Get our latest stories
delivered right to your inbox every week

Meetings & async collaboration

Design shorter, more effective meetings, and fewer of them.

By Darryn King

May 3, 2022

Truly effective async collaboration is not about eliminating meetings entirely. Instead, it requires learning the strengths of async and sync, and using each to catalyze and complement the other.

It helps to have a clear understanding of what meetings are good for. Meetings are useful for building rapport and connection, and inspiring and aligning a team. Meetings are also suited to the kind of back-and-forth necessary to iterate ideas, solve problems, and resolve disagreements. More personal or emotional discussions, such as one-on-ones between managers and direct reports, are best served by meetings, as are highly time-sensitive discussions.

Some situations which may require a meeting:
  • Building connection and alignment
  • Urgent situations and emergencies
  • Regular 1:1s between managers and direct reports
  • Conversations involving potentially personal or emotional content
  • Troubleshooting or resolving disagreements
  • Communicating with clients whose preference is real-time
  • Generating ideas and creative brainstorming
Some situations in which to consider shifting to async communication:
  • Basic project updates and check-ins
  • Company announcements
  • Presentations
  • Gathering feedback
  • Canceling and declining meetings

Regularly scheduled meetings can carry on well past their usefulness. Empower team members to speak up if they question the value of a meeting, or want to propose an asynchronous alternative. Similarly, team members should feel comfortable respectfully declining a meeting in which they are not required to be an active contributor. With async-friendly measures in place (see below) they will be able to catch up on the meeting after the fact.

“Some people are used to managing by meetings. It’s a very selfish way to manage. It speaks to a lack of planning and forethought — wasting six people’s time to achieve something you could have just achieved asynchronously in a clearly stated direct message, or post in a group channel, or an email.”

"If you force everyone into lots of synchronous meetings, you've pretty much ruined one of the main advantages of remote work, which is more time to do uninterrupted deep work — which ends up being more productive, more creative, and drives more value for the organization."

— Rajesh Anandan, CEO, Ultranauts

Optimizing and replacing meetings with async

The most successful meetings combine thoughtful asynchronous preparation with the creative cut-and-thrust of a synchronous engagement. The element of async collaboration will also help makes the meetings shorter — that is, more effective in less time.

Here’s a step-by-step guide to using async collaboration to optimize (or perhaps replace) a meeting.

  1. Prior to suggesting and scheduling a meeting, the meeting owner creates a detailed meeting agenda. The document provides context, proposes a course of action, poses questions to the group, invites contributions from select team members, and/or outlines desired outcomes. The process helps the owner clarify her own intentions, as well as anticipate, and address, potential questions.
  2. The owner shares the meeting agenda with her globally dispersed team. Each team member is free to read the document when they can give it their focused attention. They have more time to gather their thoughts and analyze their emotions. Those unable to attend the meeting can submit questions or raise issues asynchronously, and/or assign a delegate to represent them. In many cases, this process may obviate the need for the meeting itself, the collaboration having successfully taken place entirely within a shared document. Congratulations — you’ve just replaced a meeting with async collaboration.
  3. For those meetings that are still absolutely necessary, the principles of async collaboration must remain firmly in mind. Above all, members must be fully present — a necessary condition for shorter, more effective meetings. Video of the meeting is recorded and automatically transcribed, to be shared with the team after the fact. Meeting notes are recorded in the shared document in full view of all meeting participants, with everyone on the team responsible for ensuring the meeting notes reflect a shared understanding of the meeting outcomes and decisions. These, too, ought to be shared with the team afterwards.
  4. After the meeting, the meeting owner reflects: Did that meeting need to occur synchronously? What parts may have been done async?

"How many discussions or decisions wait until the meeting takes place? Async allows for 1) moving forward as things are ready, not based on a meeting schedule 2) allowing people to consume information outside of a meeting, so the meeting time can be shorter and more effective as it focuses on making the decision and 3) having people do things at the time that works best for them."

Cate Huston, Engineering Director, Mobile, DuckDuckGo

Brief syncs

Sometimes team members get blocked or disagreements occur, and the usual async methods aren’t helping to resolve the issue. In this instance, there is no reason to resist scheduling a brief sync to get back on the same page and drive more async work.

"Getting someone together for a five-minute synchronous call may be inconvenient, especially if you're on opposite sides of the world. But if the ROI on that five minutes is to catalyze weeks or months of very seamless asynchronous work then it was time well spent. If it's five minutes in which you could have just provided a status update on it, it's probably not high enough ROI."

— Darren Murph, Head of Remote, GitLab
Organize your own async meeting cadence with these templates:
All remote all-hands company meeting agenda
Guide: Managing all-remote meetings
Note-Taking Template for Recurring Meetings
1:1 Meeting Agenda

More stories on: