Does Remote Work Enable Larger Meetings?
The nature of work has changed.
There was a trend towards decentralization that predated the COVID19 pandemic, but only forward-thinking organizations were pushing what’s possible. Then, the rest of the world was forced to abruptly adapt when in-person collaboration was no longer possible.
Typically, early adopters to new technological trends or ideas have a very conscious and diligent approach to how they embrace these new objects. They tend to be diligent and introspective. Questions are constantly asked, Why are were doing this? How do we improve our processes? What can we cut? Is this truly necessary? What assumptions are we holding that my not be true?
These constant questions is what enabled the early adopters to adapt their working practices before COVID19. Why does everyone have to be in the office at a set time?
And here’s the problem. When everyone else was dragged, reluctantly, into the world of remote work, they did not suddenly adopt the approach of these pioneers. Instead, they continued as-is, stumbling from idea to idea, improvising, and generally being disorganized.
When I see how most organizations work, I would like to laugh if it wasn’t so sad the waste of human potential and how quickly we could improve society if we could all learn to be efficient.
The biggest problem I see with work today is how we have meetings.
This might sound like a small thing, but it’s not. Meetings are where work gets done. They are where decisions are made. They are where brainstorming sessions take place. They are where progress is tracked and reported.
When you see it this way, you may think: great, the more meetings, the better, so we can collaborate, align ourselves, and track progress.
In reality, there is an inverse correlation between how many meetings one has to attend and how much progress one can make towards a goal. The problem with meetings is that, with some exceptions, they are meta-work.
It is work about work, not work itself.
Some degree of meta work is required, the same way that while metadata (data about data) is not as important as the actual data, it is still useful.
Meetings have a lot of overhead. In order to have a successful meeting, you need to:
- first, decide who needs to attend the meeting;
- second, come up with an agenda for the meeting that everyone can agree on and potentially send out pre-read material;
- third, schedule the meeting at a time that works for everyone;
- fourth, find a place to have the meeting that is convenient for everyone;
- fifth, actually attend the meeting;
- sixth, have a productive meeting where everyone feels heard, and progress is made.
- Finally, send out meeting minutes and record next steps.
The thing is, most meetings are not like this. They are poorly planned, and inefficient, and often don’t lead to any real progress.
This is because to have a successful meeting, you need to have a clear purpose and objectives. Otherwise, it’s just a waste of time.
And so, we understand that some amount of meetings are required. If we worked with only fantastic communicators, who are comfortable writing up their progress and sharing their ideas and any roadblocks, we could likely cut more than half of all meetings.
When it comes to meetings, there is a general consensus that smaller meetings are more productive than bigger ones. This is because, in general, people have a more challenging time paying attention when more people are attending a meeting because they may not even get a chance to speak the entire time, so they are just passive watchers, and attention spans are famously bad.
I don’t have precise data to back this up, but from my experience, remote work has pushed the average number of meeting attendees up by a significant amount. In-person, I rarely have meetings that have more than three people, sometimes four. That seems to be the sweet spot where the meeting is highly productive, there are diverse viewpoints, and you can truly connect.
The reason for this is that in-person meetings have a significant overhead. You need to potentially travel to meet, you need to have the right size meeting room, and you also need to actually pay attention to someone when they are just a couple of meters from you, instead of being on a call where you are on mute with your video off.
In contrast, video conferencing meetings have no limit to the number of participants, which can often make them unmanageable. This is especially true when there are participants from different time zones involved. There have been many instances where I’ve been on video calls where someone else is not paying attention because they’re doing something else entirely.
I often get the feeling that the meeting is between two to four people, and everyone else is on the call but on mute and answering emails or working on other projects. This makes me wonder if the larger potential meetings are actually more productive, or if they’re just a way for individuals to “check the box”, attend the meeting, and then be able to claim that they are super busy, without specifically adding any value to the organization.
In addition, I believe that larger meetings also lead to less productive discussions. This is because there are more people involved and it’s often difficult to get everyone on the same page. You spoil the broth when there are too many cooks in the kitchen. It can also be more challenging to have candid conversations when more people are involved, because this is how humans are wired.
As the number of people in a meeting increases, so too does the number of potential connections. This is because as each person is added to a group, they can potentially communicate with every other person in the group — the number of potential connections grows exponentially as the number of participants in a group increases.
I covered this is my first blog post in the Blue Blog but it is worth reiterating here.
So, clearly, the tools themselves are not that important, it is just a fact that as you scale past a non-trivial number of people (say, 10), teamwork becomes increasingly more difficult.
That’s because team communication does not scale in a linear fashion compared to the number of people on the team.
For instance, if you have a team of 2 people, there is one communication thread (between the two individuals). Throw another person into the mix; now you have three communication threads. So, while the team size has increased by 50%, the communication threads have increased by 300%.
Let’s see how this grows:
- 2 team members = 1 communication thread
- 3 team members = 3 communication thread
- 5 team members = 10 communication threads
- 8 team members = 28 communication threads
- 10 team members = 45 communication threads
- 15 team members = 105 communication threads
- 20 team members = 190 communication threads
- 30 team members = 435 communication threads
- 50 team members = 1,225 communication threads
- 100 team members = 4,950 communication threads
This can be expressed by the following equation:
Where “n” is the number of people that need to be involved in the project.
As you can see, this number grows exponentially as the team size increases. If you have a team of 10 people, 45 potential communication threads need to be managed. But if you have a team of 50 people, there are 1,225 potential communication threads — that’s 27 times more! And if you have a team of 100 people, there are 4,950 potential communication threads — that’s 110 times more!
It is important to note that this is not just a problem with larger teams but with any team where individuals are not in the same location. This is because the number of possible communication threads is not limited by the physical proximity of the team members.
For example, let’s say you have a team of 10 people, but they are all located in different parts of the world. In this case, there are still 45 potential communication threads that need to be managed — even though the team members are not physically proximate to each other.
And it is worse. The above calculation assumes just one method of communication. If we want to account for different methods of communications, we would have to rewrite the equation in the following manner:
Where “c” is the number of communication channels. Let’s retake the number of communication threads above, but this time let’s assume that C is comprised of:
- Group Chat
- Personal Chat
- Comments in a project management system
- Notes/Comments in documents.
Plugging the numbers in, this is what we get:
- 2 team members = 6 communication thread
- 3 team members = 18 communication thread
- 5 team members = 60 communication threads
- 8 team members = 168 communication threads
- 10 team members = 270 communication threads
- 15 team members = 630 communication threads
- 20 team members = 1,140 communication threads
- 30 team members = 2,610 communication threads
- 50 team members = 7,350 communication threads
- 100 team members = 29,700 communication threads
It is scary how quickly the number of communication threads grows — and if the remote works more easily enable larger meetings that would not be practical in real life, then it is a double-edged sword.
Sure, there are lots of benefits to remote work such as increased flexibility and decreased costs. But, the cons of remote work need to be considered as well — especially regarding team communication and productivity.