The Power Of Constraints

The limitations of physical meetings are a feature, not a bug

Before COVID-19 and ubiquitous work-from-home, we used to have meetings in a room where people would sit around and discuss the matter at hand. The start time had some flexibility because people had to physically move from one location to another, often between floors or buildings. Whiteboards helped focus the conversation. People could interject organically without having to raise a hand like in grade school.

Unplanned conversations in the office were common and often more productive than a formal meeting. I recall bouncing problems and ideas off people from other teams while waiting for the kettle to boil, and they’d offer thoughts based on their experience. The cross-polination provided valuable perspective.

Fast-forward three years and there’s no doubt that remote work has improved many aspects of life for me personally. My life became more balanced as I was able to use the reclaimed travel time to prepare the evening meal for my family, or help get the kids out the door for school in the morning. I can focus on tasks without distraction if I like, and my home office is configured to my liking. I love being able to go for a run at lunchtime instead of running in the frosty pre-dawn darkness.

But remote work comes at a cost. My clients are large enterprises that did not adjust their operating model for remote work. They continued to do the new thing the old way. Written communication is a remote work superpower but it isn’t a skill that large enterprises value during the hiring process so most communication still relies on sychronous discussions. We now have 30-minute meetings for things that used to be 5-minute conversations.

I frequently find myself in remote meetings with dozens of attendees but only a handful of active particpants. It’s like having a crowd of zombies eavesdropping on every conversation. Cameras are off. People are not engaged. Direct questions are often met with, “Sorry, can you repeat that?”. And don’t get me started on the audio failings of meeting software.

Ideally, large enterprises would figure out how to work asynchronously but in the meantime I can think of a few ways that we can make remote meetings better. We could leverage large enterprises’ love of the chargeback model to require a project code for meetings, and automatically bill the organiser’s project for each person that they invite to the meeting. This would help limit the eavesdroppers. Maybe the first few attendees are free and each incremental attendee incurs a cost.

We could also publish participation statistics for meetings. The meeting software has this data. It knows who spoke, who shared, and who was typing on mute (you didn’t think you were actually muted, did you? On mute, the software still captures audio but doesn’t play it to the other attendees. That’s how the popup telling you that you’re speaking on mute works!).

The best meeting is the one we avoided. We should strive to work asynchronously via written communication and fallback to synchronous communication when asynchronicity reaches its limitations.

But sometimes we need to meet in-person and be present physically and mentally, immersed in the collaborative process, scribbling on a whiteboard, gesticulating, emoting without icons. No laptops. No headphones. No remote attendees.