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How to answer the age-old question: Could this meeting have been an email?

We’ve all attended meetings that could have been skipped entirely. Before you schedule another one, do us all a favor and consider these four factors.

How to answer the age-old question: Could this meeting have been an email?
[Source photo: fauxels/Pexels]
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We’ve all attended meetings—virtual and in-person—and wondered to ourselves, “Why am I here?” In a recent study from SurveyMonkey, 32% of respondents found themselves thinking that a meeting could have been an email. Yet, meetings go on, and employees are tired of them, says Brian Kropp, chief of research in the Gartner HR practice.

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“[Our] research shows hybrid employees who have seen an increase in the amount of time spent in one-on-one meetings with their peers are 1.37 times more likely to feel emotionally drained from their work,” he says. “More alarmingly, 40% of hybrid or remote employees report an increase in the length of their workday in the past 12 months. More meetings, in turn, creates more employee fatigue.”

Before you create that calendar invite, ask yourself if a meeting is the only way the information can be shared. These are four circumstances when a meeting may be best:

1. Taking Action

Status updates and FYIs don’t need to be done in meetings. If you’re unsure, Darren Murph, head of remote for the open DevOps platform GitLab, suggests entering an asynchronous mindset by asking yourself: “How would I deliver this message, present this work, or move this project forward right now if no one else on my team or in my company were awake?”

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“This removes the temptation to take shortcuts, or to call a meeting to simply gather input. After all, every meeting should be a review of a concrete proposal and only called when it will lead to a more efficient outcome than would be possible asynchronously,” he says.

Instead, meetings should be reserved for creating actions from a proposal. “The most efficient organizations recognize that consensus-gathering and decision-making should be decoupled,” says Murph. “The former can largely be accomplished asynchronously, saving precious synchronous meeting time for finalizing decisions after key stakeholders have ingested written input.”

Since meeting outcomes need to be documented, moving them to a form of written communication saves time. “It also enables team members to be on equal footing, with each team member contributing in the same size font,” says Murph.

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2. Increasing Efficiency

Kate Christie, CEO of time management consultants Time Stylers, says meetings can be divided into three categories: for information, for discussion, and for decisions. Information should be exchanged in an email. But discussions and decisions can be more efficient as meetings.

“There is a difference between being productive and being efficient,” she says. “Essentially, productivity is doing more with the same, such as producing more products with the same number of people. Efficiency is doing the same with less, producing the same outcomes with [fewer] steps.”

Companies want their people to be productive and their processes and systems to be efficient.

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“From an efficiency perspective, meetings to discuss a challenging issue or to make a decision are a good investment of time,” says Christie. “It is a better use of the team’s time to get them in a room together for 30 minutes to debate an issue or make a decision, than it is to send multiple emails seeking input, to read all of the input, to synthesize the input, and then arrive at a decision which then needs to be disseminated.”

Decision-making meetings will also depend on alignment within the team, adds Kamal Janardan, general manager of Microsoft 365 Insights.

“If level-setting is required, aim to have a pre-read and use the meeting to start with that pre-read,” she says. “If everyone is aligned, consider proceeding via email or Teams instead. If a meeting is still needed, try a 20- to 25-minute sync, which can help reduce fatigue.”

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3. Brainstorming New Ideas

Meetings can also be effective for idea generation, says Matt Burns, startup ecosystem leader at the productivity platform monday.com. “Brainstorming can be particularly productive in a meeting format because it provides a low-stakes opportunity for sharing new ideas, lets attendees iterate on each other’s contributions in real time, and helps teams better understand how their peers think and work,” he says.

To make the most of everyone’s time, Burns suggests setting the stage. “Be intentional and over communicative when setting up a meeting to ensure that everyone arrives on the same page, with the necessary context, and aligned on goals,” he says.

4. Handling Sensitive Topics

Emotionally charged topics are best handled face-to-face, says Janardan. “Research shows that face-to-face interactions, even if virtual, can help mitigate miscommunication since emotions are more easily understood through voice communication,” she says.

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Kropp agrees, adding that video calls are best for topics that need to have space for nuance, tone, and body language. “These include sensitive discussions or conversations where tone could be misconstrued when put into written form, such as performance management conversations and mentorship or coaching conversations,” he says.

Meeting or Email?

Before you send out a calendar invite, consider that meetings are multiples of their attendees, says Burns. “If a bad six-minute meeting has 10 attendees, that’s an hour of wasted productivity,” he says. “Now imagine a bad 30-minute meeting with three people or more.”

Meetings are requests for someone’s time, so carefully evaluate the its cost or benefit, says Janardan. “Being transactional can help you take less time; however, it can also lead to exhaustion and overload,” she says. “Be human and encourage others to do the same.”

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Resist the urge to default to a meeting, says Janardan: “Remind yourself of all the things that got resolved when you had those casual run-ins at work and try to recreate them—whether you are in-person or not. Sometimes the fastest way to come to a solution is to just pick up the phone or physically seek out a colleague if you are spending more time in a physical office.”

When done right, meetings can result in stronger teams. “Regardless of your industry, building and maintaining positive relationships with your peers and teams helps improve the flow of overall communications,” says Burns. “A well-run meeting can organically foster rapport and help build bonds within teams.”