I’ve lived in three different countries in the past three years, moved into a senior position in a new company, and boarded more international flights than I can possibly count. But among all that travel and general commotion, one of the most difficult parts of my job has been keeping up with the overwhelming number of meetings I’ve had to host or attend.
Meeting overload is common no matter what kind of role you have, even if you’re firmly stationed at one desk in the same location all year round. But it gets much worse when you’ve got a team operating on multiple continents, struggling to find time to communicate well enough to actually get things done. And in my experience, remote teams tend to overcompensate for their geographical dispersal with an increase in meetings.
Regular check-ins are a must, but they can quickly get counterproductive. Before long, your Google Calendar looks like a game of Tetris that you’ve just lost. Here’s how I finally learned to curb the excessive meetings and get down to work.
The first step to curbing meeting overload doesn’t actually have anything to do with how you run meetings themselves. It’s about stemming the incessant flow of unread emails that overrun your inbox while you’re tied up in meetings all day. Before you can make adjustments to how and when your team meets, I’ve found that you need to reset expectations around your emails.
If someone emails you, they’ll likely expect a response within 48 hours or so unless they hear otherwise. This is where an autoresponder can come in handy. During busy times, set up your email autoresponder to say that you’ll be checking emails between a specific time on a specific day (10 a.m.–2 p.m. on Tuesdays, for instance) while urgent matters can go through Slack or any other group messaging platform you might use.
This seems really simple, but it’s easy to overlook how your written communication issues and verbal communication issues are often tied up in one another. To manage one, you need to manage both. By managing your teams’ expectations and setting aside a time just to respond to emails (and not to have meetings) can help you start budgeting the rest of your workweek more thoughtfully.
The next step is looking for overlong meetings to axe completely or convert into shorter ones. So say goodbye to that hour-long all-hands meeting each Wednesday. Instead, stick to 15–20 minute meetings by default. I’ve gotten a lot better at laying out a clear agenda in advance, then sharing it with my team members. This makes sure everyone has a chance to prepare whatever they need to ahead of time, so we can cut back on using the meeting itself to hash out details on the fly.
The other part of “short and often” is allocating time for one-on-one meetings. I’ve set those up individually with my team members on a rolling basis throughout the month. This lets us focus on general project catch-ups as well as regular discussions about their careers. And here, too, setting a clear agenda beforehand is essential to keeping these short and effective.
Crappy teleconference systems can turn a 30-minute meeting into an hour-long one–and that’s true even if you’ve only got a couple of people calling in. When your whole team is remote, it’s even more essential to use dependable tools, and to know which ones to use for what. Personally, I’m a big fan of Zoom for video conferencing, Slack for instant messaging, and a combination of Trello and 15Five for at-a-glance project management.
In fact, having a good project management tool is key because it’s one way to quickly stay on top of what your team’s working on without actually having to talk about it in real time. So many meetings can be avoided through smarter advance planning. If you don’t set your team up to do that smoothly, you’ll set yourselves up for death by a thousand meetings.
Matthew Barby heads up user acquisition at HubSpot, is an advisor for a number of tech startups, and regularly speaks at growth-focused events around the world.