I put a lot of thought into this title so please bare with me.
I am not saying that all zoom meetings are counter productive.
I am however saying that some zoom meetings are counter productive, and more so that it is easy to get sucked into the counter productive Zoom habits.
Disclaimer: Before I go any further I want to be very clear that “face to face” meetings can be critical for connecting with your colleagues. The communication dynamic alone is dramatically different with human engagement. This is paramount for connecting with others on a personal level.
Now let’s talk meetings.
We are all operating from home these days. Which means over the past 5-6 months your calendar has probably ended up looking something like this. About 40 hours a week of my life is already scheduled to be living an unhealthy sedentary lifestyle in Zoom meetings.
Now this could be an extremely productive week if I was able to pull off being alert, and engaged for every one of these meetings. I have even had a few weeks where I managed to blow off enough of my personal life to sleep enough, drink enough coffee and water, and eat healthy enough to stay alert for an entire week of zoom. The following week I was exhausted and defeated.
I am going to pick on myself here.
I am about as trustworthy and dependable in a Zoom planning meeting as I was stoned at a college jungle juice party.
I am the master of having “productive” conversations on Zoom where we solve all the worlds problems and completely forget them the next day. Seriously it’s like these conversations never even happened.
Wait — what do you mean I took my shirt off and did a keg stand during Ruff Ryders’ Anthem by DMX? I don’t remember this.
Remember yesterday? At the party?
Wait — what do you mean we decided to start putting cover sheets on the TPS reports? I don’t remember this.
Remember yesterday? In the meeting?
Let’s look at the psychology here.
The world was abruptly taken aback by a global pandemic that was powerful enough to invade all of our lives and living rooms on a deeply personal level. One of the main consequences of this invasive reaction was an extreme (and I mean extreme) isolating experience in the workplace.
Naturally, it was easy to respond to this isolation with structured engagement and structured communication. I believe the response was so strong that we are actually having more ephemeral and undocumented conversations now than we were in the past.
I believe we have hyper-responded to the isolation. To me it seems we are now filling our days with unplanned, undocumented, and ephemeral meetings that spark into existence from 9am to 10am on Tuesday morning only to vanish into the abyss of the internet for all eternity until the next iteration of the meeting blips into a temporary existence again sometime in the future.
In the “before time” we were able to engage socially without even realizing it.
- Eye contact in the hallways
- Road rage sitting in traffic
- Coffee talk
- That awkward moment in the bathroom when you are pooping next to your coworkers
- Picking out your outfit for the day
- Going for a walk with a friend
- Seeing a sharp dressed professional on a phone call
- Seeing someone asleep on the pavement
- Seeing a happy couple
- Seeing a person and their dog
All of this social engagement could happen at work. So naturally we began to associate work with social engagement. This paradigm is now broken and will not lead to success moving forward.
There is no such thing as a 5 second Zoom call in the hallway.
Work is now becoming just a job again, and social engagement happens outside of work.
Proposals are important.
Working in open source for the majority of my career has taught me many valuable skills. The proposal writing process is one of the most important parts of my decision making ritual. I believe that our hyper-response to isolation has discouraged the proposal drafting process (who has time with all the meetings?).
Writing a proposal typically accomplishes two things for me as a leader and as an engineer.
- Writing a proposal forces me to gather, and consider my thoughts. I am forced to evaluate the goals, the inputs and outputs of every effort or decision. I truly spend time thinking, and considering something. Furthermore, my thoughts are now permanently captured in the majesty of the almighty written word. It’s going to be hard to forget something that anyone can read.
- Writing a proposal gives space to my audience. I cannot think of how many times I have been in a meeting and was asked a question I wasn’t prepared to answer. When this happens you can either shoot from the hip, or use the socially acceptable cop-out and “follow up” or “take it offline” which of course is the polite way of saying “I will never get back to you“. Give your audience a chance to breathe. A chance to process what you are trying to communicate. Let them sleep on it. Give them a chance to respond with the same time and attention you gave to your proposal.
Working in an environment where we are neglecting this level of attention to detail is hard. It’s no wonder I can’t remember that we are now putting cover sheets on the TPS reports. It’s not written down anywhere, we spent a few moments discussing this in a meeting, and I never had time to process and respond to this after the call was over.
If it’s not important enough to write it down, is it important enough for me to mind?
Timezones are rude.
I don’t think I even need to elaborate here.
If you have ever worked with others in a different timezone you can begin to realize how cruel they can be to someone.
I am single with no kids and live alone in California which means here is a realistic example of my daily schedule.
- 4am to 8am meetings
- 4pm to 8pm meetings
Basically I don’t sleep, I have no idea what day it is, and my days consist of heavily loaded meetings extremely early in the morning and extremely late in the day. But still gotta get those cover sheets on the TPS reports.
Writing a proposal and gathering your thoughts does more than just make you and your thoughts as effective as possible.
It allows folks in other timezones (which is effectively an accessibility issue) to contribute to the dialogue by working and commenting concurrently. Otherwise our meetings are effectively out casting folks in other timezones from participating in the dialogue.
I will see you at the next KubeCon!
I remember the first time I said this. It was a few years ago when I bumped into a familiar face but for the life of me I could not remember this persons name or where I knew them. I figured it was just someone from Twitter and I really needed to go call my dog sitter back.
I mentioned I was in a hurry, but that I would love to catch up at the next KubeCon and hurried off to call the dog sitter.
Anyway I never saw this person again, and I still have no idea who they were but damn their face was familiar.
I remember I used this tactic because I learned this very early on in my Phish touring days. I would see a familiar face. Usually this was after nightfall at the concert. I would see someone, perhaps someone I met earlier in the day, or at a previous show. Anyway a rock concert is no place for polite conversation so the etiquette here was to simply remark “See you at the next show!”
Which of course, neither of us actually believed we would see each other at the next show. In fact neither of us really even knew if the other person (let alone ourselves) would even be at the next show. It was just an easy out.
I am the jedi-ninja master of dropping socially acceptable, yet empty, one-liners in meetings.
Meetings can enable empty promises and undocumented agreements.
- Lets take this offline.
- I will follow up.
- Let’s circle back.
- I can just slack you about it.
- Let’s put a pin in this.
- This seems reasonable.
- I see no problems with this.
- This sounds great.
- See you in the next meeting!
I sometimes wonder if that nameless face in the crowd would ever begrudge me for not seeing them at the next show like I so clearly articulated would unmistakably happen.
I do not think that all meetings are somehow implicitly bad.
I do however think we spend a lot of time in meetings thinking out loud.
Those thoughts sometimes turn into decisions. I believe that making some decisions in meetings can be dangerous, particularly if those decisions are not accompanied by a well thought out bit of literature and broadcasted clearly. More so if those decisions are made impulsively and are not followed up on.
So as a quick checklist for myself. Here are things I like to do while making joint decisions in my life.
- Ensure the outcome of a meeting is well understood. I try to understand what problem is it that we are trying to solve?
- Ensure that I am considering accessibility to the discussion. Will timezones play a factor for me or others? Will this impact mine or someone elses anxiety and deteriorate their mental health?
- Ensure that I have spent time preparing one or more well written solutions to the well understood problem. What is option 1? What is option 2? Which of these do I suggest and why? Where can folks go to read and find out more?
- Be wary of empty promises, lackluster agreements, and the dreaded case of looking for social engagement in the wrong places.
- Ask myself if this meeting is premature and perhaps we could spare time and have the initial discussion/brainstorming phase happen over text/written word while we all start to understand our own thoughts on the matter. Do I really need a calendar invite and a zoom call for this?
I don’t think meetings should feel like a party. They are a very special time set aside when communication is key to driving consensus. Ideally everyone involved should have a clear understanding of what we are solving, and should be ready to listen to others viewpoints on the well written options laid out in front of us. Everyone should show up prepared.
I try to stay away from what I consider red-flag meetings that haven’t provided context for me in some other way. Any Zoom meeting without a message/email/document/conversation as context on what we are trying to solve is very hard for me to attend and feel productive and energized for.
The bottom line is that I don’t think folks feel like they are prolific unless they are booked wall-to-wall with some sort of meeting these days.
I don’t think that is healthy. I don’t think that is scalable. I don’t think that will last.
This is what I mean when I elude to meetings being counter productive. We are spending more time in meetings working on short-lived efforts with low retention rates than ever before to the point of them doing a great disservice to our productivity.
I would rather spend an afternoon writing something that will last. Something that I have worked hard on. Something that I can be proud of. (Like this blog post for instance). Something I can share!
The world is garbage right now, and in the case of my home state of California literally on fire. We need more empathy for other’s time while they craft well thought out proposals.
We don’t need any more half-hazard video calls where we think out loud and recall a small portion of the entire dialogue.
Please. Respect meetings. They are a sacred space. Give them as much respect as you would like to receive from them. Treat meetings the way you want to be treated.
In essence one could say — I think it’s a good idea to: