With remote work becoming more and more prevalent, many bad practices — especially regarding meetings — of office culture now invade our remote work cultures as well. This is an outline for a better way of working together.
- Working towards a shared vision over strictly following plans & deadlines
- Flexible work time over fixed office hours
- Continuous sharing of work progress over rare, big presentations
- Thoughtful, text-based discussions over meetings that favour the loudest
- Distributed ideation over requiring spontaneous epiphanies
- Deep & meaningful socialising over superflous small-talk in meetings
Let’s elaborate these principles a bit.
A Shared Vision
Problem: Nobody is ever going to die because an arbitrary deadline — thought up by their manager — wasn’t met. Rigid project plans and deadlines require synchronous, factory-style collaboration and suppress creativity.
Solution: Create a shared vision that’s visible to everyone, show each team member a path how they can contribute to that vision, then trust each team member to make or facilitate the right decisions. This allows for out-of-the-box thinking, the freedom to find the best way of doing something, not just a way to meet the deadline. Timeboxes can help a team to achieve more focus, otherwise it might get distracted too much.
Flexbile Work Time
Problem: Fixed office hours — in schedule (9 to 5) as well as amount per week (40) — stifle creativity and zombify knowledge workers, because the best time for creativity varies highly between people and the amount of productive time varies highly by task.
Solution: Attract the brightest and most creative people to your company by offering flexibility in both dimensions (scheduling of work as well as amount per week).
Sharing Work Progress
Problem: If you’re calling a meeting to get a status update, your ticket system is shit and you don’t trust your team(-mates).
Solution: Develop trust in your team, nurture your ticket system (also by setting it up so each type of status is clearly visible), and you’ll always know the current status of everything. Short recordings (audio, video, screen) help a lot, also for documentation’s sake.
Caveat: Your team will need to learn how to nurture the ticket system and always keep it up to date. They also need to learn to share everything, especially their challenges, which doesn’t come natural to most. But once they do learn these, you’re golden!
Problem: Synchronous discussions in meetings always suffer from a lack of preparation and documentation, therefore the same discussions will be held repeatedly, if not by the same people, then by different people in the same organisation. Synchronous meetings almost always go overtime, which leads to rushed and therefore bad decisions. If that wasn’t enough, synchronous meetings also discriminate against quieter, more introverted people and against parents who can’t always join because of other duties.
Solution: Asynchronous, text-based discussions using the right tools (not a chat system) lead to better results (even though it might take longer), because participants have time to think, introverted participants will also be heard and it will improve your team’s writing skills, which will also improve their thinking skills. If most of your organisation’s decisions are made in synchronous meetings, there is a lot of potential for using asynchronous, digital tools to facilitate deeper discussions — and therefore better decisions. Again, timeboxes for discussions help to make sure you’ll reach a conclusion.
Caveat: In some cases, a well-prepared, well-moderated fate-to-face debate or workshop using good methods can also have productive results.
Problem: Ideation and gathering of requirements is usually done as a meeting in the form of “lets get everyone involved in a room so we don’t forget anything”. But what if they don’t think of the right requirement in the moment of the meeting, since they came unprepared or are unfocused because something else is on their mind at that time? What if the scribe (did you even appoint one?) forgot to write down something important?
Solution: Asynchronous methods are much better for divergent collection of ideas/requirements, in fact, well-organized in person meetings usually use asynchronous techniques like brainwriting. Selection and/or rating of ideas should be done in the preferential voting style where possible, using a way for participants not to influence each other. Using a proper digital tool, this is much easier than in a meeting.
Problem: Socialising is woven into meetings, to the extent that many meetings end up as primarily socialising without much usable outcome.
Solution: Asynchronous chats and text-based discussions are good for socialising, too. There’s almost no better way to really get to know someone than reading a five-paragraph discussion contribution where they’re putting their heart into their arguments.
Caveat: Since we humans are social animals, socialising is a valid reason — maybe the only valid reason — for synchronous, face-to-face meetings. Let’s admit that and dedicate specific times to it. That can be in the form of separate meetings, or in the form of check-ins or check-outs surrounding a meeting.