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How to reduce meeting dependency on your team

Hold fewer meetings by blending async and real-time communication

September 14, 2021

Does your team rely too heavily on meetings to get things done? If you’re spending hours in stand-up meetings or rehashing the same status updates each week, chances are your answer is: Yes.

Meetings are necessary for aligning, collaborating, and connecting as a team. They’re meant to speed work up and increase our overall productivity. But oftentimes, teams tend to rely too heavily on meetings as their primary method of communication — when this happens, we become meeting dependent. We’re forced to come together any time we want to share an update or keep track of what’s happening, and meetings morph into a dreaded time-suck that pull folks out of flow and ultimately make everyone less productive.

The following article will help you identify areas where your team may be relying too heavily on meetings and help you cut down on the number of hours you spend in them.

The difference between asynchronous and synchronous communication

To start, let’s align on some terminology.Asynchronous, or async, communication is when two (or more) people communicate without being ‘present’ at the same time — they can engage and respond on their own schedule. Some examples of async communication include: sending an email, commenting in a Google Doc, sharing a Loom with your team, or sending an update to a project channel in Slack.

Synchronous communication happens in real-time. It might look like a Zoom or in-person meeting, and it can also happen over Slack (or another chat-type of app) if you’re going back and forth with someone live.

When to use async vs. synchronous (real-time) communication?

Async and synchronous communication both have benefits, and they often work best in combination with one another. So what’s the best way to determine which communication style to use when?

To blend async and real-time most effectively, consider the following:

  • Direction of communication: Is the conversation one-way or multi-way? Are multiple people communicating back and forth, or is it one person talking at the group? If it’s just one person sharing with minimal back-and-forth (like a round-robin of status updates), it’s a good signal that async will work best.
  • Current level of alignment: How much shared understanding and alignment does the team have already? Async communication works well when the team is already on the same page. If you’re trying to build alignment or make a big decision together, sync is the way to go.
  • Amount of engagement required: Is it important that everyone in the room be actively participating in a discussion? If so, synchronous or real-time communication is your best bet.

How it looks in action: Using the formula above, here are a few examples of where communication works best asynchronous versus in real-time.

  • Meeting: Typo code review
    • One-way: It doesn’t require collaboration or discussion to review whether code has a typo or not.
    • High alignment: Everyone’s aligned that reviewing code for accuracy is important.
    • Low real-time engagement: It doesn’t require participation or reaction from the whole group.
    • Communication style: Asynchronous

  • Meeting: Feedback conversation
    • Multi-way communication: Feedback should always be a back and forth discussion.
    • Potential low alignment: Feedback may be new information for the person receiving it, and might require more discussion and context-sharing.
    • High engagement: During a feedback conversation, both parties should be engaged. It’s a conversation that requires active participation and reaction.
    • Communication style: Synchronous

3 steps to apply the blended approach to your own meetings

Use these steps to assess your current meetings and identify areas where blending async and real-time communication could save you time.

1. Start by breaking each meeting down into topics or sections

For instance, for a weekly team meeting you might have:

  • Metrics review
  • Round robin status updates
  • Blockers discussion
  • Project deep dive

Once you have your topics outlined, it’ll be easier to identify which sections of the meeting might work better asynchronously.

2. Identify which sections are suitable for async

While there aren’t necessarily hard and fast rules here, our team has experimented with this a lot over the years and found that certain types of communication do tend to work better asynchronously.

If there are parts of your meeting where only one person is doing most of the communicating — it can likely happen asynchronously. If everyone’s already highly aligned and you don’t need much engagement, again — go async.

Here are a few examples of where async communication can come into play across a number of common team meetings:

  • Status updates: Rather than holding a daily meeting, your team can use async communication to share progress and flag blockers. This eliminates a meeting that can sometimes feel repetitive and helps folks more easily surface context about the work (https://www.range.co/product/integrations) that they wouldn’t have had time for in a 30-second update.
  • Standups: Standups work really well asynchronously too because they don’t require a lot of engagement or discussion. Instead of meeting in-person, your team can share what they’re working on, what they’ve accomplished, and how they’re doing through an asynchronous check-in.
  • 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.

3. Shorten (or remove!) remaining meeting time

You’ll get time back in your day and feel more productive and connected to your team because of it.

Bonus: Do’s and don’ts for reducing meeting dependency

Here are a few more examples of how to break down what you do in meetings today into async and real-time components and ultimately cut down on the number of hours you spend in meetings each week.

Status updates

  • High meeting dependency
    ❌ Daily 30-minute standup
  • Reduced meeting dependency
    ✅ Async daily check-ins where folks share their status updates
    ✅ Twice a week real-time meetings for discussion and addressing blockers together

Why? Status updates can (and should!) happen asynchronously because they’re a very one-way type of conversation. No response is typically required from the rest of the team. And if you’re sharing updates regularly, there’s likely to be high alignment on what everyone is working on already. When you move status updates out of your meeting, you can focus face-time on the more multi-way parts of a stand-up conversation — like addressing blockers, understanding what’s not going as expected, and making decisions on how to move forward. You may need to build alignment on what to do next, and it’s important that everyone be engaged to participate in this part of the conversation which is why it works best in real-time.

Brainstorms

  • High meeting dependency
    ❌ 3-hour brainstorming sesh
  • Reduced meeting dependency
    ✅ (Optional) 30-minute real-time kick-off
    ✅ Async individual brainstorming
    ✅ 1-hour real-time idea-sharing session
    ✅  Async follow-ups

Why? A big part of brainstorming is often sharing context — letting the group know what the project is about and what you’re trying to achieve. Rather than take up the first 30 minutes (or more) of a brainstorming sesh giving background — sharing it asynchronously can help you cut down meeting time and give folks time to prep ideas beforehand too. (There’s even some research that suggests brainstorming individually can produce better ideas.) Then, when you come together, synchronous time can be used for those other parts of the brainstorming session that are fueled by multi-way conversation. Things like bouncing ideas off one another or gaining alignment on what you’re trying to accomplish.

Recruiting and hiring

  • High meeting dependency
    ❌ 30-minute pre-panel sync
    ❌ Many interviews with “live” IC work execution
    ❌ 30- to 60-minute hiring syncs for all candidates
  • Reduced meeting dependency
    ✅ Async Slack channel for coordinating interviews
    ✅ (Optional) Async take-home exercise
    ✅ Real-time interviews
    ✅ Async interview feedback (to reduce group-think)
    ✅ Async or real-time decision — depending on alignment

Why? Async communication works really well as part of the hiring process — especially when it comes to sharing feedback about candidates, where you don’t want to be influenced by each other’s responses. On the flipside, the decision can be helpful to do in real-time especially if there’s not high alignment among the entire interview group.

Team-building

  • High meeting dependency
    ❌ Infrequent, time-consuming events
    ❌ Happy hours
    ❌ All-day team building events
  • Reduced meeting dependency
    ✅ Frequent, light touch activities
    ✅ Async team building questions
    ✅ Real-time discussion of team-building questions in weekly meeting
    ✅ Infrequent real-time events like game time

Why? Part of the power of team-building is sharing your own experience and learning from others' experiences — and a lot of that sharing can be done asynchronously. You might share answers to team-building questions or a story from your weekend with the team over Slack. Then, the synchronous aspect can then be about reacting to and engaging with those stories. (For example, you might carve out the last 10 minutes of each team meeting for a discussion around what folks have recently shared.) When you build in more small moments to connect like this, building relationships with teammates becomes something folks think about every day – not just once a month or quarter. You’ll end up creating stronger bonds as a team, without having to carve out time for all-day offsites and weekly happy hours.

Conclusion

Blending async and real-time communication can help reduce the amount of time your team spends in meetings each week and make those minutes even more valuable than they were before.

To learn more about how to make this practice a reality on your own team, check out this recent talk and Q&A with our co-founder, Jen Dennard.

Hold fewer meetings by blending async and real-time communication
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