At their core, meetings are about relationship enablement. That’s the argument I make in my piece for the Harvard Business Review, 3 Project Management Strategies for a Hybrid Workplace. As I write in HBR:
When so many of us have packed calendars, it’s tempting to keep every meeting as efficient as possible — and sometimes, that is just what you need…But, fundamentally, your real-time work together is a key opportunity to build relationships and trust among your team members — especially between people who are remote and those who work in the office.
The joy of a standing meeting
Precisely because most of us have too many meetings, and because so much of that meeting time can feel like a waste, I’m a big fan of standing meetings. Who wants to be interrupted with spontaneous meeting requests when you finally have an uninterrupted window to work? Who has time for the back-and-forth email tag that goes into scheduling meetings in advance? And who likes to open their calendar to see it booked solid by people who’ve just helped themselves to your open windows?
Standing meetings solve all of these problems by creating a predictable structure for when you’ll see your various colleagues—windows you can use to help focus and shape your week. Standing meetings can actually reduce the amount of time you spend in meetings or coping with interruptions, because your colleagues and clients know when they’ll next get to see you. Best of all, standing meetings give you a way to formalize your priorities and align your time and energy with what matters most.
Here are the standing meetings that I commit to on a weekly or biweekly basis.
1. The placeholder
The single most useful meeting on your calendar may be the meeting that doesn’t happen. For any ongoing project, schedule a standing meeting when the whole team will be available….and then plan on cancelling that meeting most weeks.
Keeping a standing window open is crucial for ensuring the team has a common window when you know you will be able to connect for troubleshooting or decision-making. If there is a specific problem that requires a real-time conversation, or a decision you need to talk through as a group, you’ll have the meeting.
Maintain a shared agenda for the meeting in an online document everyone on the team can access. The day before your standing window, your project or team lead can look at the agenda document and see if there’s a way to address the items on the agenda via email, text or one-on-one conversations. If a team meeting is really needed, you’ll meet; otherwise, you’ll cancel the meeting a few hours before it’s scheduled to begin, and give people back that work time.
What you don’t need is a standing team meeting just to exchange updates: That’s what email, project dashboards and text messages are for! Agree on one channel where you’ll share and read one another’s updates.
If you end up defaulting to meetings because people aren’t reading one another’s updates, or because there’s always something on the agenda, use your next standing meeting to brainstorm ways of reducing your team’s meeting dependency. A good strategy is to imagine how you’d work together if you absolutely could not meet for a couple of weeks.
Once you’ve come up with some alternatives, consider actually cancelling your meeting for a couple of weeks, to see how you do when you’re forced to rely on asynchronous communication instead. When you meet with intention—rather than by default, or because you can’t trust one another to read and reply in writing—your team relationships will strengthen and grow.
2. The co-working session
If you spend more than a day or two outside the office each week, consider a standing co-working date with a friend or colleague. A co-working date is a dedicated window when you will meet up at a library, coffee shop or one of your homes, and work side-by-side for at least a couple of hours. Co-working dates are very useful in creating some of the structure that’s missing in home-based work, coaxing yourself into doing less enjoyable tasks, and providing some social contact beyond the office.
The structure of a standing co-working session is especially helpful if you’re one of those folks who (like me) is most productive when you have some limits to work around. Give me a wide-open day at home and I may or may not write my draft document or create that almost overdue slide deck. Give me three hours at home—limited by the obligation to leave the house at noon so I can meet up with a co-worker—and I’ll bear down so that I hit my deadline.
I like to use these co-working sessions to tackle the kind of work I’m most tempted to avoid. People with ADHD sometimes use the term “body doubling” to refer to the practice of co-locating with an accountability partner so that you’re forced to focus. I don’t need a co-working date to tackle aversive tasks that are totally braindead—I can just put the TV on while I do my invoicing! So I use co-working time for the challenging tasks that I am most inclined to avoid, like writing proposals or composing difficult emails.
The social side of co-working is what enables the structure and focus benefits. So many of us have been sold on the idea that we need to go into work if we want social interaction, when the world is absolutely brimming with people we could choose to spend time with…if we weren’t always stuck at the office. Make sure that your co-working sessions are long enough to allow for some chat breaks, because otherwise, what’s the point of meeting up? The virtue of a standing co-working date is that you and your co-worker can agree on the balance of work and social time, and then stick to that agreement.
3. The state of the union
What is the collegial relationship that has the biggest impact on your day-to-day performance, wellbeing and effectiveness? Maybe it’s your relationship with your boss; maybe it’s your relationship with your assistant. Or maybe it’s your working relationship with your closest colleague, or your most important client.
Whatever the relationship, it deserves a permanent place on your calendar. I’m not talking about the meetings where you talk about the work you’re doing together: You need a meeting where you talk about the relationship itself.
Depending on the working relationship, this “state of the union” conversation could be something you do weekly, monthly or quarterly. When I recently started working with a close friend on a major project, we committed to a weekly window for our relationship check-ins, because we wanted to ensure that we immediately address any challenges that might affect either our work or our friendship. This weekly window is a half hour, and if we want to extend it with a conversation about the project or about our personal news, we end the call and start a new call so that the state-of-the-union portion is kept protected.
We’ve been using the Rose-Bud-Thorn process for these calls, albeit in a slightly different order:
- Rose: What did we appreciate about our collaboration this week, or learn from one another? This isn’t about celebrating our project success: It’s specifically about reflecting on where we are delighted in the experience of working together.
- Thorn: Where did we have any moments of frustration or concern this week? Unless there is a problem that needs to be fixed immediately, saving any suggestions for improvement for this end-of-week reflection means that we are emotionally ready to hear any difficult feedback.
- Bud: What new possibilities are starting to emerge from our collaboration? Saving our “bud” for last means we end our conversation on a positive and forward-looking note, by talking about where we are excited about glimmers of opportunity and potential.
Creating a standing window for state of the union calls is a good way of ensuring you continue to invest in your most important working relationships, and also, a key way of ensuring relationship challenges don’t leak into your day-to-day working meetings.
Meet regularly to meet less
All three of these standing meetings should actually reduce the amount of time you spend in meetings each week.
If you have a standing placeholder meeting for each project with an expectation that at least half will get cancelled, you’ll experience fewer unscheduled interruptions and get the recurring gift of a suddenly empty hour.
If you have a standing co-working date with a friend or colleague who delights and inspires you, you’ll have a window booked into your calendar that can’t be commandeered for more meetings.
If you plan on regular state-of-the-union check-ins, your working meetings will be more efficient because you’ll have the kind of trusting relationship that allows you to communicate candidly and clearly.
It’s easy to let our meeting overwhelm crowd out the meetings that can make the biggest impact on our work. Book standing meetings for the people and conversations that matter most, and you can liberate yourself from the tyranny of excessive meetings.
This post was originally featured in the Thrive at Work newsletter. Subscribe here to be the first to receive updates and insights on the new workplace.