No, this meeting couldn't have been an email – and we're all to blame
Another meeting where everyone feels like this is a waste of their time. Why could we not just have done this over email? Do we have to get everyone into a room (or even worse, a zoom room) to figure out whether or not to start on this task next week?
Well, I think the answer is more often than not "yes". It didn't have to be this way, but we made it like this, and now we reap what we sowed. There is a way out, but to get there we must understand why we sit through so many of these "pointless" meetings.
Why all the meetings?
So, your calendar is full of meetings, half of which you have no clue why you have been called in for, and the other half probably make you long for the sweet relief of Friday afternoon. This is your life now, unless you can find some way to make the rest of the company see the light. But why aren't they? The truth is, they know as well, but we have made a series of bad decisions along the way, making these meetings necessary.
Our emails are too long (or too short)
If this meeting could have been an email, how would that email have looked? Probably a mile long! With references, links to external and internal sources, 15 people on CC, and a dozen questions that needs answers. Just imagining it is enough to raise my blood pressure! That email was a pain to write, and now, 15 people have to take the time to read it and comprehend it. Taking into account the varying time available for this in everyone's schedule, it will take a lot of time for some to read it.
In the meantime, several answers just as long as the original email has arrived in your inbox, and we are off to the races. While you type up your 5000-word answer, someone else answers, and you have to spend an hour revising your answer to incorporate the new information and arguments. This can go on forever, and at some point, someone will email the group saying: "Can we schedule a meeting to clear this up?". And just like that, we are back to meetings, but not before having wasted a week with back and forth emails the length of Ulysses.
But this is not solved just by shaving down your emails to three lines. We end up with the same problem, in reverse. People need more information to be able to make a decision. And you will end up with a mountain of incorrect assumptions to fill the gaps in your explanation.
Writing a concise summary of an issue, that does not leave out any details needed for the decision, is an art mastered by few. In the world of politics it is a skill more often seen, as career politicians can't be bothered to read more than absolutely necessary, but also must have all relevant information available. Their advisors are highly trained (and paid) for this exact reason. We must adopt this skill if we are to have any hope of moving decisions from meetings to email.
Emails asking for a decision to be made are ignored
Having received the aforementioned wall-of-text email, knowing full well that John from accounting will have a lengthy reply with at least 10 new issues that are linked to this and must be resolved as well, I do what most people do: I wait. And why shouldn't I? There are no rewards for answering first, no incentive for me to start writing my thoughts on the subject, maybe not even a reason for me to start reading the email until a couple of days later.
This contributes to lengthening the response time, causing the sender of the questions to doubt if email was the right forum for this decision. You can guess what happens next: Meeting time!
We ask for decisions just in time
Email is an asynchronous medium. This means that the participants don't have to be active and present at the same time. This is great to ensure that we don't bother people when they need to focus. But it also means that we need to allow for enough time between sending a question, and needing an answer.
I for one don't get a lot of emails where 1) an important decision is to be made, and 2) there is an ample amount of time to make said decision. It is usually a question of how fast can we have this answer, we needed to report this to the board yesterday. This happens because there is too little slack in people's workdays. In order to maximise performance and efficiency, most people are given way more tasks than they could possibly complete, to ensure that there is no "wasted time" in their days. But this also leaves no room for deep thinking or reflection when an important decision has to be made. Instead, it is easier for everyone if a meeting is called, as it is naturally time boxed, and if anyone questions your time spent in the meeting, you can usually blame the person who asked you to be there.
Some things are difficult to convey in writing
If there is one thing I think we have all felt during the pandemic, it is that some things have been objectively more difficult while working from home. Sometimes it has been difficult to put our finger on exactly what, but I think it has to do with how we as humans communicate. A lot of our communication is nonverbal. When we see each other on camera in two dimensions, in low resolution, and with an infuriating latency, a lot of information is lost. It is the same when making decisions over email.
How certain is Pete that the solution he has proposed is actually going to work? If we sat in the room with him, we might see a flicker of doubt in the eyes, or shifting in the chair. It might be easier to admit that we are uncertain when we can see an gauge the reaction of our peers, instead of having to send that "I don't know" into the void, and wait for hours or days for a reply. And some processes are so complex that explaining them all in writing is just not worth it, and we need to have a conversation where the participants can ask the questions they need clarified in order to understand, while we can skip everything that is common knowledge.
Writing so that we are understood in the same way as when we speak face to face is difficult. It requires us to know the person (or people) we are writing to, and we need to be thorough in our choice of words. This, in addition to my earlier point on writing with the correct level of detail, increases the difficulty of writing an email that can actually replace a meeting. If The Boss is the one who needs an answer, and her calendar is already pressured, the efficient decision from her point of view is to call a meeting! Instead of spending hours formulating that perfect email, twenty minutes of explaining usually delivers the same results.
Leaders have the power to call meetings
With the above in mind, there is no wonder people would rather call a meeting. But there is one more factor that makes this happen. When your boss sends you an invite to a meeting, attendance is not optional. When was the last time you hit
decline on a meeting invitation just because you didn't think the meeting would be worth your time? Probably never.
We have a culture where the person calling a meeting is usually a superior. Either your team lead, or the person in the team with the most experience. Most companies also don't have any guidelines regarding meeting invitations, and whether they can be declined, negotiated, or must be accepted. Fearful of the consequences, the easiest think is to accept.
To make matters even worse, meeting organizer usually "asks" for the attendance of all the people they think are necessary to resolve an issue, or that might be needed, should a tangent arise that needs answering. This is of course understandable from their perspective: Organise one single meeting where the issue at hand is presented and resolved. Unfortunately, this ensures that most people in the meeting have nothing to contribute and gather no new or useful information.
What to do then?
Well, first of all I think we should be careful to dismiss meetings as generally useless, as I feel some might be prone to. Second, we must adjust several things about how we work, and how we write:
There must be enough slack in peoples workdays to enable both good writing, high quality thinking, and generally space for new ideas. Without this, there is no hope of replacing a meeting with an email.
In addition, we must all become better writers. Whatever your actual job, you must write with the intention and eye for details of a political speech writer. Weighing your words, ensuring they are appropriate for your audience, and bringing out the essence of the issue takes practice, feedback, and time.
When these things are in place, we must also create a culture where declining meetings (with a polite notice of why) is not only acceptable, but expected when someone feels they have nothing to contribute to the meeting. The person calling a meeting must be able to convey why each person in the invitation needs to be present. Without a clear reason to be present, the default should be to spend our time elsewhere.
These are not overnight fixes. It will require leadership, buy in from everyone in the organisation, as well as a good portion of hard work. But if we do it right, we can reclaim our time from meetings, and actually make some real decisions by email!