustrating for team members trying to juggle different timezones.

For hybrid teams with remote workers, meetings that aren't managed effectively can also build a wedge between on-premise staff and those not in the office.

But meetings do have their place.

At their best, meetings build community, facilitate collaboration, reinforce shared goals, and break bottlenecks to allow complex work to progress. These are some of the very things that can be most challenging for remote teams.

Meetings and other synchronous activities should be minimized for distributed teams to work effectively. Asynchronous communication and documentation can often take the place of meetings and achieve goals more effectively and efficiently.

So, how do you figure out which meetings are working for your team and which are just wasting time?

We’ll help you understand where meetings fit within an effective remote-first culture and share our CEO, Job's expert advice to reduce meetings as much as possible!

What is asynchronous culture & why is it vital for remote work?

Successful remote work depends on an asynchronous, or async, approach to collaboration.

The traditional office culture is overwhelmingly synchronous. Team members meet in person to do things in groups of two or more at the same time. Even if a meeting is not structured, on-premise workers tend to have synchronous (or almost the same) hours of work. That means everyone's schedules need to line up, in order to coordinate and make progress on projects. 

That’s hard enough to do when your team is all in the same office. Kira has a dentist appointment, Antonio is out sick, and suddenly work is delayed as Mizuki can't talk to anybody on her project team until Monday.

But what if this team is all working from home? Or what if you have a globally distributed team? Dealing with time zones becomes a serious challenge.

The global pandemic has thrust most companies into considering the challenge of building more asynchronous work practices. This helps diverse, distributed teams work cohesively without in-person contact.

The importance of documentation and async communication

But if no one’s working together, how are they communicating?

How about email? That’s async.

Everyone can read an email at their own pace. But email is often the wrong choice for remote team collaboration. It’s private and not accessible to most of your team.

If it’s not hidden, it’s not easily searchable. We’ve all spent extra time searching through email threads for the one key takeaway. Nobody else on your team has access to your inbox. If you're offline, you can't forward an email thread to give context to a colleague.

Instead, you should aim to develop a culture of documentation.

Documentation means writing important things down and posting them in places where everyone can find them. Facilitating this async communication will free up your globally distributed and remote team members to collaborate without having to continually meet.

How to have fewer meetings

Successful async culture defaults to async and meetings become a last-resort option when you can't find any async practices as a valid substitue. They should not be your first response.

Meetings are synchronous. And as such, they aren’t the most efficient or productive use of anyone’s time. And they’re notoriously annoying. How many times has the meeting that could have been an email passed through your feed? So one major way to improve your async culture is to have fewer meetings.

Job is the Co-founder and CEO of Remote. But he also happens to have over a decade of experience leader and managing fully-remote, global teams in a fast-growth operating environment. We've collected some practical advice from him to help you learn how to reduce the number of meetings for your team members.

Never meet just to share information

“Never have a meeting just to share information. Do that by chat, email, video message with a tool like Loom, record an audio message through Yac, or even revert to snail mail if you can avoid an in-person meet! Better yet: write the information somewhere centrally within a transparent database like Notion and just link to that with an FYI for relevant stakeholders.”

There’s no reason for everyone to sync up just to learn something. It turns out that information sharing is one of the easiest async practices to master. Take the information and put in a place where everyone can access it on their own time. Boom. Done.

This doubles as both a major time-saver and a team-frustration reduction mechanism. That’s why you'll find so many quality products out there to help remote teams share information.

Never start a new recurring meeting

The best way to update or start the schedule of a recurring meeting is to remove the need to do so.

“Only do recurring meetings if you see week after week that you need to have a meeting. Make a point to reevaluate the need for that recurring meeting on a recurring basis.” 

A recurring meeting is essentially a habit. And we all know how hard it is to break a habit. The best way to quit smoking is not to start in the first place. And the same applies to meetings.

Yes, sometimes you do need a recurring meeting, but these should be the exceptions rather than the rules. And you should build the assumption that this meeting is not indefinite into the very fabric of the meeting: the agenda.

Always have and use an agenda

A meeting without an agenda like driving to a new place without your phone or a sat nav. You may get there eventually, but it’s going to take a lot longer and you might get a little stressed along the way. Meetings without agendas start slow, meander around, and often fail to accomplish nothing. It’s a poor use of synchronous time.

“Always have an agenda for a meeting, and require everyone to contribute to it, in advance.”

The agenda should be in a public place where everyone has access. Then all concerns will be dealt with efficiently in the meeting. If you want to talk about it, put it on the agenda.

But isn’t this a list of how not to have meetings? This sounds like a way to have better meetings. The second part of Job's advice on this point is to use the agenda to reduce your meeting times. An empty agenda gives you different information. An empty agenda tells you when to cancel a meeting.

If nothing is on the agenda a few minutes before your meeting, cancel it!

"Hi folks, I see nothing on the agenda, so I'm cancelling the meeting" “

And there you go. Fewer meetings.

See Also: if you'd like more specific advice, we have a dedicated article to guide you through effective remote-first meeting practices.

Always set time limits

Meetings without time limits could last forever. You can't afford to waste the time of your team members. Set a time limit. And make those time limits as small as possible.

“Keep your meetings to max 25 minutes and aim to end early. The five extra minutes are buffer in case you have another meeting after.”

Say no to external meetings

You may be confident with async work and successfully streamlining your meeting schedule to just the most essential meetings. But not all people and companies have caught up. And some of those external collaborators are going to want to meet with you. And you need to say no without insulting them to deafult to your company's remote-first async culture.

So be ready with an explanation to accompany your no.

“Have a template to refuse meetings with external people, so you can easily say no. For example:

‘We're super busy at @remote, so I prefer to do this async. Happy to setup a meeting if we feel the need after exchanging a few messages, but I think we should be able to cover off what we need to.’”

Phase out existing meetings

If you already have too many meetings, don't despair!

Be proactive, take ownership, and find a way to gradually reduce the volume of meetings for everyone in your team. You can be the catalyst for effective remote-first policy change.

“Make it a goal to remove existing meetings. Everyone will love that. Next meeting you have, add a point to the agenda:

  • How can we get rid of this meeting?

Do that until the meeting is gone.”

Try no-meeting experiments

Get curious and figure out new ways to go meeting-free. 

“Replace meetings with experiments:

  • try to do async video
  • try async audio
  • try emailing each other
  • try doing a Slack standup

You can always go back to having a meeting, but you won't know whether the alternative works until you've tried it.”

You have nothing to lose and everything to gain. And who knows? You might start a remote communication revolution.

Limit your availability

Fill your schedule with things you actually need to be doing so that meetings can’t creep in. Starve your meetings and they will waste away.

“Block time off to do deep work/other things and never allow meetings to happen there. Google calendar's OOO function works well for this, as it auto-rejects any events during this time.”

Keep work talk and fun talk separate

Of course, one big benefit to having meetings is getting to talk to each other, to hang out and chat, even if it’s virtually on the Zoom or other platform. But then things get muddy. Work infiltrates fun and fun infiltrates work. Successful workplaces have both. So schedule both. Work meetings for work talk and chats for, you know, chatting.

“Another one, from Remote's Director of Product, Jeremy Watson: avoid agenda-less 'coffee chats' that are actually work conversations. Instead, make dedicated time to have a structured conversation (with an agenda), or set time aside for an unstructured coffee chat to relax and socialize.”

Your remote-first meetings checklist

It’s not that you never need to have meetings. It’s that you only need to have the meetings you need to have. In this article, you’ve learned how using these strategies:

  • Never meet just to share information
  • Never start a new recurring meeting
  • Always have and use an agenda
  • Always set time limits
  • Say no to external meetings
  • Phase out existing meetings
  • Try No-Meeting Experiments
  • Limit your availability
  • Keep work talk and fun talk separate

With these tactics and guidelines, you’re well on your way to that Goldilocks level of meetings between too much and not enough. These deliberate meetings practices will pump up the productivity of your global team and allow your remote employees to better balance their work with their lifestyle.