Work Culture

Can more creative ways of meeting save our focus?


Published on February 08, 2023

Back in the 1960s, company leaders spent 10 hours a week in meetings. Today, it’s much higher—more than two hundred percent higher. 

Time spent in meetings is still rising. Every year since 2000, total meeting time has increased by about 10% for everyone regardless of role. Despite a trend in shorter meetings that started from the pandemic (great!), the total number of meetings continues to rise (not so great).

Meetings where people synchronously meet face-to-face—whether in real life, on a video conference, or over the phone—are now the go-to standard for most forms of communication and collaboration. Need to share information with your team? Brainstorm new marketing campaign ideas? Deliver training? Book a meeting. It’s a one-size-fits-all tool that has turned our calendars into Tetris screens.

Our workdays have become so dominated by these syncs and check-ins that it can be a challenge to see another way. Instead of pointing fingers at inexperienced managers, an increase in remote and cross-functional work, or even FOMO as the cause of our meeting fatigue, what if we looked for more options in the way we choose to meet, collaborate, and communicate? 

This isn’t all to say that face-to-face communication doesn’t have a place in modern work culture. There’s very little that can replace real-time conversations when it comes to getting to know a new colleague or discussing a sensitive matter, for instance. Yet anyone who has faced eight solid hours of endless synchronous meetings knows this isn’t sustainable for every situation. Instead, exploring alternative meeting formats can give everyone involved more choice and flexibility.

By empowering people to communicate in mutually appropriate ways, we can reduce meeting times without compromising much communication or collaboration. We can reclaim time, refocus our attention, and pour renewed efforts into more focused work.

Nearly 70% of managers say meetings keep employees from working and completing all their tasks.

One size does not fit all 

Traditional meetings follow the same general structure—a format of real-time communication provided synchronously between present parties. It’s a default model that aims to serve everyone, but appealing to everyone can often mean appealing to no one.

In his book The End of Average, Todd Rose reported on how the United States Air Force modernized their old-fashioned cockpits in the late 1940s. Taking measurements from over 4,000 pilots, they designed a new layout around the median fit. By designing every element for the average pilot, they designed for everyone… or so they thought.

When test pilots took to the skies, they kept crashing. Something was wrong.

Eventually, one scientist began comparing individual pilots to the average model. There, he discovered the issue: not a single pilot fit the average. Their one-size-fits-all cockpit just didn’t work.

The same result can be seen decades later, in an albeit, completely different environment. Today, nearly 70% of managers say meetings keep employees from working and completing all their tasks. Three-quarters of employees say they tune out of meetings and do other work. Around 90% say they regularly daydream in meetings. The average model just isn’t working. 

Pilots needed customizable cockpits to be effective. To do our best work, we too need more flexibility in the way we meet. As the saying goes, if the only tool you have is a hammer, it is tempting to treat everything as if it were a nail. Modern meetings have become the Maslow’s hammer of the workplace, but introducing a few new tools can bring a more agile, renewed perspective on collaboration. 

Flexible formats unleash creativity

Marc Bromhall used to rely on a mix of in-person and Zoom meetings to run his marketing company, Marbro Media. Every week, he’d spend eight or nine hours in recurring meetings, hashing out ideas and strategies with his team. But he knew that wasn’t the best use of anyone’s time.

“The core issue of each meeting comprised 20% of it,” he explains. “The other 80% consisted of fluff, mindless chatter, and small talk.”

He began designing an alternative meeting format that cultivated creativity and collaboration without wasting time. In the end, Marc landed on what he calls a voice-jam, “a combination of voice notes and a jam board.”

Aside from one synchronous face-to-face meeting, voice-jams power all Marbro Media’s meetings. Take their weekly marketing meeting. Before, it was rambling and disjointed. Now, every attendee has their own slide on a jamboard. They embed content and post voice notes to share ideas. The format keeps discussions laser-focused while retaining many of the good parts of face-to-face communication, such as intonation and tone.

Marc says the flexible format freed him from endless hours of meandering meetings: “There's no small talk and talking for the sake of talking. Employees simply record what they have to say and send it on.”

All around the world, people are replacing one-size-fits-all meetings with innovative alternatives.

Async video creates organizational memory

Ronald Osborne’s story is similar. As a small business consultant, he often found himself drawn into lengthy face-to-face meetings and calls. Not only did they take up a lot of time, but he also felt like meeting content was getting lost or forgotten in notes and minutes.

He began experimenting with asynchronous video, recording short presentations, and sharing them with project team members. He says it’s working well. For one thing, it’s eliminated the challenge of time zones. Clients and colleagues access recordings on their schedule—not his. However, the biggest difference lies in response time.

In a face-to-face meeting, there’s an expectation to reply immediately. Should we expand into Asia-Pacific? Yes. What applicant should we hire? Steve. Do you like product-led or sales-led growth? Product. Meetings rarely provide time to pause, mull, and think—all of which are essential components of effective decision-making.

Online tools for asynchronous video, like Dropbox Capture, allow people to digest information before responding. With the ability to record, re-record, and edit videos, responses can be more thoughtful and concise. 

Beyond voice and video

Many business communication strategies rely on frequency. Daily standups, for example, allow people to share their achievements, plans, and roadblocks every day. The theory goes that teams can identify problems as early as possible and work together to solve them. The same’s true for project updates, line management one-to-ones, and other recurring meetings. But that safety net comes at a cost.

Daily or weekly interruptions shatter schedules, turning unbroken stints of concentration into fragmented bursts of work. To safeguard his colleagues’ schedules, Chris Johnson, marketing coordinator at a technical talent marketplace, implemented a “no daily meetings” rule. Instead, he redeveloped recurring meetings into slimmed-down templatized rituals.

His team’s daily standup, once a frustrating interruption, is now a dedicated Slack channel. Every day, his colleagues answer the three core questions: What did you do yesterday? What will you do today? What’s blocking your progress?

“It allows everyone in the company to have visibility into what other teams are working on without overloading folks with information,” Chris explains. In other words, the same impact with less disruption.

More tools, better communication

Marc, Ronald, and Chris are not the only people exploring communication optionality. All around the world, people are replacing one-size-fits-all meetings with innovative alternatives.

Entrepreneur Kyle Clements stopped delivering synchronous training sessions. Instead, he records asynchronous videos and shares them online.

“Most people simply don’t retain something the first time they hear it,” he says. “Async videos allow employees to watch and rewatch a tutorial or important walkthrough as many times as they need.

Instead of running feedback sessions, financial services educator Brian DeChesare sends out Google Forms. “While we can’t eliminate every meeting, we use these forms to reduce the unnecessary ones and foster more effective meetings by planning with important data already in hand,” he explains.

Growth executive Trevor Ford employs transparent project management tools to nix regular status updates. Marketing leader Sarah Schultz replaced synchronous information-sharing sessions with detailed written briefs. And Chris Johnson didn’t just get rid of standups. He replaced one-way information-sharing meetings with asynchronous video, text, and documents.

This isn’t to say synchronous face-to-face meetings don’t have their place. It’s difficult to build personal relationships over a jamboard. It’s tough to open up about workplace challenges via text. But what innovators have shown is that optionality—choice over how you communicate—is the future. By selecting the best meeting format, people can focus instead on work that really matters.