Effective meetings

Work fundamentals

In a distributed setup, you should default to public, written communication. This helps convey information to all interested parties while also time waste, and it should be your first resort.

However, an old-style meeting is still needed every now and then. There's typically three scenarios where a meeting is the best choice:

  1. You need participants to quickly bounce ideas off each other. While asynchronous communication encourages deep reflection, it also comes with a longer feedback loop. If your goal is to collect feedback, resolve conflicts, reach a conclusion and move forward, a meeting may actually work better than a Slack thread.
  2. You want to maintain emotional context. Sensitive matters are best discussed face to face: it's tough to have high-stakes conversations over Slack. Make sure you're accounting for the emotional component of your message when picking its medium.
  3. You're interacting with "foreign" stakeholders. In an ideal world, everyone would be an async fanboy, but that's not the world we live in. If you need to have a conversation with someone you've never met before, they are very likely to prefer a Zoom call over a Google Doc. Within reason, try to be flexible and pragmatic in such situations.

There might be other reasons for preferring a meeting over async communication, so don't be too dogmatic and use your best judgment. As long as you're generally accurate in picking the right communication medium, it doesn't really matter if you get it wrong every now and then.

What effective meetings look like

Pro Tip: We recommend using your Nebulab-sponsored Fellow account to run your meetings. Fellow will help you keep track of the agenda and outcomes of the meeting, and it's useful both for one-off and recurring meetings.

If you do schedule a meeting, you want it to be an effective meeting. You'll know one when you see it, because effective meetings feel like magic: attendees know what the meeting is about, the conversation flows naturally from one point to the next, all off-topic discussions are held at bay, and the next steps are crystal-clear.

As you may imagine, all of this goodness doesn't come free. Effective meetings exhibit some key traits which require the effort of everyone involved in them, from the organizer to the attendees:

  • The meeting has all and only mandatory attendees. This ensures you're not missing any context, helps the conversation stay on topic and respects the time of the people who don't need to be at the meeting in the first place. If you're the organizer, make sure you invite everyone who's needed to make a decision, and set anyone else as optional. If you're an attendee, make sure the meeting is actually one you need to attend.
  • The meeting has an agenda and expected outcomes. This ensures the meeting doesn't degenerate into casual chit-chat or into a brainstorming session. If you can't establish an agenda or if you don't know what outcome you expect from the meeting, why are you meeting in the first place? Try to collect more context before scheduling face time.
  • All attendees show up on time. Showing up ten minutes late to a meeting with six attendees means you've just wasted an hour. This most often happens when managers have "meeting trains" (that's when you have all your meetings scheduled one right after the other). Get into the habit of keeping 10-15 minutes of padding between meetings.
  • All attendees come to the meeting prepared. Don't be that person who shows up to a meeting with no idea of what they're going to talk about. Read the agenda before the meeting, so you don't waste time trying to gather context during the conversation. If you're the organizer, send a reminder for the meeting and include a link to the agenda, so that the attendees know they're expected to read it.
  • All attendees use headphones and a webcam. Hopefully there's no need to explain this one! No one wants to hear their own echo, and no one likes to talk into a void. A no-video meeting might be okay if you know the other person really well (think of having a phone call with a friend), but as a rule of thumb, you should always enable your video.
  • All attendees are fully engaged. Once you're at a meeting, make peace with the fact that this is your one and only job for the next 30/60/90 minutes. Don't multitask while people are talking. To avoid the temptation, close Slack, your email client, your text editor and anything else that might distract you—it happens even to the best of us.
  • The discussion remains on topic. The human brain was not really made to follow agendas, but try to make an effort. If a thought comes up that you don't feel is relevant to the current discussion, make a note of it somewhere so you can refer to it later. If you're the organizer, moderate any off-topic discussions—you might even want to have a dedicated section in the agenda for interesting discussions you want to defer.
  • The meeting ends on time. Even better if it ends early. If you ran out of time, it means you misjudged how long the conversation would take, which means you're missing some important context. End the meeting on time, collect the necessary context, adjust the agenda, and schedule a follow-up conversation to reach the expected outcome. Meetings that run over are disrespectful toward all the attendees.
  • The outcomes are recorded and summarized. The organizer of the meeting is responsible for taking notes about the discussions that are unfolding, and recording any action items and any decisions that are made by the group. It's good practice to share meeting minutes with all attendees right after the meeting, so that they can review them and make sure they're aligned.

It takes a lot of practice to get into the habit of holding effective meetings and to realize that meetings can, in fact, be effective. Most of us have been distorted by years of bad and useless meetings. In fact, the meeting might be one of the most misused tools in the history of knowledge work, and it's understandable for people to be skeptical of their utility.

However, once you start holding effective meetings and reap the benefits, you will never look behind.