Pulling the plug on pointless meetings

Executive Education
| The European | 8 October 2020

We’ve rushed to find tools to communicate with our colleagues during the Covid-19 crisis, but now it’s time take a closer look at how we use them, says Adrienne Gormley of Dropbox 

Adrienne Gormley, Head of EMEA at Dropbox

The last six months have required knowledge workers worldwide to make huge changes to their working practices. Covid-19 has thrown us into a distributed workplace, where staying connected with your colleagues has become paramount – and has largely moved online. This change is likely to be lasting; a recent survey from Iometrics and Global Workplace Analytics found that 76% of the global workforce will want to work from home at least one day a week in the future. 

For teams who in their “normal” working lives meet regularly to collaborate, brainstorm, sync on objectives, or even just check in, it is understandable that we’ve rushed to find a replacement for the in-person meeting: the video call. Back in April we saw more than a 20-fold increase in usage of Dropbox’s Zoom integration, compared to February levels. There’s no doubt that being able to connect real-time has allowed us to keep the engine running on a lot of our activities. But are we missing an opportunity to take a hard look at our real-time communications and their effects on our ability to focus?

A reliance on real-time communication

Even before the Covid-19 crisis, knowledge workers were steeped in synchronous communication, presenteeism, and “face time.” 

Meetings in particular have long been crowding out the time that we could be spending on more focused work. According to a 2018 survey by Crowne Plaza Hotel & Resorts, professionals in the UK, Germany and US spend two hours every week in meetings they consider pointless, adding up to 13 days over the course of a year. If you want further proof of how much we value being “in the room”, consider that last year in the UK, there were an average of 710,000 business trips abroad every month.

And our reliance on real-time communication means many of us feel pressured to respond to messages immediately – in fact, a 2017 report by BUPA found that three quarters of workers feel pressured to respond to work messages 24/7, even if they receive them outside of normal work hours. Looking at how knowledge-workers have adapted since March, it’s clear that we’ve essentially tried to transfer our traditional working day, wholesale, from the office into our homes.

Meanwhile, our days have radically changed. Time is limited and our attention is split. This is especially true for those with childcare and other care-giving responsibilities: according to a report by the IFS, the combined responsibilities for work and childcare could take up the entire day for certain groups of parents during lockdown. 

By maintaining our regular meeting schedules through the pandemic and relying heavily on chat, we’re missing a golden opportunity to do away with the strictly scheduled time and constant notifications that plague office life. Instead, we could make time for deeper, more meaningful work.

Creating a culture where people can respond, collaborate and contribute in line with their own schedules – and make time to focus – is achieved, in part, by asynchronous working, which is a way of working that doesn’t rely on people being in the same room or even same time zone. Here are some tips on how you and your teams can start building more of it into your day.

Time for asynchronous working 

Interrogate your calendar – The first step to embracing asynchronous working is to look at the real-time, “synchronous” meetings in your diary, and question whether they are necessary – a large number of them could either be an email, or carried out on a tool like Dropbox Paper, G-docs or Trello. If you are sharing information or an update, a clear and detailed email should cover it. If you’re collating or giving feedback, this can be done via a collaboration tool. It’s only really if you are making a key decision with a number of stakeholders that you need a meeting.

Snooze notifications – Cutting down on meetings will not result in more time to carry out deep, focused work if you are receiving constant notifications, and feeling the need to respond right away. We need to move away from the expectation that everything requires an instantaneous response. It’s a myth that you can multitask: in reality, you are task-switching. According to a study by the University of California, after a notification has forced us to switch between tasks, it takes about 23 minutes to get back to the task at hand. If you snooze your notifications and set times when you will check email or chats, you can free up uninterrupted chunks of time to carry out more cognitively-demanding activities like writing, coding, problem-solving, etc.

Use asynchronous tools wisely – Use tools that promote transparency and asynchronous communication – where information is easily accessible, and people can leave comments that everyone can see. When collaborating on a document, think about the comments you leave and whether they are clear and additive. Over-communication may feel strange at first, but it will prevent having to discuss the comment over a meeting or call.

Give people time – Part of the goal of asynchronous working is that people are able to give more thoughtful, considered input at a time that suits them. People process information in different ways, and giving people time is a more inclusive way of working. Planning ahead is really important when you want people to take their time. Think ‘I’d love your input over the next two days’ rather than ‘please feedback in the next hour’.

Of course, there will always be a need for synchronous communication in the workplace – making important decisions involving multiple stakeholders, completing urgent tasks, building rapport and checking in on how our colleagues are doing are all discussions better had in real-time. Stick to synchronous communication where it makes sense. But if we can come out of this with a few less appointments in the diary and a little more time for deep work, that could add up to a big challenge to the status quo, and perhaps lasting change. The time is now – more than ever, we need to allow our employees the space to make sound, strategic decisions as we all work to build a new and different future.

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