15/02/2021

The best meeting is the one we don’t have

GUEST POST

Beginning of December 2020, I wrote an article with a slightly provocative title “The best meeting is the one we don’t have

I wrote this article thinking about every individual at a company following a workshop I gave on getting effective meetings as our respective calendars were exploding with meetings. 

I talked about questioning our default behaviour toward meeting, what an interruption of work costs, when a meeting can be avoided and using some techniques to make sure a meeting is necessary.

In this follow-up article, I would like to focus on the role of the leader and what can leaders do to get only the best meetings.

Agile principle

One of the core principle around agile practices is about face to face communication:

  • Let’s bring the team together
  • Let’s bring the rituals face to face
  • Mob-programing
  • Pair programming
  • Etc

Isn’t it the first value: “Individuals and interactions over processes and tools” from the agile manifesto?

Then it is totally normal and encouraged as a leader to have a lot of face-to-face interactions.

But, how do we do this in remote?

What about productivity and effectiveness for remote work?

How do you effectively do agile coaching, mentoring without exploding your calendar?
How do you manage to be a great leader and a great manager remotely?

Shall we set up a meeting for everything then?

The obvious answer is no and despite that we are still learning on how to completely balance out meetings, actual work and life. So let’s try to find out solutions that will help you and the team to reduce the “Zoom fatigue”.

Give your team all the necessary tools

Beginning of the pandemic, we experienced over productivity as people wanted to prove they could work from home.
People were staying connected late, they were updating you every time they needed to do the groceries, had to walk the dog or take care of the children.

But now, people know they can burn out.
So, before jumping into unnecessary meetings or staying on calls all day to check if people are working maybe it is time to assess if you and your team have the necessary tools to interact remotely.

Trust it will be done

Trust is the first tool to use as a leader. Trust the job will get done even out of sight.

People manage their lives everyday and they don’t call someone about it. 

Trust the work will get done, trust that even if they were not connected for the last 2 hours, they will be back and do what is necessary to get their job done. 

Get away from the temptation of micro-managing people or asking them to be on a call while doing their job. 

The only thing you will get is to exhaust them more than they are already and to see them potentially quitting. 

Information in a central place

Most of the time, meetings are set up for the mere fact that the information is not widely available.

  • Do you have a central place where to get most of the information needed on a daily basis for the team to work correctly?
    Do you have processes to request accesses without having to chat to 3 different people?
  • Do you know who is the owner of the module without having to set up a call to half of the Engineering teams?
  • Do you know where to go for information without having to collect scattered Google docs and diagrams spread in different slack channels?

If you answer no to any of those questions, then it might be crucial to start gathering information in a central placer like Confluence or a wiki page. 

Check out the GitLab handbook and get some inspiration on how to set up a central documentation at your company. Start by your team and iterate by adding progressively other teams.

“I am busy” flag

I mentioned the “Zoom fatigue” due to meetings but have you also heard about the “Slack fatigue”?

One of my team member told me last time “I spent my day answering Slack messages and when I finished my day I had the feeling I did nothing”
Sounds as familiar as with meetings, right?

Then how about implementing a system with your team to know if someone is busy or open for a coffee chat?

If you use Slack or any similar messaging system, you can set up status with your team members to reflect their availability.

Resist the temptation to push notifications if your team members are in “do not disturb” mode, unless the company is burning. They are probably busy working on the important feature you asked about. 

A Tool for asynchronous collaboration

You wanna talk about something but it is not urgent neither really require synchronous inputs from your team members. 

How do you gather those inputs in an asynchronous way?

Or, it is time for a retrospective. 

Are you gonna use this infamous spreadsheet with the same type of retrospective you already did for the last couple of weeks and where you can almost perceive your team members rolling their eyes before even starting the event?

Using miro or mural or any other like tools to get effective asynchronous inputs, get a fun retrospective remotely and even take decisions asynchronously thanks to the voting option those tools provide.

Almost no more excuses for dull meetings!

The few dollars you will invest in one of those tools would be repaid a thousand.

Define with your team what tool to use for which type of communication

Congratulations, you set up the entire toolbox for your team, so naturally the situation should improve, calendars should stop being clogged and the team should stop complaining about meetings. 

Well, not so fast. 

As a leader, remember to make explicit the implicit. You may have tools but you still need to explicitly define when and for what using a particular tool.

With the team, be more deliberate on how you are gonna communicate and how you are gonna keep the bonds between team members.

When to do face to face communication

Of course 1:1 should be in face to face communication. 

Coffee chat between team members to build relationships too.

Most of the coaching sessions will be too and also workshops where consensus decisions need to be reached.
Why not also organising gaming sessions together or sharing a community of practices to reinforce team building?

Camera or no camera?

To be honest, I find it a bit awkward when people I don’t know well don’t have their camera on but I do understand people who do not want to put their camera on. 

For most of the workshops I facilitate, my teams meetings and my coaching sessions I always have my camera on, even when I forgot to apply my makeup ;). 

However, recently we started an experience at the company I worked with. 
When I have a 1:1 and I have built a sufficient trusting relationship with the person, we both turn off our camera. We enjoy the occasion to go for a walk or simply to look somewhere else off our screen.

This helps to reduce our amount of time spent in front of a screen, reduce our eyes fatigue and also to take a breath outside of our home during the day.

What about the team ceremonies?

Most of the software engineering teams I know have team ceremonies, so shall they all be face-to-face?

Not necessarily.

Slack has some excellent add-ons to get asynchronous daily meetings.

Setting the stage and gathering data for a retrospective could be done via miro or mural in an asynchronous manner. Generating insights and taking decisions will, of course, mostly need to be synchronous.

Beyond maintaining the team ceremonies, what I found that matters the most is for the team to be more deliberate in maintaining and developing their bonds.

When sending direct messages

When a communication requires a faster answer than an email. Generally under a few hours maximum.

Take great care about your written communication. 

Use plain English to include everyone, especially if you have non-native speakers.

Use emojis to translate your emotional state when writing.

With time passing you might surprise yourself detecting the current mood of a teammate simply by his or her writing.

I also started some experiments with direct messages. I set up some written coaching sessions and so far it worked pretty well. I don’t say coaching sessions could be totally transferred by writing but in some cases and for some determined issues of the coachee, writing can help transmit the ideas and take time to reflect.

When sending emails

Generally if it can wait, it can be an email. 

However, if you want an answer from people, make sure you specify in the subject of the email if an action is required or if the email is for informational purposes. 

In the email specify when you need an answer and who of the recipients list needs to take action.

When setting up a new Confluence page, wiki, etc

As soon as a decision is taken, a process is created and information needs to be widely known. 

Do not hesitate to add Confluence as a step of your team definition of done to make sure it is not forgotten.

I am still clogged with meetings

If despite all of your team’s efforts and agreements you still find the team and yourself clogged with meetings, then, how about a more radical approach?

You could decide to not have any meeting on some specific day and reject automatically any meetings being set up or even more drastically, you could do an armageddon of the meetings. 

Simply, delete all the meetings you have and assess after a week which ones you really missed. 

Hopefully you won’t have to go to the more radical options and the team will really feel a difference in its day to day work.

As always, it is about trials and errors that learning comes.

I am curious about how you are currently handling meetings into your organizations. Let me know if this article and its tips were useful to you and what other methods you might use. 

About me:

Diane Gombart is an agile coach and a coach to leaders, she is currently working at Xapo, a fully remote company for a few years. She is passionate about helping build resilient organisations, coaching leaders, and building effective teams. She loves to travel (even if it is more restricted nowadays) and learn different languages.