Thoughts you mightn't'a thunk about remote meetings
Welcome to this week's edition of "building a startup in 2020," in which all your meetings are suddenly remote, and you probably weren't prepared for it.
I know I wasn't. We started a "fully remote" company back in 2019, but that was supposed to mean we still got together in person every month or two to do strategic planning, share meals, and resolve any accumulated conflicts. Well, not this year. Instead, we had to learn to have better remote meetings, all while building our whole team from scratch.
You can find endless articles on the Internet about how to have a good meeting. So many articles, in fact, that I can no longer find the ones that I liked the best, so that I can quote from them and give them credit :( Sorry! I'll have to paraphrase. Please send links if you think some of this sounds familiar.
Here are a few meeting tips I've accumulated over the years, with some additions from the last few months.
The most efficient meeting is no meeting.
Let's start with what should be obvious by now: sometimes you don't need a meeting at all. For example, status updates almost always are better delivered in some written medium (like email) that can be retained for future reference, and skimmed (or ignored) faster than people can speak.
Alas, skipping meetings doesn't solve every problem, or else remote work would be a lot easier for everyone.
Remember: every minute costs multiple person-minutes.
Imagine a meeting where a manager is presenting to 9 people. That costs 1+9 person-minutes per minute. A single one-hour meeting costs you 10 hours of employee salaries! With modern tech employees, that adds up really, really fast. You need to spend it wisely.
Now, assuming everyone needed to see that presentation - which is rarely the case - then one big meeting is a pretty efficient way to go. You can inform N people in O(N) minutes. That's pretty close to optimal. Of course, in the purest form of a presentation meeting, you could have just recorded the presentation in advance and let some of the people watch it at 2x speed, saving precious minutes. But that doesn't work in the typical case where you allow some Q&A, either during or afterwards.
As a meeting trends away from a presentation and toward group discussion, efficiency drops fast. Almost always, a discussion will be dominated by 2-3 people, leaving the others to sit and get bored. We all know what to do here, even though we don't always do it: split the discussion into a separate, much smaller meeting with just the people who care, and have them provide a text status report back when it's done.
The text status report is really important, even if you think nobody cares about the result of the meeting. That's because without the status report, nobody can be quite sure it's safe to skip the meeting. If they can read text notes later, it gives them the confidence to not show up. That typically saves far more cost than the cost of writing down the notes. (To say nothing of the cost of forgetting the decision and having to meet again later.)
Around here we take seriously copious meeting notes. It's a bit ridiculous. But it pays off frequently.
In big meetings, some people don't talk.
A related problem with big meetings is the people who don't get to talk even though they want to, or who always get interrupted or talked over. (There was a really great article about this a few months ago, but I can't find it, alas.)
Historically this has been much worse when your meeting has remote attendees, because it turns out latency blows up our social cues completely. Nobody quite knows how long to wait before speaking, but one thing's for sure: when some of the team is sitting in one room (~zero latency), and some are remote (typically hundreds of milliseconds of latency), the remote people almost never get to talk.
It's not just latency, either; remote users typically can't hear as well, and aren't heard as well, and people don't notice their gestures and body language.
Unexpectedly, the 2020 work-from-home trend has helped remote workers, by eliminating the central room with a bunch of zero-latency people. It levels the playing field, although some people invariably still have worse equipment or worse latency.
That helps the fairness problem, but it doesn't solve personality and etiquette problems. Even if everyone's all in the same room, some people are naturally tuned to wait longer before speaking, and some wait for less time, and the latter almost always end up dominating the conversation. The only ways I know to deal with this are a) have smaller meetings, and b) have a facilitator or moderator who decides who gets to talk.
You can get really complicated about meeting facilitation. (See also: that article I can't find, sigh.) Some conferencing tools nowadays have a "raise hand" button, or they count, for each user, the total amount of time they've spent talking, so people can self regulate. Unfortunately, these fancy features are not well correlated with the other, probably more important, conferencing software features like "not crashing" or "minimizing latency" or "having a phone dial-in just in case someone's network flakes out."
It turns out that in almost all tools, you can use the "mute" feature (which everyone has) to substitute for a "raise hand" feature (which not everyone has, and which often works badly even when they do). Have everyone go on mute, and then unmuting yourself is like raising your hand. The facilitator can call on each unmuted person in turn.
All these tricks sound like good ideas, but they haven't caught on for us. Everyone constantly muting or raising their hand, or having to wait for a facilitator before they can speak, kills the flow of a conversation and makes it feel a bit too much like Robert's Rules of Order. Of course, that's easy for me to say; I'm one of the people who usually ends up speaking either way.
When I'm in a meeting, I try to pay attention to everyone on the screen to see if someone looks like they want to talk, but is getting talked over. But that's obviously not a perfect solution given my human failings and the likelihood that some people might want to speak but don't make it very obvious.
Compared to all that fancy technique, much more effective has been just to make meetings smaller. With 3-4 people in a meeting, all this matters a lot less. It's easy to see if someone isn't participating or if they have something to say. And with a 2-person meeting, it's downright trivial. We'll get to that in a bit.
Amazon-style proposal review meetings
You can use a different technique for a meeting about a complicated product or engineering proposal. The two variants I know are the supposed "2-page review" or "6-pager review" meetings at Amazon (although I've never worked at Amazon), and the "design review" meetings I saw a few times back at a different bigco when I worked there.
The basic technique is:
- Write the doc in advance
- Distribute the doc to everyone interested
- People can comment and discuss in the document before the meeting
- The meeting owner walks through any unresolved comments in the document during the meeting, while someone else takes notes.
In the Amazon variant of this, "in advance" might be during the meeting itself, when people apparently sit there for a few minutes reading the doc in front of everyone else. I haven't tried that; it sounds awkward. But maybe it works.
In the variant I've done, we talk about only the document comments, and it seems to work pretty well. First, it avoids the tendency to just walk through a complicated doc in front of everyone, which is very inefficient since they've already read it. Second, it makes sure that everyone who had an unresolved opinion - and thus an unresolved comment in the doc - gets their turn to speak, which helps the moderation/etiquette problem.
So this style is functional. You need to enforce that the document is delivered far enough in advance, and that everyone reads it well in advance, so there can be vigorous discussion in the text ahead of time.
You might wonder, what's the point of the meeting, if you're going to put all the comments in text form anyway?
In my experience, the biggest advantage of the meeting is simply the deadline. We tried sending out design docs without a design review meeting, and people would never finish reading the doc, so the author never knew it was done. By scheduling a meeting, everyone knows the time limit for reviews, so they actually read the doc by then. And of course, if there are any really controversial points, sometimes it's easier to resolve them in a meeting.
Conversely, a design review without an already-commented doc tends to float in the ether, go overtime, and not result in a decision. It also means fewer people can skip the meeting; when people have read and commented on the doc in advance, many of the comments can be entirely resolved in advance. Only people with outstanding issues need to attend the review.
"Management by walking around"
An underappreciated part of big office culture is the impromptu "meetings" that happen between people sitting near each other, or running into each other in the mini-kitchen. A very particular variant of these impromptu meetings is "management by walking around," as in, a manager or executive wanders the floor of the building and starts random conversations of the form "how's it going?" and "what are you up to this week?" and "is customer X still having problems?"
At first glance, this "walking around" style seems very inefficient and incomplete. A big executive at a big company can't ever talk to everyone. The people they talk to aren't prepared because it's not a "real" meeting. It doesn't follow the hierarchy, so you have inefficiently duplicated communication channels.
But it works better than you'd think! The reasons are laid out in High Output Management by Andy Grove (of Intel fame), which I reviewed last year. The essential insight in that book is that these meetings should be used, not for the manager to "manage" employees, but for the manager to get a random selection of direct, unfiltered feedback.
As the story goes, in a company full of knowledge workers, the people at the bottom of the hierarchy tend to know the most about whatever problem they're working on. The managers and executives tend to know far fewer details, and so are generally ill-equipped to make decisions or give advice. Plus, the executive simply doesn't have time to give advice to everyone, so if walking around was part of the advice-giving process, it would be an incomplete, unfair, and unhelpful disaster.
On the other hand, managers and executives are supposed to be the keepers of company values (see my earlier review) and bigger context. By collecting a random sample of inputs from individual contributors on the floor, they can bypass the traditional hierarchical filtering mechanism (which tends to turn all news into good news after only one or two levels of manager), thus getting a clearer idea of how the real world is going, which can help refine the strategy.
I still think it's a great book. You should read it.
But one little problem: we're in a pandemic. There's no building, no floor, and no walking. WWAGD (What Would Andy Grove Do)?
Well, I don't know. But what I do is...
Schedule way too many 1:1 meetings
Here's something I started just a couple of months ago, which has had, I think, a really disproportionate outcome: I started skipping most larger meetings, and having 1:1s with everyone in the company instead.
Now, "everyone in the company" is a luxury I won't be able to keep up forever, as we grow. Right now, I try to schedule about an hour every two weeks with more senior people, and about 30 minutes every week with more junior people (like co-op students). Sometimes these meetings get jiggled around or grow or shrink a bit, but it averages about 30 minutes per person per week, and this adds up pretty fast, especially if I also want to do other work. Hypothetically.
I don't know if there are articles about scheduling 1:1s, but bi-weekly 1:1 meetings also have a separate problem, which is the total mess that ensues if you skip them. Then it turns out you're only meeting with some people once a month, which seems too rare. I haven't really figured this out, other than to completely remangle my schedule if I ever need to take a vacation or sick day, alas. Something about this scheme is going to need to improve.
As we grow, I think I can still maintain a "meet with everyone" 1:1 schedule, it just might need to get more and more complex, where I meet some people more often and some people less often, to give a weighted "random" sample across the whole team, over a longer period of time. We'll see.
Anyway, the most important part of these 1:1s is to do them Andy Grove style: they're for collecting feedback much more than "managing." The feedback then turns into general strategy and plans, that can be discussed and passed around more widely.
Formalizing informal donut chats
The above was for me. I'm the CEO, so I want to make sure to talk to everyone. Someday, eventually we're going to get all organized and have a management hierarchy or something, I guess, and then presumably other executives or managers will want to do something similar in their own orgs and sub-orgs.
Even sooner, though, we obviously can't expect all communications to pass through 1:1s with the CEO. Therefore, shockingly, other people might need to talk directly to each other too. How does that work? Does everyone need to talk to everyone else? O(N^2) complexity?
Well, maybe. Probably not. I don't know. For now, we're using a Slack tool called Donut which, honestly, is kinda buggy and annoying, but it's the best we have. Its job is simply to randomly pair each person with one other person, once a week, for a 1:1, ostensibly to eat virtual donuts together. I'm told it is better than nothing. I opted out since I already have 1:1s with everyone, thank goodness, because the app was driving me nuts.
What doesn't work well at all, unfortunately, is just expecting people to have 1:1 meetings naturally when an issue comes up. Even if they're working on the same stuff. It's a very hard habit to get into, especially when you have a bunch of introverted tech industry types. Explicitly prompting people to have 1:1 meetings with each other works better.
(Plus, there's various advice out there that says regularly scheduled 1:1s are great for finding problems that nobody would ever schedule a meeting for, even if you do work in the same office. "We have to use up this 30-minute meeting, no matter what" is miraculous for surfacing small conflicts before they turn into large ones.)
As a slight variation on the donut, some of my co-workers have invented a more work-oriented style of random crossover meeting where instead of just eating virtual donuts, they share a screen and do pair programming (or some other part of their regular work) with the randomly selected person for an hour or two. I'm told this has been pretty educational and fun, making things feel a bit more collaborative like it might feel in an office.
Do you have any remote meeting tips?
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