Too many meetings? Here’s how to fix that.

Team-level strategies for reducing your meeting load and protecting focus time

July 19, 2021Yellow Squiggle

Could too many meetings be sucking the life out of you and your team?

Chances are, yes. According to a study by Atlassian, the average employee wastes 31 hours of time in unproductive meetings each month. Forty-five percent of employees say they’ve felt overwhelmed by the number of meetings on their calendar and 47% say meetings are the number one time-waster in the office.

Oftentimes, teams default to meetings as the primary way to communicate with one another about projects and updates. And, while meetings are certainly valuable for collaborating, addressing blockers, and connecting as a team, meeting overload can lead to decreased productivity and engagement, and burnout.

It’s both a mentally draining and costly problem. Take a daily standup meeting as an example. A 30-minute standup for a group of 12 takes away 120 hours of focus time from your team each month. Plus, back-to-back meetings can be draining and take a toll on people’s ability to focus — so even after the meeting wraps up, it might be harder for the team to dive back into their work at full speed. (And if you’re meeting over Zoom, you’ve got Zoom fatigue to deal with too.)

All that to say: reducing the total hours spent in meetings each week can have a real and lasting impact on your team’s effectiveness, happiness, and well-being. Making changes at the team level — like shifting some of what’s typically covered in meetings to an asynchronous format — can help clear some of your calendar so you actually have time to get work done.

Meeting overload: How did we get here?

Too many meetings happen for a number of different reasons. Here are some of the most common.

  • Bandaid for lack of other communication: Oftentimes, teams over-rely on meetings because they don't have good alternatives for communicating updates, staying in sync, and getting work done. When teams and individuals don’t know what each other are up to, meetings get added to the calendar to sort it all out.
  • Right intentions, wrong format: A lot of the time, meeting-heavy work culture comes from a place of good intention. In the spirit of transparency and inclusion, teammates add meetings to the calendar to bring folks along and ensure everyone has context. Inclusion and transparency are foundational to great teamwork, but back-to-back meetings isn’t the only way to get there.
  • “Everyone else is doing it” and legacy meetings: “Eng teams are supposed to hold standups.” “Remote teams are supposed to have weekly virtual happy hours.” Says who? Meetings for the sake of meetings, or standing meetings that no longer serve a clear purpose, aren’t a good use of anyone’s time. If your current meetings aren’t working for your team — it’s time to recalibrate, even if other teams are choosing not to.
  • A global pandemic: The COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated our meeting-heavy culture even further — with teams leaning even more into video meetings to stay connected while apart. Now, not only do we have exhaustion from back-to-back meetings, we’re all learning how to deal with (and lament) Zoom fatigue too.

Team-level strategies to tackle “too many meetings”

If you’ve felt like you’re drowning in meetings, you’re probably not the only one at your org who thinks so. Too many meetings is a team problem that is best remedied with team-level solutions.

But what exactly does that mean?

When teams try to solve the “too many meetings” problems, they often approach it with changes at the individual level only — following tips and best practices like “set an agenda” or “assign a notetaker”. While these are solid actions folks can take to make meetings more effective, they won’t have the same impact on reducing meetings as foundational changes at the team-level will. Instead, focusing on dedicated ways to collaborate asynchronously, protecting individual work time, and creating norms and guidelines for communication can help your team improve the flow of information and move away from such a meeting-heavy culture.

Take a hard look at your current meetings

Take a moment each quarter to evaluate the standing meetings on your team’s calendar and see if there’s an opportunity to do things differently.

Evaluate your meetings by asking yourself the following.

  • What’s its intended purpose? (Ex: create stronger team bonds, social connection, communicate status updates, set a plan for the week)
  • Are there other meetings with the same purpose? Are there ways to achieve this purpose that don’t require a meeting at all?
  • Are people attending it?
  • Is it providing value to everyone in the room or just a few individuals?

This should help you identify meetings you no longer need or meetings that can be moved to an async format.

Focus on ways to collaborate asynchronously instead

Async communication happens in writing, instead of in-person. It’s a great way to keep teams in sync without having to meet in-person or over video. It also has the added benefit of improving access to information and creating a written record of all your team’s progress and accomplishments.

Async communication works really well for meetings like standups and status updates. But it can also be used to replace or shorten many other meetings on your team’s calendars too.

  • Status updates: Rather than holding a daily or weekly round-robin, teams use async written updates (like check-ins) to share progress on in-flight work and flag blockers. This eliminates a meeting that can sometimes feel repetitive and helps folks more easily surface context about the work that they wouldn’t have had time for in a 30-second update.
  • Standups: For async standups, teams use daily written updates to share what they’re working on, what they’ve accomplished, and how they’re doing. Not only does this cut down on the number of hours spent in meetings each week, but it also gives folks a line of sight into how everyone’s doing so they can collaborate and support each other.
  • Team meeting: Adding an async pre-read component can help folks align before the team meeting and come prepared. This ensures a more productive discussion and can often help cut down the meeting’s length.
  • Brainstorms and retros: Try having folks do an async pre-read beforehand and prepare a few ideas too. When people come prepared with context and ideas, it’s easier to get creative more quickly and means the session can be shorter. (Bonus: This approach is more inclusive of different personalities and work styles too.)
  • 1:1s: Instead of meetings centered around status updates, consider using async check-ins or even email to share updates. Then you can use your meeting time to chat about personal development or how you’re feeling.

Use these guidelines and templates to get started

Make the shift from back-to-back meetings to asynchronous communication a seamless one with the following guidelines and templates.

Team guidelines for sharing asynchronously

These will help your team get the most out of async communication and simplify the sharing process.

  • Be specific: Updates should be tangible and granular. So, instead of “Working on Project Mercury”, you might say “Shipped code for new user signup flow.” Encourage folks to include links to things like project roadmaps or Asana tasks to provide more details and context into the work whenever possible.
  • Keep it focused: If you try to collect or share too much information, folks will get bogged down in the same way they did with in-person meetings. For each meeting you shift to async, try giving folks 3-5 prompts — they should be able to share their update in 5 minutes or less. Updates should be brief too: you don’t want to write a novel, but do want to provide enough information so folks have context.
  • Stay organized: One of the biggest benefits of asynchronous sharing is that it provides a rich written record of your team’s accomplishments — you’ll want to keep all this information organized so it’s easy for folks to follow along with work and reference things at any time. At Range, we use a system of tags and flags to group similar projects and initiatives so they’re easy to discover and refer back to later on.
  • Show up as you are: Asynchronous updates should paint a real picture of how things are going, so it’s important for folks to be honest about how they’re doing in the process. It doesn't need to be “rah rah rah!” all the time. Let your team know it’s a judgement-free zone: it’s OK to share if you’re feeling unproductive, failures and learnings, or projects that might not be on track. Surfacing these things will help managers and teammates better support each other, and build up trust, psychological safety, and innovation on your team over time.

To strengthen async communication even further, it can be helpful to define rules of engagement for the tools and apps your team uses too. For instance, if you use Slack, email, and Zoom all for team communication, you might build guidelines around what’s communicated where and how to resolve common issues and situations in each channel. (Ex. We use Slack for timely, short messages; email for more detailed, non-urgent messages; and Zoom for collaboration or discussion.)

Async “meeting” templates

Use these templates to shift your current meetings to an asynchronous format or prepare beforehand with a pre-read or meeting prep to save time and align.

Asynchronous daily standup template
Goal: A quick daily pulse check.

  • Plan: What are you working on today? Share your top 1-3 priorities.
  • Progress: How have you moved work forward since we last checked in?
  • Blocked: What are you blocked on?
  • Mood: How are you feeling today?

Tip: If you do standups daily, you might try swapping out different questions throughout the week. (Example: On Mondays, share your weekly focus. On Fridays, share something or someone you’re grateful for this week.)

Asynchronous status update template
Goal: Sync up on a certain project or initiative.

  • Status check: What’s the status of this project? How have you moved it forward since your last check-in?
  • Blocked: Is there anything you’re blocked on?
  • FYI: Is there anything the team needs to be aware of?

Team meeting pre-read template
Goal: Align beforehand to fuel a shorter, more engaging discussion in person.

  • Weekly focus: What’s your primary focus this week?
  • FYI: Is there anything the team needs to be aware of?
  • Team-building: Rotate in a different team-building question each week to get to know each other and spark discussion.
  • Celebrate: What’s something or someone to celebrate this week?

Retro prep template
Goal: Prep ideas before you meet for a shorter, more productive retro.

  • Working: What went well during this sprint or project?
  • Work on: What could have gone better?
  • Learning: What’s your biggest takeaway from this cycle?
  • Gratitude: Say thanks to someone who helped you out or went above and beyond.

1:1 prep template
Goal: Make 1:1 facetime more about personal growth and development.

  • Mood: How are you doing this week?
  • Accomplishment: What are you most proud of this week?
  • Learning: What did you learn this week?
  • Blocked: Is there anything you’re blocked on?

Craft a cadence of meetings (and work time) that’s intentional

Moving some (or many) of your meetings to an asynchronous format can be hugely beneficial, but you’ll still want to keep some facetime for connecting with the team. Rather than sprinkle these face-to-face moments in at seemingly random times, you can be most effective with your team’s time by structuring intentional meeting blocks throughout the week. (And protecting blocks of time as focused work time too.)

Consider how your team likes to work: If folks on your team tend to focus best in the mornings, consider using those hours as protected work time, scheduling breaks for lunch or exercise to recharge, and then coming back together for meetings or admin tasks in the early afternoon.

Use time-blocking:  Try blocking certain hours of the day for meetings (example: 1-2pm every day is dedicated meeting time) or perhaps theme an entire morning or afternoon around meeting and collaborating (example: Tuesday and Thursday afternoons). People work and focus best with breaks, so if you find yourself wanting to block off a full day for meetings or focus time each week (i.e. No Meeting Wednesday), consider breaking apart big blocks into smaller chunks of time interspersed throughout the week instead. Two or 3 hours blocks of time work well, as they give folks time to get in the groove and a reset when energy starts to dip.

Check out our Guide to Windowed Work for more ideas on how to structure your team’s time more effectively.

Say goodbye to too many meetings

Meetings are an important part of team collaboration and connection. But if all your time is spent in a conference room or Zoom, when are you actually supposed to get work done?

Asynchronous check-ins get your team out of meetings and into focus mode. You’ll improve productivity, engagement, and the overall well-being of your team by making the shift.

Learn more about reducing your meeting load with asynchronous check-ins

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Bonus template:

Ready to give async communication a go? You can use the following email template to share your thought process with the team and get everyone on board.

Hi Team,

Over the last quarter, we’ve heard feedback that our schedules have gotten too meeting-heavy.

To solve this, we’ll be testing out a new format to cut down on the number of hours we spend in meetings each week and hopefully free up more of your time.

What’s changing?
We’ll be experimenting with a new, asynchronous format for our [MEETING NAME].

This means that, rather than come together to meet as a group, you’ll be able to write and share an update for these in your own time. We’ll be using Range for this. I’ve already set up reminders and prompts to make it easy to share your update just like you would in our in-person meeting.

Why are we doing this?
[Include 1 sentence here about what you’re trying to accomplish]

  • Examples:
    The aim is to reduce the number of hours our team spends in meetings each week.
  • The aim is to give you more focus time back in your day so work feels more achievable and less overwhelming.

Here are a few resources that I think you’ll find helpful as you start using Range:

I’d love to hear your feedback as we pilot this new experiment, so please feel free to reach out at any time along the way with ideas for how we can make this work even better.

Your name

Better teamwork, fewer meetings

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Too many meetings? Here’s how to fix that.
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