Work is not family, but it is community.
Meetings on remote teams are hard.
We're almost two years into the whole industry going fully remote, and I've been listening to people across the industry talk about how they're feeling. I've heard two common complaints:
- I have way too many meetings and they don't feel useful.
- I feel disconnected from my team.
It feels a little odd to hear people say they're spending more time in meetings with their team, yet feeling less connected. Why isn’t the extra time improving team connection? What’s going wrong?
I’m increasingly convinced that many remote teams are having the wrong kind of meetings.
This meeting could have been an email.
A lot of the folks I spoke to described their most common meetings as status updates: a manager or leader reads off a pre-written list, or each team member walks through things they’ve worked on and are planning to work on.
Status meetings are hard to stay engaged with and – in most cases, at least – are better suited for async consumption (posting the list in Slack or as an email).
A few teams I know have switched to async status updates, and a few went even further and decided not to have any meetings at all. This was done in the name of productivity, but a new problem surfaced: a sense of disconnection.
Isolation is bad for teams.
Without trust, working on a team is exhausting. And to build trust, we need to have at least some social connection with our teammates.
A Harvard study of 200+ companies by John P. Kotter and James L. Haskett found that a strong culture increases net income 756% over 11 years.
In The Culture Code, Daniel Coyle talks extensively about the importance of feeling connected to your team and how outsized the impact on success truly is. More importantly, he emphasizes that culture is an activity, not a static attribute of a company:
Cohesion happens not when members of a group are smarter but when they are lit up by clear, steady signals of safe connection.
– Daniel Coyle, The Culture Code
Teams that feel connected function better and are more resilient. That’s a very good thing that we should all be striving for.
How do we create connections in a remote world?
In an office, we have lots of opportunities for happy accidents as we move through the office. We’ll have lunches together, chat as we walk down a hall or ride an elevator together, or otherwise end up in casual situations with our coworkers that can lead to informal discussion and human connection.
In a remote world, that’s all gone. Every interaction requires planning and intention. That’s the opposite of a happy accident; that’s scheduled fun time. And if you’ve ever been to a meeting that had five minutes explicitly scheduled for ‘fun’, well... we all know that’s not really how fun works.
However, we need those unstructured encounters with our coworkers if we want to create the levels of cohesion that make us feel connected to our team (and, from the business perspective, create the culture that leads to higher productivity). It feels a bit like a Catch-22: we have to schedule any time we want to spend with our coworkers, but the secret to connection is the unscheduled casual chats.
So what can we do?
Meetings should be social.
If you join a meeting with Netlify’s Developer Experience team, you might get the impression that we waste a lot of time. The first five to ten minutes of most of our meetings is spent telling stories, trying to make each other laugh, and (lovingly) making fun of Phil Hawksworth.
10–15% of every meeting ‘wasted’ on goofing around might seem like a productivity nightmare, but I’d argue that it’s a secret weapon for us as a team.
Up until recently, I hadn’t met the majority of my team in person. Despite this, we’ve created inside jokes and been vulnerable with each other in these unstructured minutes. As a result, I’d go to battle for everyone on my team and trust them to make decisions on my behalf.
When we did get the chance to meet, there was no awkward ‘getting to know you’ phase; we started joking around as if we hung out in person all the time.
Our goofing around in meetings had laid the foundation for that cohesion and trust.
Work is not a family – but it is a community.
As remote workers, we have to be more intentional about creating community, but it’s absolutely possible for any team!
Here are a few of the techniques my team uses to run better meetings and create a stronger connection at work.
(When I talk about ‘teams’, I mean the two to twelve people we work closely with. There are other strategies for creating community across a whole company, but that’s a topic for another article. These suggestions are intended for smaller groups that work on the same projects together.)
1. At least once a week, have a meeting that’s intentionally longer than it needs to be.
Add some padding at the beginning or end of the meeting to let the team chatter. For example, my team could likely finish our weekly planning call in 30 minutes, but we schedule an hour and start our week with a lot of laughter and conversation that sets a great tone for the rest of the week.
2. Avoid meetings that don’t require discussion.
The value of synchronous communication is high-context exchange. If there’s no discussion to be had, ask what the benefit of a call actually is. What will people gain from a call that they wouldn’t get from a Slack message or email?
3. If an async discussion gets too abstract or starts to get heated, call a meeting.
Nuances can be lost in async conversations (evergreen example: arguments on Twitter).
Abstract discussion is really difficult without nonverbal cues, so if an async conversation is veering too deep into the philosophical, try calling a meeting. It can often be much faster and much more productive to have the conversation synchronously, and then write down the outcome of that discussion.
These discussions also help us better understand our teammates’ vernacular and worldview, which leads to fewer misinterpretations and more overall trust.
4. Invite quieter coworkers into discussions.
This is a challenging line to walk, because putting an introvert on the spot is just as harmful as leaving them out. However, it’s really important that we figure out how to include the less assertive members of our team to avoid letting the loudest voices drive every conversation.
It can be helpful to put discussion questions into the agenda ahead of time to allow people to think through ideas and write down thoughts. This removes the need for folks to think on their feet or rattle off ideas on the spot, and if they’re really uncomfortable with speaking in front of the group, they can give their written suggestions to their manager or a coworker to be brought up for discussion.
5. Don’t be afraid of short, ad hoc meetings.
In an office setting, we can stand up and look confused and someone will ask if they can help us get unblocked.
Remote makes this harder, but it also makes it better in a lot of ways. For example, it’s extremely frustrating to have someone tap you on the shoulder and break your flow every few minutes. With tools like Slack, we can turn off notifications for periods of focus, but be available when we’re not focusing to answer quick questions.
It is much faster to show a coworker my screen for five minutes and ask a question than it would be to take screenshots, mark them up with arrows, and write an email. And since we’re all empowered to ignore Slack when we’re focusing, I can send that ask without worrying that I’m wrecking someone’s concentration with a shoulder tap.
This requires everyone to set good boundaries for themselves and to respect each other’s, but it keeps everyone moving and opens the door for more casual chat to strengthen team bonds.
6. Create hangout calls for coworking.
Create a Zoom link for your team to hang out in while they work with no plan. My team created a collaborative Spotify playlist that we play through the Zoom call while we cowork, which makes it feel a bit like working in the same room together.
If someone gets stuck, they can ask the group for help. If someone needs to focus, they can drop off and rejoin later. If the team is working on a single project, we mob program on the squishier planning bits
Participation will ebb and flow, but this has made a huge difference for our willingness to rely on each other and ask for help.
7. Be patient and consistent.
Building community and connection takes time, and we can’t force it. Teams need time to warm up, and if people are coming from previously unhealthy team environments, that can take a while.
Don’t give up on unstructured meeting time if the first few feel a bit awkward. As the team builds shared context, the chat will emerge naturally.
You can also be more intentional about laying the foundation. My good friend and former manager Sarah Drasner set up a meeting where the entire goal was to establish some baseline connections for the team: she asked us to share stories, give a five-minute presentation on anything we were interested in, and even set up a talent show. By the end of that session, we all felt much closer, even if it was a bit awkward to get started.
Another idea is to use an icebreaker format. For example, at a recent leadership team meeting, we all wrote down five career changes that led us to our current roles, and then went around to tell our stories. It led to great follow-on conversations and provided additional context about where each of us was coming from, which made the difficult conversations that happen during a leadership team meeting more collaborative than they may have been otherwise.
Make sure meetings matter.
If you find team meetings dry, meaningless, or frustrating, take a look at what kind of meetings you’re having. Are they status updates? Or are you having meaningful discussions?
Do you feel like you have a team? Or remote colleagues that you don’t really know?
Making the effort to truly connect with your team is work worth doing, and if we do it well, we’ll see our teams become tight-knit communities that do incredible work together. And that leads to huge wins for both the people and the business.
NOTE: This article started as a Twitter thread that generated a ton of great discussion. I’ve expanded and refined my original points based on that discussion.