Do you feel like you’re having too many meetings? Getting tired from being on video calls on Zoom or Teams all day – even while working from home?
You’re not alone.
There is a solution though.
I’ve been reading, learning, and experimenting with how I work recently and have put together this guide to help you, your team, and company improve.
In this guide, you’ll learn:
- why too many meetings are bad
- how working from home has impacted meetings
- what the alternative to constant meetings is
- how to use written communication more effectively
- how to organise your email if you’re getting more of it
- how to improve the meetings you have
- the 7-step journey you can take to move away from constant meetings
If you work in an office for a company that has a lot of meetings, and you want to improve, then this guide is for you.
Let’s get into it.
Table of Contents
1 – The Current Situation of Meetings and Culture
2 – Meetings: Synchronous Communication
3 – The Alternative to Meetings: Asynchronous Communication
4 – How to Write Better Emails
6 – How to Improve Use of Chat Tools
7 – How to Use Internal Documentation
9 – How to Improve Your Meetings
The Current Situation of Meetings and Culture
Meetings are held to get a group of people together at the same time and discuss a specific topic.
However, they don’t always go to plan. And they are not always effective.
Here are some stats on unproductive meetings:
- An infographic by Fuze states that unproductive meetings waste $37 billion per year, more than 67% meetings are considered failures, and remote participants are not engaged.
- An interview with Steven Rogelberg mentions that his research states that only 50% of meeting time is well spent and engaging.
- Doodle’s 2019 State of Meetings report shows the cost of poorly organised meetings in 2019 will reach $399 billion in the US (the study was done before 2019)
The Doodle report also specified several impacts of poorly organised meetings:
- I don’t have enough time to do the rest of my work
- Unclear actions lead to confusion
- A loss of focus on projects
- Irrelevant attendees slow progress
- Inefficient processes weaken client/supplier relationships
What about your experience? Or mine?
How many meetings have you been to that have felt like a waste of time?
How many have felt like there are too many people there, or that you didn’t need to attend because you didn’t learn anything or didn’t contribute anything?
How many have you attended because you felt like you “needed” to go, because of actual or implied pressure from the team or company?
How many meetings have you gone to that went off-topic and people talked about a whole range of things, and no outcome was reached at the end?
How many meetings have you gone to that could have been an email?
This happens all the time to me.
I’ve worked in many teams and companies in my career, and it’s a common issue.
It didn’t get any better with the change in the working situation with COVID-19 either.
Meetings and Working from Home
While most organisations have moved to a working from home arrangement, the meetings that teams and companies hold have remained in place. An article here states that companies have tried to move their in-person meeting culture to fit a working from home environment, which has not worked:
Instead, the data shows we simply tried to port our existing way of working to a remote world. The volume of internal meetings skyrocketed.
Recent technology improvements have allowed many teams to meet virtually, either via phone or on video. While working from home, most of us who work at large organisations have probably been involved in a lot of Zoom meetings or Microsoft Teams meetings (or whatever technology your organisation uses).
This has its advantages:
- You can see your colleagues on video which is what we are used to from in-person meetings.
- You can see a document or slide being shown and presented by someone.
- You can use your computer rather than your phone.
However, this has resulted in something called “Zoom fatigue”.
This is a feeling of tiredness we get after spending most or all of our working day on Zoom (or Teams or other video) calls.
I’ve definitely felt this. After staring at your screen and attending video calls for a day, I feel more tired than I do while in the office.
Why is that?
Completely audio: In-person meetings use a range of inputs: body language, visual, and audio. But for video calls, we are likely relying on 100% audio as we listen to people talk. We can see the speaker talk but we often can’t see their entire body language, or body language of other attendees. This takes a lot more concentration and we feel more tired.
Easier to book: I also suspect that because we’re working from home, it’s easier to have back-to-back meetings. If we’re free, we can just invite people to a meeting. We don’t need to find an available meeting room, which is hard to do in many companies.
No in-between time: We also don’t have that time walking between meeting rooms to process our thoughts, get exercise, and focus on the next meeting. We go from one application window to another.
Easier to tune out: It’s also easier for people to tune out on video calls. If your video is off, and you’re not interested in the topic being spoken about, you can open a Web browser, keep working on the side, or check your phone. If you try to do this in a meeting room in-person, you may get some looks or feel guilty.
So what’s the solution? How can we ourselves, our teams, and companies, work better and have better meetings?
I’ll share the alternative below. You’ll also learn a 7 stage process for implementing it in your team and your company.
Meetings: Synchronous Communication
Meetings are a form of synchronous communication, which is where multiple people are communicating with each other at the same time.
This could be in-person (meeting in a room in the office, going to someone’s desk) or virtual (a Zoom or Microsoft Teams meeting, video call, or presentation).
Phone calls are another type of synchronous communication. They require two (or more) people to communicate with each other at the same time. This is true for adhoc phone calls or scheduled phone calls.
Sometimes synchronous communication is the best method of communicating. For example:
- Brainstorming solutions or ideas, as a lot of creativity is needed and responses are based on other inputs.
- Social team catch-ups, which could be an in-person coffee or a team Zoom catchup during the work-from-home situation.
But most of the time, synchronous communication is not the best way.
There are a few reasons for this:
- They don’t allow for blocks of focused time. Meetings are often an interruption to what we’re working on.
- They require all attendees to be involved at the same time. This is harder for those who currently or want to work different schedules (different time zones, family commitments, etc).
- There’s a limited amount of space for them. Once meetings are scheduled for a day, there’s no more time for other work to be done.
- Many meetings are better as an email.
- If attendees are not involved in all or part of a meeting, they can tune out and get distracted.
Highlighting Existing Problems
Meetings and meeting culture can often cover up existing problems.
Have you seen either of these things happen before?
- You or someone in your team books a recurring meeting to discuss a project or a long-term area of work.
- You or someone needs input from someone else, but they are often busy, so you “book time with them” in order to get their attention and focus.
These two actions are quite common, but they are the wrong solution to a problem.
If you need to book a recurring meeting to discuss a project, why is that? It’s likely due to a fear that it won’t get the attention it needs from people involved, as they are busy with other meetings, work, and emails getting lost.
If you need to book time with someone because they are busy, it’s likely due to the other person not providing the attention or focus you need, or they have too many other meetings on.
So, if either of these two things happen where you work, this guide will be helpful for you.
What’s the alternative to meetings then?
The Alternative to Meetings: Asynchronous Communication
We learned in the earlier section that meetings are a form of synchronous communication.
The alternative to this is called asynchronous communication.
Asynchronous communication is any communication where the participants don’t need to interact at the same time.
A common example of this is email. In order to send and receive an email, the sender and receiver don’t need to be participating at the same time. They don’t need to have Outlook open at the same time for it to work.
One person sends the email, the recipient receives the email. They can read it and respond to it in their own time, whether that’s right away, an hour later, the following week, or not at all.
This can work well, and often better, than meetings.
It may seem more “efficient” to get people in a meeting to discuss something. Sometimes, that’s more effective. But often it is not.
Don’t focus on the efficiency of a group of people, as this can lead to a distraction and worse results for everything else. If someone says it’s more efficient to meet in a room, ask them if they would prefer quality input. Getting people in a room to be more efficient sacrifices quality and throughput of everything else that the group is working on.
There are many types of asynchronous communication:
- Chat tools: Skype, Slack, Microsoft Teams chat feature, WhatsApp, SMS
- Internal documentation: wikis, SharePoint, Confluence, GitHub Pages.
- Office documents: user guides, new starter references, which often live in a shared folder.
- Recorded video: screencasts or video recordings of software demonstrations.
You might be thinking, “Great, emails and this stuff are different from meetings. What’s so good about that?”
Advantages of Asynchronous Communication
There are many benefits of asynchronous communication.
- Reduction in meetings. Using asynchronous communication, and using it well, can lead to fewer meetings happening, which leads to better productivity and happier teams.
- Better responses. Meetings encourage immediate responses. Asynchronous communication allows readers and recipients to discuss and think about topics before providing input, resulting in better quality input.
- Writing helps everyone. If something is discussed in a meeting, the only people that hear it are those in the meeting. If something is written down (for example, email, internal documentation) then everyone who has access to that can read it.
- Documentation happens naturally. If things are written down, it’s a natural form of documentation. There’s no need to take minutes from meetings, saving the time double-entry (listening, taking notes, compiling minutes, and sending them out).
- Independent of calendar schedules. Asynchronous communication happens outside of people’s calendars, so those working in other timezones or those who have young kids can work better with the team.
- Organisation. Capturing information in a single tool will help keep you, your team, and the company organised.
- More focus. Without meetings during the day, there are fewer places where your work is broken up. This allows you and others to focus on a task and take breaks when you want to, not when a meeting starts.
- No need to be at your desk. You don’t need to be at your desk in case someone wants a response right away.
- Avoids interruptions. You don’t get interrupted with meetings or phone calls. Asynchronous communication can be read, contributed to, and responded in your own time.
- Avoids off-topic discussions. Meetings that go off-topic are frustrating. This is avoided if asynchronous communication is used.
- Avoid explaining things multiple times. Rather than explaining something to people multiple times, or to different groups of people, you can direct people to internal documentation first and come to you for any further questions.
Basecamp, who have written about their way of working and their focus on asynchronous communication, have a policy of “real-time sometimes, asynchronous most of the time”.
Sounds fantastic, right?
Well, there are a few minor disadvantages.
Disadvantages of Asynchronous Communication
There are a couple of disadvantages.
- More email means more lost emails. If you send and receive more emails, they could get lost in the existing flood of emails that are being used. However, I believe this can be improved with better email writing, better email management, and may even lead to a reduction in emails.
- Multiple versions of documentation. Using written documentation can lead to multiple versions of the same thing being used. This can be an issue, especially with Office documents (like Word docs, spreadsheets, or PowerPoint slides). However, with web-based tools and a bit of discipline, this can be avoided.
Both of these can be overcome.
There are ways to work on and improve each of these methods of communication. Let’s take a look at each of them.
How to Write Better Emails
You’re probably familiar with emails. They’ve been used by office workers for many years.
But writing good emails can help you get things done and save time both for you and anyone who reads them.
So how can you write better emails?
Use To and CC Appropriately
You might use the To and CC fields of an email interchangeably. However, you can use them for different reasons to help recipients deal with the emails you send them.
Use the To field for whoever the email is addressed to. This is the person or people you want something from, or who you’re providing this information to.
Use the CC field for those who you want to send the email to and communicate the information to, but require no action from them.
Rather than putting everyone in the To field, separating them into separate fields makes it clear who needs to read and action the email.
It can also help with setting up email rules. For example, rules can be set up so that any email you’re CC’d on is moved to another folder.
Summarise the Email at the Top
If you’re writing an email that’s more than a few sentences, it’s going to take a while to read.
It can help anyone who reads the email if you add a summary at the top of the email. Add a sentence, on its own line, to summarise what the email is about.
This will help the recipient understand the outcome of the email and why they should keep reading.
You can write this after you’ve written the email too, as you’ll have a better understanding of the email.
Write a Meaningful Subject
An email subject is a short description or preview of what the email is about. It’s shown in people’s inboxes.
The goal of the subject is to identify the email’s topic.
Take a moment to write a meaningful subject. Rather than just put in something vague like the project name or “A quick question”, make it specific.
It will save time when you and the recipients are looking for the email later.
Headings are useful in documents to break up the text and provide a grouping of topics. They make documents easier to read (just like this article).
You can use the same concept in your emails. If you’re writing a long email, consider using headings to break up the content.
Outlook uses the same heading styles as Word, and you can press Ctrl + Alt + 1/2/3 for Heading 1/2/3.
Use Bold to Highlight Points
Bolding text helps it stand out and make it easier to read. Consider bolding important points in your emails.
Don’t overdo it though – bolding too much will mean none of the text stands out.
Mention Names for Actions
If you’re sending an email to several people, but need some people to provide responses or take actions, mention it in the email.
At the end of the email, add in the person’s name, and the specific action you want them to take.
This is helpful for the recipient as they know what to do, and it’s clear on who you want to take the action.
Use Text Instead of Screenshots of Text
Sometimes you need to add information from another application or document into an email.
It can be easy to take a screenshot and paste it into the email.
This works well in many cases – showing things in an application, for example.
However, if you’re taking a screenshot of something that’s mostly text or can be represented in an email, use text instead of a screenshot.
Tables are a good example of this.
Instead of adding a screenshot of the table, from Excel or PowerPoint or something, just copy and paste the table into the email.
This will mean it’s more readable, and it’s scalable to the device you’re on (images in emails can be hard to read).
Anticipate Responses and Add Next Steps
When sending an email, you’re often asking for answers to a question from someone.
Sometimes when you get this answer you need to ask for further clarification. Or the recipient wants to clarify something.
This back-and-forth can take time, delaying the point at which you get a response you’re happy with.
A good way to avoid this is to anticipate their responses and add them into the email.
For example, instead of writing this:
“Is the attached document OK?”
Try writing this, where you anticipate what their responses may be and offer next steps:
“Is the attached document OK? If yes, I’ll send it to Mark and his team for feedback. If not, let me know what feedback you have. If you want someone else to review it as well, let me know who.”
This way you’ve given them some options and next steps, and they can provide a response, knowing what you’ll do next. They can also offer corrections in case your course of action is not correct.
Add Expected Timeframe
If you’re asking for a response from someone, mention when you need or would like a response by, how important it is, and why the date is needed.
This can help in setting the expectations of the recipient.
“Could you provide a response by Thursday 5PM so that we can update our main document on Friday?”
“Let me know before next Tuesday so we can update our user stories before Sprint Planning.”
This will help the recipient manage their workload and emails. You can also follow up with them if no response is received by that time.
Add Screenshots with Annotations
Screenshots are very helpful in emails. They’re useful when pointing things out or showing things in different applications.
A great way to improve them is to add annotations to them when you need to point to something specific.
You can use something simple, such as:
- Microsoft Paint
- The red pen tool inside the Windows Snipping Tool
- The Annotate feature in Preview on macOS
Drawing a red box or a simple circle or line can make it clear which part of the screenshot or application you’re referring to. This can often be easier than trying to explain it in text.
Use a Small Email Signature
Email signatures are blocks of text that go at the end of an email you send, and often contain your name and contact information.
However, some signatures contain a whole range of information and they can end up being longer than the email itself.
Consider what you really need to add in your signature, if you have the freedom to change it at your company.
Here’s what I think should be in your signature:
- Full name
- Job title
- Business unit
- Contact number
Here’s what doesn’t need to go in your signature:
- Images (banners, company logos, your profile, etc)
- Physical address of office (this can be found online if it’s ever needed)
- Funny quotes
- Reminders not to print the email
Having a small email signature makes your email more succinct and easier to read when there are many replies over time.
Review and Edit Before Sending
Once you’ve written your email, spend the time to read through what you’ve written and make edits before sending it.
There’s a clear difference between an email that someone has just typed out, and one that has been edited. A reviewed and edited email, like a document or blog post, can really help the reader understand what you’re talking about and improve readability.
Take the time to add clarity and make it easy to understand.
If you’re thinking, “It’s just an email, I don’t have time for this”, or just want to quickly send some information, consider how it compares to a meeting as an alternative.
Let’s say you have to communicate with 10 people (plus yourself) and can either have an hour-long meeting, write a quick email, or write and review and edit an email.
Here’s how long each of those could take:
|Communication Type||Time Spent (You)||Time Spent (10 others)||Total Time Taken|
|Meeting||60 minutes||60 minutes||660 minutes|
|Quick Email||10 minutes writing||10 minutes reading||110 minutes|
|Quality Email||20 minutes writing and editing||5 minutes reading||70 minutes|
Spending a little more time writing, reviewing, and editing to make it a quality email may take you a bit more time, but it will save time for every reader.
It may even get you praise and recognition as someone who has great written communication.
How to Manage Your Email
Is your email inbox overflowing with hundreds or thousands of emails, many of which are unread?
Do you have a whole range of folders where you specifically store each type of email?
These folders could be based on:
- projects (one folder for each project)
- clients (one folder for each client)
- people (one folder for each person who sends you an email)
- date (one folder per year or month)
Or do you just keep all of your emails in your inbox?
This might seem like a good idea, but I’d like to suggest an alternative.
Gmail pioneered the approach of archiving email, rather than storing it in folders. They encouraged you to use their powerful search feature to find the emails when you need them.
I take the same approach with my work email, which has been in Microsoft Outlook for many years.
Email provides, such as Microsoft Outlook, have improved their search capabilities and speed.
This makes it easy to organise our email based on the ability to search, instead of individual folders.
What does this mean?
Put almost all of your emails in a single Archive folder, and rely on the search feature to find what you need.
You can search based on:
- Who sent you the email
- What the subject contains
- What the body of the email contains
- When it was sent
- Other attributes such as importance, flags, and categories
What does “almost all” mean?
Well, I don’t put them all there. I use a system to organise my emails.
My Three-Folder Email System
I use a three-folder system for my emails. I do this for my personal emails and work emails, and it’s worked well for different places I’ve worked over the years.
I create three folders under my inbox to organise my emails:
This contains all emails I receive that I need to do something with, such as reply to them or do some other work.
They are here so I don’t forget about them.
I name the folder “1 To Action” so it appears at the top of the list when sorted alphabetically.
These are emails that I either send or receive that are waiting for others to respond. If I ask someone for something, the email goes here. If someone sends an email and I’m waiting for a response from someone, it goes here as well.
This way I don’t forget about requests I’ve made of other people.
I name the folder “2 Waiting For” so it appears under “1 To Action” in the list when sorted alphabetically.
This is where all other emails go. If I don’t need to do anything with it, or wait for someone else, it goes here.
This is where the majority of emails go.
Once an email is no longer needed in the To Action or Waiting For folder, it’s moved here.
Advantages of This Setup
There are a few advantages of this three-folder setup.
Cleaner Inbox: My inbox is almost always empty. Once an email comes in, I read it, and decide which folder it belongs in. This means the inbox is mostly empty.
Never Forget an Email: If you move emails you need to do something with to the To Action folder, you won’t forget that something needed to be done. Emails won’t get lost in the hundreds or thousands in your inbox. People won’t be reminding you about emails that you’ve forgotten.
Less Cognitive Load: Because your emails are moved to different folders, you don’t see the same emails over and over again in your inbox. This means less cognitive load as you’re not thinking about the same things over and over again.
Saves Time: It’s time-consuming to move emails into folders based on projects, people, or clients. You need to identify which folder it goes into based on what you know about the email, and move it. With this setup, you only have three folders, and when you read the email you know where it goes.
You can also set up something called a Quick Step in Outlook, which is a rule that’s run when you press a button. This can quickly move an email to a specific folder.
There are other things you can do if you’ve already got this three-folder system working for you.
Set Up Rules
Outlook (and other email clients) have the ability to set up rules for emails.
This means emails can be automatically processed based on what you tell it.
You could set up rules based on who sends the email, what the subject is, and more.
- Company newsletters can go into To Action so you can read them later.
- Auto-generated emails could get marked as read and moved to Archive.
If there are any steps you take repeatedly on certain types of emails, consider setting up rules.
Batch Process Your Email
Email is an asynchronous tool. This means it can be read and responded at a different time to when the email was sent.
You don’t need to be in your inbox, reading and replying to emails as they come in. This often distracts you from the real work you have to do.
A good way to manage your emails is to work on them in blocks of time. This is known as “batch processing”:
- You spend a block of time (such as 5 minutes, 10 minutes, or 30 minutes) reading, responding, and organising your emails.
- Then you return to work for a few hours.
- Return to step 1 later in the day or the next day.
You’ll only look at and manage your emails several times a day, rather than every time an email comes in, or every 10 minutes.
This will allow you to focus on what you’re doing outside your inbox.
Turn Off Email Popups
A great way to reduce distraction and to get more (and better) work done is to turn off the email popups.
These are the new email notifications that appear on your computer when you have Outlook open and receive a new email.
Email does not need immediate replies and it’s highly likely you don’t need to know about emails when they come in.
They are distracting, so turn them off.
Set Expectations for Responses
If you are working on improving your email management and batch processing your emails, it’s a good idea to set expectations on when you’ll read and respond to emails.
This can be done when you send emails, or when you work with your team.
Let them know how you plan on working with emails, so everyone is aware.
This is especially helpful if your team expects quick responses.
How to Improve Use of Chat Tools
Chat tool usage in companies has taken off the last few years.
When I started in the IT industry, we had tools like Microsoft Communicator, which has since evolved into Skype for Business.
Now we have tools like Slack and Microsoft Teams.
They are a great alternative to emails.
However, they can be used in the wrong way, leading to reduced productivity and more distractions.
Basecamp said that they are “like an all-day meeting with no agenda”.
There are many benefits of using these chat tools instead of emails:
- Receive fewer emails
- Group chat by topics or channels, allowing for focused conversation
- Opt-in or opt-out of topic discussions
- History is kept, so new members can see what was previously said
- Faster responses as tools are usually better than email at using
Chat tools are helpful in many scenarios:
- Discussing things quickly when you’re not in person
- Alerting of issues (e.g. if a server goes down)
- Having fun and banter with GIFs, emojis, and jokes
However, there are many disadvantages to be aware of:
- It may encourage a “respond ASAP” culture if we always have access to the tool and have it open.
- Some people may be worried about not having a say, if they don’t know the topic or don’t respond quick enough.
- There may be an implied consensus, as teams may think “because something was discussed in the chat, we all agree”.
- Increased context-switching between the chat app and other work.
- It’s hard to review and reference at a later date (scrolling through chat logs)
Even with these disadvantages, chat tools are very helpful when used right.
Here are some tips for using chat apps.
Avoid Mentions Where You Can
Most chat apps, including Slack and Teams, allow you to tag a specific user by using the @ symbol.
Doing this will get their attention by sending them a notification and maybe even a popup.
It can help you to get them to look at your message – but it’s a distraction.
If you need a response from them you can ask them in the chat without using the tagging or mention feature.
Consider if you need to notify them right away before you mention them. If they are meant to be at a meeting but haven’t arrived, perhaps you mention them.
The appropriate behaviour for this would be a good topic to discuss with your team, so everyone agrees to the same thing.
Avoid Simple “Hey” Messages
When you start a chat conversation with someone, don’t start with a simple “Hey”.
There’s no need to only say hi to check if they are there and wait for a response. You might not get a response for a while – and you probably don’t need an immediate response.
Instead, put your full message into the chat and send it at once.
So, instead of this:
- “You know that documentation for the API?”
- “Do you have the link for it? I can’t find it.”
- “Sure, here it is:”
- “Hey, can you send me the link for the API documentation? I can’t find the link for it.”
It’s a single message, the recipient can read it in its entirety and know what it’s about. They can provide you with the answer you need either right away or whenever is convenient.
This works better for both parties.
Change Notification Settings
Notifications in Slack or Skype or Teams can be helpful, but the default settings often mean you get too many notifications and therefore too many distractions.
Consider changing your notification settings to suit how you work and what you and your team do.
You can usually change notification settings for mentions, direct messages, and new messages in a topic or channel. Take a look inside the chat application you use, understand what they do and what they mean, and make adjustments.
How to Use Internal Documentation
Internal documentation, using a wiki or other web-based tool, is great in theory. However, many companies don’t implement it very well.
They use SharePoint pages that are out of date and all over the place. Or they have a bunch of Word documents in a shared folder.
Internal documentation is great when it’s done well. I’ve been working on improving internal documentation at my workplace recently and it’s been very beneficial.
It’s helpful because it can be created and read whenever is convenient for people, and provides value long after it is created. It’s written once and others can read it many times.
Basecamp has done it well. In their communication guide here, they mention that all information that new and existing employees need is added to their internal documentation.
Amazon also replaced PowerPoint presentations with attendees reading a six-page document, explained in this CNBC article.
There are many tools available for this:
- Any other Wiki software
Let’s take a look at some tips for using and improving internal documentation.
Start with an Outline
A good way to get started with writing internal documentation is to start with an outline for a page.
When you’re documenting something, such as a process or a system or a feature, write the heading to describe what it is.
Then, create subheadings as an outline of the topics you want to cover in the page.
This can help you define what to include in the page and how it fits together.
It often ends up in a better page than one that’s just written from start to finish.
Focus on Clarity
The overall message with written communication in this guide is to take the time to make it easier for your reader to understand.
This is the same for internal documentation.
Focus on the clarity of your message and what you’re documenting.
Don’t be afraid to delete parts of the document and rewrite it, if it will help you explain the topic better.
Add screenshots and diagrams where appropriate as well.
Think of the Audience
When documenting something, it’s helpful to think of the audience. Who will be reading this page and what will they already know?
It’s common when documenting things to overestimate what your reader knows. You’ve been involved in a topic for a while, and the reader likely has not.
So, keep the audience in mind when you are creating your page.
If there are any frequently asked questions, or questions that you think your audience would ask when they read your page, add them in.
It can help the reader understand the topic you’re writing about, such as why something is done a certain way, or what alternatives exist.
Summarise at the Top
When writing a page using your internal documentation, add a summary at the top.
This is a sentence or two that describes what the page is about.
A summary will help your reader understand what the page is about (more than the title), and if they should keep reading.
Use Internal Linking
Many tools for documentation, such as Confluence, allow you to easily create links to other pages in the same system.
This is great for referring to other pages you’ve already written about.
For example, you may have a central page for your team. When you write about a particular system, you can link to your team’s page when you mention who it’s developed or supported by.
This interlinking is helpful for readers when they want to find out more information. It’s also helpful because it encourages having a single place for each topic.
Use a Single Page Per Topic
When you need to document something, try to create a single page for a topic, instead of having the information on several pages on the same topic.
This makes it easier to find information and link pages. If you have one page for an application, team, feature, or concept, then it’s easy to find that particular page.
If you have several pages, all on the same topic, it makes this more difficult.
However, you may want to eventually break up pages into smaller pages. This can happen if your page gets too long, or the topic is too broad. It’s something you and your team can decide.
Perfect Grammar is Not Required
The aim of internal documentation is to communicate a topic and help people understand it.
This can often mean that perfect grammar is not used. Don’t worry about perfect grammar and don’t criticise people for not using perfect grammar.
It’s better to have documentation that can be understood and is readable than to worry about sentence structure.
Review and Revise
The great thing about internal documentation tools, such as Confluence, is that pages can be created and saved over time.
This means you can create a simple shell of a page, and add to it over time.
Don’t worry about getting the page perfect the first time. Use feedback from others, and your own experience, to make updates to the page.
If someone asks you a question on the topic, for example, you can answer their question and add it to the page, so in the future people can read the page for the information.
Use Comments and Editing Features
Online documentation tools usually have some built-in features to allow other people to comment on the document and make edits.
Use these features, and encourage others to use them.
People can add their own comments to the document, asking for questions, adding clarification, or making corrections.
Encourage people to do this and all of your documentation will be improved over time.
How to Use Video
Pre-recorded video is another example of asynchronous communication.
A common example of this is recording your screen as you demonstrate a concept. It’s helpful because you can create a quick recording and provide it to someone to watch in their own time.
Here are a few ways you can use this:
- Demonstrate a concept in an application
- Demonstrate or reproduce a bug
- Show how to navigate a system for someone
- Demonstrate new features in a product
How is video helpful?
- Viewers can watch it in their own time
- It can be re-watched to get more information from, such as trying to reproduce a bug
- It’s usually pretty quick to create
- It can be watched by others in the future
So, how can you record video of your screen?
Microsoft PowerPoint has a built-in screen recording feature, which I recently discovered. It works pretty well, too. It doesn’t have any fancy editing features like other applications, but it’s pretty good for what it does.
There are other tools available:
Consider using a pre-recorded video if it’s appropriate for what you want to communicate.
How to Improve Your Meetings
Even with all the improvements you can make to written communication, you’ll probably still have meetings to attend.
There are many things you can do to improve the meetings you do have. They don’t all have to be painful or a waste of time!
Here are some tips for improving meetings. There are some popular tips here (like setting an agenda) and some others I’ve found useful or advocate for.
Set an Agenda and Stick To It
This is a pretty common tip, but it’s helpful.
When you set up a meeting, have an agenda. This means writing in your meeting invite what the reason for the meeting is, the expected outcome, and discussion topics.
This helps the attendees prepare for the meeting and have a common understanding.
Don’t just write “Let’s discuss the project”, or “Placeholder to catch up”. They mean nothing and aren’t an agenda.
Having a list of discussion topics with the agenda will help you and all other attendees.
Stick to the Time and Don’t Recap For Late Attendees
It’s common to wait until all people are at the meeting to start the meeting.
However, a lot of the time one or more people are late.
If you are able to start the meeting on time, or at a point where some people arrive, then do so.
This shows respect for the time of those who did arrive on time and encourages those who are late to arrive on time next time.
If someone does arrive late, it can be tempting to recap the meeting for them so far. Don’t do that. It wastes the time of people in the meeting already and interrupts the current conversation.
The late attendee can catch up by listening to those speaking. They’ll notice that being late means they miss out on some of the meeting, they won’t get a recap, and may attempt to arrive on time in the future.
Recap Actions at the End
At the end of the meeting, provide a recap of any actions that came from the meeting. This can just be a quick list of what needs to be done and who is doing it, and ideally by when.
It’s a great way to confirm who is doing what and clear up any misunderstanding that may happen.
It’s also good for those who have no actions to understand what’s being done.
Be Aware of Last Few Minutes
When you’re approaching the last few minutes of the meeting, get ready to conclude the meeting.
It’s tempting to discuss a new topic if there are a couple of minutes left, but this can often mean the meeting runs overtime because the topic isn’t a quick discussion.
Start trying to wrap up the meeting in the last couple of minutes. This gives people a chance to finish the meeting and prepare for what’s next, rather than trying this at the specified end time and running over by a minute or two.
Don’t Be Afraid to End the Meeting Early
If you’re in a meeting and everyone gets what they need before the end of the meeting, you have two options:
- End the meeting early
- Talk about something else
I would suggest ending the meeting early and thanking everyone for their time. You’ve achieved what you needed, and it’s a good outcome to finish early. People feel rewarded for getting to the end result.
Avoid the trap of talking about another topic with the same group “just because you’re all here”. Having discussions with people about different topics like this indicates an issue with time management. It should be easy to discuss the other topic with people during another meeting, email, or other method.
Bring People Back to the Topic
Meetings can often go off-topic. I’ve been in plenty of meetings where one or more people discuss something that we don’t need to discuss.
Don’t be afraid to interrupt and ask if we can discuss that topic offline, or at a later time, or that you feel we’re getting off-topic.
Other people may be thinking about it and want to get back on topic. Other people may not want to listen or don’t care about the off-topic conversation.
Default to 30 Minute Meetings
I worked with a team member recently who said her default duration when setting up meetings was 30 minutes. She said that in her experience, this is enough for most meetings.
I agree with her and I try to do the same thing with my meetings.
Parkinson’s Law states that “work expands to fill the space allotted for it”. If you have a 60-minute meeting, the same topic can often get discussed within a 30-minute meeting. All the attendees will be aware of the timeframe and will try to avoid wasting the time you do have.
As a benefit, a 30 minute time is easier to find in calendars than 60 minutes, so it will be easier for you to schedule if attendees are busy.
Consider 25 or 55-Minute Meetings
One useful technique I’ve seen is shortening the length of your meetings by five minutes.
So, instead of a 30-minute meeting, create a 25-minute meeting. Instead of a 60-minute meeting, create a 55-minute meeting.
This will allow people to have a break or prevent them from being late to the next meeting.
Recent versions of Outlook allow you to turn this option on. Otherwise, you can set the time in your invite when you send it.
If you do, make it clear in your invite what the end time is, and at the start of the meeting. It might seem strange to people at first, but I’m sure they will appreciate it.
Send One-Way Updates via Email
If you have a meeting to provide an update to someone or a group of people, consider sending an email instead.
For example, an update on a project to a team, or to the whole business unit.
If there is no discussion needed, then there’s no need for the team to be there. Send an email, communicate what you need to, and avoid the meeting.
I often see these company update or team update meetings happen from senior management, so it’s not something you can change yourself. But if you ever need to provide an update, consider an email instead.
Use Software for Team Updates
One of my least favourite types of meeting is a “status update” meeting.
Everyone in a team gets together in a meeting, and one person at a time updates the group on what they have been working on. A manager or someone asks questions, other people may ask questions too, and then it repeats with the next person.
These meetings are usually quite wasteful because not everyone needs to hear the update. Usually, only the speaker and the manager are interested in the update. Everyone else tunes out or does other work.
A better way to have team updates is to use a project management tool instead of a live meeting.
Make updates in the tool based on what you’re working on.
This is a core practice of Agile methodologies. The Scrum Board is known as an “information radiator”, which means it’s the single place where information about work can be obtained.
So, if you have a tool you use to manage your work, make the updates to the work there. Add comments, change statuses, add new items of work, whatever is most suitable for your team.
There are many tools available for this, such as:
- Azure DevOps
The benefit of doing this is that you can avoid team status update meetings. Everyone in the team can view the work in the system and see where it’s at. This can take minutes, and not hours.
Stick to the Purpose of Scrum Events
If you’re following the Scrum framework, you’ve got a range of events as part of that. These are usually set up as meetings with the team:
- Sprint Planning
- Sprint Review
- Sprint Retrospective
- Daily Scrum
- Backlog Refinement
It’s important to stick to the purpose of these events to get the most out of them and feel like they are valuable.
- Don’t use the Daily Scrum as a status update meeting. It’s a coordination and planning meeting for the team, which involves talking about where some work is at, but also talking about the next 24 hours, and asking for help if needed.
- Don’t use the Backlog Refinement for Sprint Planning. They are two different events.
The 7 Levels of Asynchronous Communication
We’ve looked at asynchronous communication methods and how you can use them to move away from constant meetings and lost emails.
So how do you get there? How can you improve your team?
While many of the articles on improving the way of working are written by tech companies or small startups, it’s hard to encourage a large organisation to change.
You may be one person in a team and not have the influence to make changes to the entire company.
But you can start small. You can start with yourself, and your team, and eventually move on to your business unit and company.
Use these 7 Levels of Asynchronous Communication to assess your team and make improvements.
The level described below can be applied in different sizes of teams:
- You and your team
- Your business unit
- Your company
So, you can assess each team size against these levels, and attempt to improve them independently.
The levels below each describe a current state of communication and meetings, and the actions needed to get to the next level.
Assess your team, business unit, and company against these levels. Then take action to move your team up one of those levels.
What’s the Goal?
The goal of moving to asynchronous communication, or improving documentation, is to improve how the team works. Here are some things you can aim for:
- Knowledge is documented in a single place and is well-structured, up-to-date, and useful.
- Decisions can be documented and approved outside of meetings. You don’t need to have a meeting with someone to get their approval.
- Emails are not lost in overflowing inboxes.
- Discussions and comments happen where they are relevant to what’s being discussed (e.g. comments on a Wiki page).
- People can work the hours they want
- We avoid the first instinct of “booking a meeting” with people.
Let’s take a look at the levels.
Level 1: Meeting Heavy
At Level 1, this is what work looks like:
- You’re having a lot of meetings.
- If you’re practicing Scrum (or another Agile framework), you’ve got a whole range of meetings in addition to the Scrum events.
- Meetings start late, end late, and go off-topic frequently.
- Emails are lost and not responded to.
- General feeling of stress and busy-ness.
This may be your current situation at work. It is for most places I’ve worked.
There’s a general reliance on meetings with people to get things done. It’s hard to find time with people as your team leader, Product Owner, and management are in meetings a lot of the time.
Attempting to send emails to people to ask them to do something often results in the emails not being responded or getting lost because there are so many of them.
A lot of time is spent by you or your team in finding work or organising what you need to do.
If this is your current situation, don’t worry. There is a way out. You can take actions to improve your situation, and slowly extend that to your team.
How can you improve?
Here are a few things to do if you’re at Level 1:
- Set up three folders in Outlook: To Action, Waiting For, and Archive
- Move emails from your Inbox, and any new emails, into these folders.
- Move emails from all other folders into your Archive folder.
- For meetings you send, spend a couple of minutes writing an agenda. Use bullet points if appropriate, and include what the expected outcome is.
These actions are things you can do quickly and get some quick benefits.
Level 2: Meetings with Agenda, Email Management
At Level 2, you’ve got some meetings with an agenda, and your email is easier to manage.
Lots of emails are being sent, but you feel like you’re on top of them. You’re able to provide responses to emails in a timely way, as opposed to them getting lost.
You don’t have hundreds of emails in your inbox, as they are moved to your folders.
Meetings have agendas, but there are still a lot of them. Some feel like a waste, and many go over time.
You’re getting some benefits, but there is room to improve.
How can you improve?
Here are a few things you can do at Level 2:
- Write better quality emails by including a summary at the top, and reviewing and editing them before sending.
- Attempt to stick to the agenda during meetings. If people go off-topic, ask if you can discuss the topic after the meeting.
- Be aware of the clock as you approach the end of meetings, so you can ensure that you and others finish on time.
Level 3: Well-Written Emails, Timely Meetings
At Level 3, the emails you send are clear and well written, and people find them useful.
Meetings still occur, but they have agendas and stick to the times specified. You might have noticed that clarity in your team has improved due to these improvements in meetings.
However, you’re probably finding that a lot of emails are being sent asking questions, or seeking clarification. You’re often explaining things in meetings you’ve explained before. People may be tuning out during meetings or feeling like it’s not the best use of their time.
This can be improved.
Here are a few things you can do at Level 3:
- Create some internal documentation. Choose a topic you’re working on and document it on an internal system.
- If you don’t have an internal system, get one. It should be something web-based that multiple people can access and edit.
- The documentation does not need to be perfect or complete. It’s important to just make a start.
- Send the link to the page to those who may be interested in it (e.g. your team).
- If you have any meetings on this topic, include a link to the page in the meeting invite.
Level 4: Central Documentation
At Level 4, you’ve got one or more topics documented in a central location. You have probably written it all yourself. Perhaps other people have contributed.
You may be adding more content as you work on different things or expand the existing documentation that you have.
Also, people are reading the documentation. You’ll know this because people will mention it, or you’ll see it on people’s screens, or they will comment on it or make edits.
You’re still having a lot of meetings, but they are more focused than before. You find yourself explaining the same things still, but it will be easier as the common information is documented.
This can still be improved.
Here are a few things you can do at Level 4:
- Ask meeting attendees to read the documentation you have prepared before the meeting. This will save time during the meeting.
- Prepare some documentation to use during the meeting. One example of this would be something you’re working on and want to get feedback. The meeting attendees can all view the page.
Level 5: Documentation Assists with Meetings
At Level 5, the internal documentation that you have created is being read before meetings, saving you time during the meeting.
Documentation is being used during meetings. This could be done using screen share, or everyone opening the same page individually. This is done to discuss the topic on the page and to make updates during the meeting.
This is a great step towards asynchronous communication. People get used to making edits to a page to provide their input or feedback.
Here are a few things you can do at Level 5:
- Identify a meeting that you have in the near future that can be done better using documentation (e.g. a status update meeting, or a meeting to gather feedback)
- Send an email with a link to a document, ask for input or feedback (or whatever is required in the meeting) before the meeting occurs. Ask for updates to be made to the page itself, or comments on the page.
- You may want this meeting to still go ahead. However, you and everyone attending can look at the page that was updated and discuss the changes and comments. This is a good first step towards removing the meeting.
Level 6: Use Documentation to Replace One Meeting
At Level 6, you have removed one meeting from your calendar and your team’s calendar, as it has been replaced by viewing and editing central documentation.
This could have been a once-off meeting (e.g. asking for feedback) or a regular meeting (e.g. a status update meeting).
Everyone gets time back in their calendar. They can focus better as their day is not interrupted. They can provide their input to the document in a time that suits them.
The benefits of asynchronous communication really start to show here.
Here’s what you can do at Level 6:
- Replace more of your meetings with documentation. Provide a document or a page that attendees can contribute to and aim to replace your meetings with working on the document.
Level 7: Use Documentation to Replace All Meetings
You’ve reached the final level of this framework. At Level 7, all meetings that don’t need live discussion are replaced with documentation.
This includes meetings like:
- status updates
- company updates
- document reviews
- demonstrating concepts
If you work in a Scrum team, the Scrum events may still happen as they have their benefits of gathering live feedback and coordinating team members.
You’re no longer in meetings for a large part of your day.
Everything your team works on is documented in a central place at some level: some pages may be just a high-level description, others will be quite detailed.
There’s a single place for documentation and people are updating the documents.
You’re able to focus on your work. You can read documents that others have prepared to learn more about different areas, rather than asking people to explain things they have already explained in the past.
You’re also free to work at times that suit you.
If you’ve reached Level 7 in this framework for asynchronous communication, what can you do next?
There are many things you can do.
Documentation can always be improved. This will happen naturally over time as you work on different topics, but you’ll find that the more that’s documented the more beneficial it will be. Don’t let the documentation go stale or out-of-date.
As I mentioned at the top of the framework, this can be applied at different levels of your company (your team, people you work with, business unit, and company).
If you’ve reached Level 7 with your team, but are only at Level 2 with people outside your team, try to move up the framework with people outside your team. Try this with people in the business unit and others in the company as well.
This improvement in other teams and areas will take time. Companies can move slowly, but they will see the benefits of how you and your team work together.
Continue to work in this way (asynchronously) with your team. Don’t be tempted to go back to the old way, where you set up meetings with people as the default behaviour.
I hope you’ve found this guide useful. Asynchronous communication, most of which is written communication, can really improve the way that you and your team work. There are many benefits and the work-from-home situation in 2020 has really encouraged people and companies to consider improving how they work.
So, consider using the techniques and framework covered in this guide and improve the way that you work.